The conference of academics and activists from 23 nations heard a catalogue of disturbing crimes against women, and a call was made for the church to listen in a radical new way to Christian women who have been driven to silence by persecution and shame.
Used as weapons
In Nigeria, Christian girls are being abducted and impregnated by Boko Haram. In Egypt, extremists are paying men to abduct women, force them into marriage and convert them to Islam. And in Pakistan, women are being kidnapped, raped and forced to change their religion.
Women’s bodies are being used as weapons of war against their own communities. Along with sexual attack comes shame, and shame forces women into silence.
One of the conference speakers was North Korean refugee, Mrs Haeyoung Park, whose Christian parents were killed by the state. As was a woman caught praying in a prison camp in North Korea: ‘A prisoner reported to the guard that she praying. So the guard took her to the investigation room and tortured her,’ said Mrs Park. ‘They hanged her upside down, burnt her with fire, cut her legs and beat her. And that’s how she died.’
The conference heard that entire Christian families, including women and children, are being killed in North Korean prison camps resembling concentration camps – complete with gas chambers.
Eighty per cent of those who try to flee North Korea are women. Some are Christians escaping persecution, while some become Christians on the journey. Many fall prey to traffickers and are drawn into sexual slavery in China, before escaping and making their way to South Korea.
In Egypt and Pakistan, young girls are being abducted and forced to convert to Islam. Katherine Sapna, the director of the Pakistan NGO, Christians’ True Spirit, which supports the Christian families of kidnap victims, said: ‘Twelve-year-old Naina from Lahore was abducted by Muslims because she was a Christian. She was held for six months, gang-raped by four men and tortured severely. She was burnt in the body and her sensitive body parts were damaged. She had two abortions because of the rape.
‘Another girl, Shazia, was kidnapped from a small village of Kasur and taken to Karachi by Muslims. She was forced to work as a prostitute. When she was unwilling to do this job, acid was thrown down her throat, and her stomach was destroyed. She has suffered major trauma and we are trying to help her become a normal person.’
Girls who are brought back often face shame and discrimination because they have been violated. Entire families can find themselves ostracised by the communities who should be best placed to support them, because of a culture of ‘honour’ and shame. It can drive rape and kidnap victims to suffer in silence.
Ms Sapna said Christian women in Pakistan were the most vulnerable members of their society. Under shar’ia law the legal evidence of women is worth only half that of a man, and in certain cases, the evidence of a Christian is worth half that of a Muslim.
‘This can leave the non-Muslim woman without a means of defence in court,’ said Olivia, a legal specialist. ‘And where you get the intersection of gender discrimination and persecution, gender-restrictive laws can be absolutely lethal to women.’
Persecution can range from the dramatic to the dull, from the weaponisation of women’s bodies to the mundane daily pressure of discrimination, said Dr Susan Kerr, of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
‘Women can face many different types of discrimination due to their faith. This can vary from exclusion and segregation in different spheres of public life, to so-called honour killings – murder – because of who they are and what they believe. It can include dowry deaths or acid killings, just because they are women of a particular religion.
‘We see the weaponisation of the woman’s body as a means of sending a message to a religious community. Why did Boko Haram kidnap young girls in Nigeria? The violence perpetrated against those girls was a message to send fear to their community.’
The problem can seem overwhelming, said joint conference organiser Helene Fisher from Open Doors International: ‘The vulnerability of Christian women is being deliberately exploited to maximise the damage to the entire church.
‘But as Christians we have an extra path, which is to say: ‘I am here listening to you as your sister in Christ, who loves you and cares for you and wants to know how to come alongside you.
‘And when we establish that link, hearts open, because we are in that ultimate trust relationship, which is sitting as sisters together before our heavenly father, and we are covered by his protection.’
Refuse to accept this
‘The message this year is that we must refuse to accept discrimination as a woman’s lot in life,’ said conference organiser Kate Ward. ‘It’s all too easy just to shrug and accept these cultural differences, to walk away and leave these women marginalised and alone. We will be producing a call to the global Church, a call to find new ways of listening to Christian women who have been driven to silence.’
That message is supported by Paul Robinson, the CEO of Release International: ‘We must make sure we don’t just listen to the men. Let’s make sure there are protected places, safe places for the women-only voice, so that we can hear them more fully and give them the value they deserve.’