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FIVE MAJOR HEADLINES OF 2021 AND WHAT THEY MEANT FOR THE CHURCH

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By Alex Pollock

In this edition of A World in Motion (AWIM), we look at five major headlines from 2021 that played into larger themes currently affecting our world. From political unrest and humanitarian disasters to terror attacks and a continued rise in migration, 2021 presented the Church with many challenges, as well as many unprecedented opportunities.

Coup in Myanmar – first of many in 2021

On 1 February, Myanmar’s elected leader Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi was detained by the country’s military, along with other government officials, triggering months of protests, riots, and a harsh military crackdown. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP – an activist group monitoring the situation) has recorded 1,297 people killed and 10,536 arrested as of 29 November. The military takeover has garnered international criticism and the official opposition, the National Unity Government, has urged the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to formally recognise the opposition as the legitimate ruling government. The intensity of the military’s crackdown on protesters has not stopped people from all walks of life from getting involved with the opposition. Opposition groups have set up training camps for civilians who want to be trained to fight the military. Myanmar was under military rule for several years before Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in 2015. Under military rule, Myanmar’s minority groups suffered severely. Since the military ousted the civilian government, border regions – home to ethnic minorities – have been hit by airstrikes, forcing many to flee into neighbouring Thailand. The military coup in Myanmar was the first of the year, but others – mainly in Africa – followed, Mali in May, Guinea in September, and Sudan in October. The coup in Mali was the country’s second in nine months and caused widespread protests. The coup leaders promised to hold elections in 2022, but Mali’s political atmosphere remains unstable. After Sudan’s Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan assumed power on 25 October, a month of anti-military protests and international condemnation followed, leading to the reinstatement of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on 21 November.

From a Christian Perspective

Political instability, crises and uncertainty often cause people to question, presenting the Church with a chance to step in and guide people towards Christ – the One who offers hope and a future. Christians in these countries mentioned above are used to living in harsh conditions that test their faith. The Church in these nations can demonstrate what it means to be Christ-like peacemakers amid uncertain circumstances by respecting people in authority and not reverting to violence in order to make their voices heard. The Global Church can pray for believers to be encouraged and to remain focussed on Kingdom matters (Colossians 3:2), promoting unity and harmony among members of their communities. Politics can be very divisive, and the Church should guard against differences dividing the body, and instead focus on the ultimate goal of bringing more people into the Kingdom. These nations are currently in a season that presents a ripe harvest, and the Church should prepare to respond with a sense of urgency. As the media often focuses on the negative, it is also important for the Church to celebrate the victories despite seemingly worsening circumstances. Sudan has experienced many spiritual breakthroughs over the last few years, and in Myanmar, Christians can connect with other minority groups over shared experiences of persecution, leading to Gospel-sharing opportunities. These victories can be remembered as acts of God’s faithfulness, as the Churches in these countries continue to navigate uncertain times.

Mozambique’s Palma destroyed by militants and other extremist attacks 

More than 100 Islamic militants launched an attack on the village of Palma, Mozambique on 24 March, which turned into more than a week-long raid that destroyed the village, killed several civilians and displaced tens of thousands. Military forces in the area were quickly overwhelmed by the attackers as police stations and military posts were targeted first. Food storage facilities were overrun, and government offices were destroyed. Roads in and out of the village were blocked off, isolating thousands of people. Communications were cut, making it difficult for information to get in or out of the area. Thousands of people fled into neighbouring towns and cities, placing immense pressure on those communities to care for resource-depleted, traumatised people. One month after the attack, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that between 30-40,000 people had fled and were experiencing a dire humanitarian crisis. The insurgency in Mozambique has escalated since it began in 2017, forcing Mozambique to abandon its strategy of combatting militants on its own and allow surrounding countries to send military troops to help take back control of the Cabo Delgado province. Along with Mozambique, other African countries continued to be plagued by terrorist violence in 2021. The Sahel region was once again an epicentre of attacks carried out by Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Thousands of people in the Sahel were affected by terrorist attacks, compounding already sensitive situations in countries like Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Chad. In July 2021, the UN named the Sahel as the region hardest hit by terrorist attacks in the first half of the year. Attacks continued throughout the second half of the year, sometimes with dozens of people being killed in a single attack. The death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in May led to the surrender of thousands of Boko Haram fighters, yet Boko Haram and ISWAP continue to hold power in many areas.

From a Christian Perspective

Christians have a biblical mandate to love those who despise, harm, and persecute them (Matthew 5:44). While that is much easier said than done, as human nature often leads to the desire for revenge and retaliation, the Church should strive to focus on the Kingdom first, building each other up to remain focussed during times of persecution, remembering that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces (Ephesians 6). While the Lord does not take pleasure in seeing His people threatened by danger or death, He does warn Christians that they will be persecuted for their faith. Persecution allows believers to experience a portion of what Jesus suffered when going to the cross. The Lord desires that all come to faith, even those who persecute Christians. People who persecute Christians are just as much loved and cherished by God as those who do not, and as Christians, we should seek opportunities to pray for and reach out to those who harm others. The surrender of Boko Haram fighters can be seen as an answer to prayer and a victory for the Church. Believers can continue to pray for a breakthrough in the hearts of their persecutors, as well as for perseverance for their brothers and sisters who are living under the threat of extremist violence in Africa and around the world.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Haitian earthquake and other disasters

On 14 August, Haiti experienced yet another devastating earthquake (7.2 magnitude) which killed over 1,200 people and injured 5,700, plunging the nation further down the road of destruction. Thousands were displaced by the earthquake, as houses and businesses were destroyed.  According to a UN estimate, over 40% of Haiti’s population of 11.5 million needs humanitarian assistance, primarily because of food insecurity. The devastating earthquake came just one month after the assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise on 7 July, further compounding the crisis. Political instability played a large role in the lack of humanitarian response from within Haiti. The rise of armed gangs throughout the country also prevented aid from getting distributed, and gang leaders restricting fuel led to a major electricity and water shortage. The culmination of these crises contributed to a massive wave of Haitians fleeing their country, attempting to settle in South American countries and the United States. While aspects of Haiti’s current state of disfunction was relatively unknown to many, some countries in 2021 continually made headlines due to the deepening levels of humanitarian disaster. Following Lebanon’s port explosion in August 2020, the country’s dramatic economic and political disintegration was extensively covered by global media.  Following the explosion, the government was dissolved, and it took over a year for a new cabinet to be formed. During that time of transition, Lebanon experienced extreme levels of inflation, a crippled currency, and a soaring unemployment rate. Much of the population struggled to afford food, fuel, medication, and other necessities. The World Bank has described the financial crisis in Lebanon as one of the worst in the world in the last 150 years. While Yemen bore the infamous title of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis as the conflict dragged on through 2021. New reports published this year focused on the effects the situation is having on children. UNICEF, the UN’s child-focused agency, estimated that nearly 2.3 million children under five suffered from acute malnutrition in Yemen this year. Additionally, 8.5 million children do not have access to safe water. Over 400,000 children face death if they do not receive immediate humanitarian aid.

From a Christian Perspective

We are told in Matthew 24 that famines and earthquakes will occur as part of the lead-up to Jesus’ return, but that the Church “should not be alarmed” by these things. As the ones called to care for and give aid to those in trouble, believers need to be aware of the humanitarian crises around the world, and not be alarmed or discouraged, but be ready to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those most affected. What good is it to have faith but no works (James 2)? Humanitarian crises remind us that the poor will always be among us, and situations like those in Haiti, Lebanon, and Yemen provide ample opportunities for the Church to demonstrate God’s love practically to those who are suffering. The global Church can pray for each other, not to shy away from the hard situations millions are facing around the world, but to put their faith into action and demonstrate what it means to follow Jesus to those who are suffering.

Matthew 25: 35-36, 40: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Taliban takes control of Afghanistan as Kabul falls

The Taliban took control of the Afghan capital of Kabul on 15 August, marking the end of former President Ashraf Ghani’s government and a 20-year Western occupation. The Taliban had been gaining power and influence around the country since a deal was signed by former US President Donald Trump that would see the US withdraw all its troops. The speed at which the Taliban moved into Kabul shocked the world, as several countries raced to evacuate their diplomats and foreign workers. Following the powershift, most countries refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Taliban. However, on 9 October, the US held its first official talks with the Taliban to combat the growing refugee and humanitarian crises ignited by the takeover. The Taliban originally said it would not retaliate against those who had worked for Western powers, however, there have been several reports of retaliation against those who oppose the regime. Since the fall of Kabul, thousands of Afghans have fled, trying to reach safety outside the region. Several countries have agreed to take in Afghan refugees, yet many remain in dangerous situations, unable to leave the country. Afghanistan is now facing a growing humanitarian crisis, women and girls are facing renewed scrutiny and restriction of rights, and Christians are facing increased levels of persecution. According to the UN, 23 million people are in “desperate need” of food and 97% of the population is at risk of falling into poverty. Due to the dire need, the World Bank has agreed to unfreeze $500 million to help deliver aid to the ailing population.

From a Christian Perspective

Afghanistan is reported to be one of the most difficult places in the world to be a Christian. Even before the Taliban was in power, the Church was forced to operate ‘underground.’ However, despite the restrictions, the Church in Afghanistan has grown over the past 20 years. Afghan Christians who have fled will carry the Gospel with them and will be presented with the chance to share their faith with their fellow Afghans who are facing times of extreme uncertainty. With thousands of Afghan refugees being relocated, many to Christian-majority nations, the Church is also presented with an opportunity to share the Gospel with these refugees, as well as the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a practical way. Those fleeing Afghanistan are arriving in host nations with few resources, in need of food, clothing, and shelter. As the world is already dealing with a surge in refugees from Central and South America and Africa, many countries have become wary of taking in any more. However, the season of the Afghan people being refugees will not last forever, and if the global Church is not prepared to reach out to them, the opportunity to spread the Gospel to a largely ‘unreached’ population could be missed. The global Church can pray for the refugee population to experience the love of Christ while they are away from home, as well as for those who have chosen to stay behind, despite the danger, to care for their communities.

27 people drown while crossing the English Channel as global refugee crisis deepens

On 24 November, 27 refugees drowned while trying to cross the English Channel. The channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes and is known for having strong, dangerous currents. Human traffickers often overpack the small boats that transport people from France to the UK. The accident was the deadliest in history in the Channel, and the UK and France traded blame for the tragedy. The number of refugees and migrants crossing the English Channel reached a new daily record on 11 November as 1,185 people attempted to cross. Before this most recent tragedy, more than 23,500 people attempted to reach the UK from France this year, fourteen of whom drowned during the journey. The number of refugees facing dangerous circumstances on their asylum-seeking journey has increased steadily over the past few years. In the first six months of 2021, over 1,100 people drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Refugees and migrants are often forced to take risky routes and cross borders illegally due to the lack of options they face when fleeing their homes. War, natural disasters, and lack of opportunities globally have led to an increase in people risking their lives to find safety and better opportunities. Refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and South America are finding themselves forced to pay human traffickers in hopes of being able to cross borders. Several are currently camped at the Poland-Belarus border, as governments use immigration as a political bargaining chip. From October 2020 to September 2021, the United States border patrol encountered over 1.7 million people at the US-Mexico border, mostly fleeing unrest in Central and South America. As of the end of October, 50 migrants have died crossing the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia on their journey to the United States.

From a Christian Perspective

Jesus did not shy away from the topic of caring for the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the foreigner. Often in the Scriptures, it talks about what it means for Christians to love their neighbours, and who is classified as our neighbour. Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 25 that whatever they do “for the least of these” they did for Him. In Romans 12:13 Paul gives instructions on how to care for the needy as well: “Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home.” The Church is not called to just love others when it is comfortable, or when it is convenient, but the Church is called to love like God loved us (John 15:12). The Church in many nations has the opportunity to show the love of Christ to those who are suffering. Refugees from closed countries who are entering Europe, the United States, and other Christian-majority nations might never have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel due to hostilities in their home countries. The Church should be prepared to welcome these asylum-seekers and share the hope of Christ with them, treating them as native-born brothers and sisters (Leviticus 19:34). What an opportunity the Church has been given to reach people who might otherwise have been unreachable. The global body of believers can pray for the local churches to get involved with the immigrant communities around them, and for those who are seeking safety to encounter believers who are willing to meet both their physical and spiritual needs.

In conclusion…

2021 has been another challenging year and yet we can clearly see the Lord’s hand at work, through His Church around the world. Even in times when it has been difficult to discern what the Lord is doing, we can be assured of His sovereignty and that each of us is strategically placed to fulfil His purposes in a time such as this – both in prayer and action.

Please pray with us for the following:

  • For the Church to be able to look back on 2021 and remember the Lord’s faithfulness, despite great uncertainty
  • For the Church to remain focussed on its ultimate goal of bringing more people into the Kingdom and for believers to take each opportunity as it comes, reaching out to those around them in boldness
  • For the Gospel of Christ to reach every person in every nation

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Images: REUTERS/Stringer/Baz Ratner/Ralph Tedy Erol/Ali Khara/Gonzalo Fuentes

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