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Published Date: June 15, 2020

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For the Survival of the Church: What Our Theology Has to Do with Persecution

What Christians believe about men and women matters to the literal survival of the church. That’s not just an interesting hypothesis. At Open Doors International, it’s our job (our being Helene and Elizabeth) to answer the how, why, and what-can-we-do-about-it questions about gender and religious persecution. By investigating the gender-specific aspects of religious persecution, we’ve uncovered the complex and detrimental impact that gender stereotypes and inequalities have on the stability of the Christian church under pressure for their faith. Protective and cultural prejudices make both men and women more vulnerable to religious persecution.

Over the past three years, our research has enabled us to define more precisely why the loss of men in Syria, the rape of women in Nigeria, the targeted seduction of girls in Egypt, and the prejudicial inheritance practices regarding women in sub-Saharan Africa are especially effective tools of religious persecution. The negative way churches respond to these kinds of attacks is the key to understanding their effectiveness.

The Research Question

We began our research journey with one question: What is characteristic of persecution facing individual Christians in the seventy-three countries where Open Doors’ World Watch Research annually investigates to compile the World Watch List (WWL)?

By cataloging and analyzing patterns of what happens to Christian men and women in the WWL’s most difficult countries to practice Christianity, we have found that religious persecution is almost completely different for women and men in outward, characteristic manifestations. In our 2020 findings, the top five most common forms of persecution globally for men are physical violence, economic harassment, incarceration by government, psychological violence, and military/militia conscription. For women, the top five are sexual violence, forced marriage, physical violence, forced divorce, and house arrest (which we catalog as domestic incarceration).1 

Religious persecution looks different for men and women because how it might happen is based upon the different sociocultural roles and rights of men and women in their specific contexts. Often these sociocultural roles and rights define the value of men and women in a given society. This assigned value in turn defines how men and women will be nurtured, trained, protected, and promoted.

The countries mentioned specifically in this article are visibly at the forefront of Christian persecution, but the same pattern extends to countries where the attacks and pressures on men and women take more subtle forms.

Targeted Attacks on Men

If men’s value resides in their physical strength, their role as breadwinner, and their role as church leader, then these areas are usually targeted for attack. Why? Undermining men in one of these areas will be most devastating to their own sense of identity and belief. It will also destabilize those in their networks who have relied upon or evaluated them through this aspect of their lives.

Although we see this around the globe, the church in Syria stands as the starkest example today. In a post-war country where many men have been killed or forced to flee, the Christian communities were hit even harder than the general population because Christians are one of the most unacceptable populations to ISIS. Many Syrian churches are completely bereft of the eighteen to forty-year-old male population. This in and of itself is a cause for mourning; however, the strategic significance for the church is cause for considerable lament.

These men were expected to be the leaders and breadwinners, holders of power and agency, so they received the overwhelming bulk of the spiritual training in the congregation. Although the women also attended professional training, including college for many, they had been raised to rely on their brothers’ escort for safe passage to school and work and on their fathers or husbands for substantial decision-making, all while quietly attending church. This concentration of knowledge and learning in the men simultaneously made the men visible and valuable targets while seeming to keep the women “safe” from direct harm.

This is not only a happenstance of official war. In India, being a pastor has been described in our “2020 Gender-Specific Religious Persecution” report as “one of the riskiest vocations in the country today.” Across sub-Saharan Africa, men lose their lives as Christian villages and districts are attacked. When this happens, families that relied upon the husband and father for housing, food, and school fees can find themselves in the streets. The next generation is then caught in a cycle of violence and poverty, which is difficult to escape.

Quite apart from the economics, Syrian women don’t feel free to step into the void of spiritual leadership due to strict teachings against women in spiritual leadership. These women feel a sense of abandonment. The extremists who attack the Christian communities have reasoned correctly that these women are no threat to leave alive because they have not been given the confidence, knowledge, and experience that rebuilding the spiritual community requires.

Several priests in Syria have bemoaned the “brain drain” from their churches and country. While we might be tempted to take offense that this essentially refers to a loss of the men, it is objectively a loss of the educated and functionally able. Even those women who received more advanced training before marriage will not have had occasion to hone their skills, test them in practice, or stay up to date on their usage in a context where a “good” wife depends upon her husband’s decision-making and single women are “not well received,” as our contacts put it.

Patriarchy within the church places a target on men’s backs. Attacking them becomes an expedient means to eliminate knowledge and experience, intimidate their followers, and reduce families to a constant scramble for survival.

Targeted Attacks on Women

The other half of the story is the complex, violent, and hidden religious persecution which Christian women face directly. Their religious persecution is equally possible and effective because of their social positioning and conditioning, if not more so.

So, what is valued in women? Our research shows that women are systematically under attack in areas related to their perceived sexual purity and their family status. Some societies explicitly link the sexual purity of women to the family’s honor while others convey this valuing more subtly, but, in the everyday, it often translates into women speaking of one another with respect for a girl’s or woman’s sexual purity, an esteem for marital status, and praising one another for bearing children. These seemingly innocuous conversations, and the protective, habitual practices which develop to reinforce them, have deep and lasting implications for how vulnerable they make persecuted communities.

We (Helene and Elizabeth) have sat with many women in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Nigeria who have had these intimate markers of identity snatched away from them in a matter of hours, even minutes. These women were established in their churches, comfortable in their situations, scrupulous about their homes—valued members of their communities—until they were violently assaulted. It is deeply dangerous to entrust our value to a malleable test. It makes for an enticing and effective pathway to destruction for an opposing force. If the Christian community feels it must distance itself from her so-called shame, if her husband can no longer see her as pure and faithful, if her children no longer respect her, then families shatter and communities disintegrate. Sadly, we have all too many examples of this scenario playing out in the aftermath of raids in the CAR and Nigeria.

For a specific example, let’s examine the publicly recorded case of Elina Das in Bangladesh. Ten years ago, her father had a growing ministry as a pastor and evangelist in a hostile context. He was not dissuaded by the attacks and threats on his own person, so one night when thirteen-year-old Elina went to the outdoor bathroom, five men gang-raped her.

This attack on Elina was not only an attack on a vulnerable young woman, but it was also meant to change the behavior of her father by attacking his personal identity. Both his responsibility to protect his daughter and his personal honor were now damaged in the eyes of the community. Elina’s father said, “I have not the slightest doubt that this attack was intended to stop me in my ministry.”

This network of relationships is both the ultimate intended target and the means by which the damage will spread if certain beliefs about Elina hold sway. If the community was not attuned to seeing such an attack on a woman’s purity as conclusively devastating to her, her father, and his ministry’s honorable standing, then this form of attack would lose much of its appeal in the eyes of the perpetrators.

In other contexts, when women in a community are raped, the crime is deliberately not reported because of fears around stigmatization. The consequences of this choice are devastating to these women who are refused the opportunity to speak truthfully of their experience or claim justice by their communities and spiritual leaders.

At one level this may be argued as a protective measure, but from a bird’s eye view it only serves to create greater impunity for perpetrators, which leads to more violence, not to mention that under-reporting this violence increases shaming and stigmatization for victims. It also increases the likelihood that trauma, physical injury, or any resulting pregnancy will not receive proper consideration, and therefore each of these incidents will further weaken the entire community and ultimately threaten its integrity.

Misguided beliefs about the effectiveness of the patriarchal protection of women and a notion that their security is found in the home have led too many congregations to either promote unequal practices or work intentionally against moves to redress economic, educational, or legal inequalities between men and women. In patterns of persecution around the globe, these very inequalities are repeatedly cited as vulnerabilities for the church: prejudicial inheritance laws for widows, non-application enforcement of child marriage laws, lack of prosecution for domestic abuse, stigmatization for female-headed households, lower employability of women, less freedom of movement for women, and lower wages.

The seemingly protective, or simply cultural, practices ingrained in girls who grow up in a patriarchal context in fact result in vulnerabilities for the Christian community in persecution. Because these women are less equipped for independence in life and less knowledgeable for leadership in the church, their so-called protections directly determine how vulnerable both they and the men of their communities are when experiencing persecution. Most importantly, these seemingly subsidiary differences become crucial components of how persecutors choose to persecute Christian communities and why it has potential to cause the maximum destructive effect.

Something Good Can Come

Encouragingly, persecution expert Ron Boyd-MacMillan reports that although persecutors’ gender-specific targeting often works, sometimes the opposite effect occurs. “In Chinese house churches the catastrophic loss of male leaders in the Cultural Revolution allowed women to flourish as leaders and many networks thrived through their new empowerment.” It is not impossible for Christian communities today, like those in Syria, to rebuild, even if those left behind are starting with fewer resources and have more learning to do. As one Syrian respondent said,

God is able to do everything. You can see in history that in countries that went through wars, women came out of these wars different. In the war they were pushed to do things they hadn’t done before like what we see happening in Syria right now: women driving taxis, tractors or trucks. At the end a crisis leads to development. A crisis is hard, but on the other hand it is an opportunity.

As we grow in wisdom to counter the schemes used against the church, it is encouraging to identify areas where the church has agency to protect herself. Training women into their capacities of strength and longevity will create a stronger body of Christ before the harshest persecution storms hit, mitigating the ease with which the whole church can be damaged and honoring God by how we value each other and work together in balanced reflection of the Triune God, no matter the storms we face.

Helene Fisher will offer a workshop for “Men, Women, and God: Theology and Its Impact,” CBE’s international virtual online conference on September 10–11, 2021. Learn more here.


1. H. Fisher, E. L. Miller, E. Mayer, “Gender-Specific Religious Persecution: Analysis and Implications,” World Watch Research, February 2020.

This article appeared in “Freedom to Flourish: Aligning Christian Faith and Women’s Equality with Humanitarian Work,” the Summer 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.