With the rise of advanced technologies, the ways of suppressing religious freedom are increasing exponentially. From facial recognition software to firewalls, Tim Wyatt spotlights the new ways repressive regimes are targeting Christians

An Iranian convert exchanges messages with a Christian friend.They agree to risk meeting in person. When he arrives at the agreed location, however, he is arrested by security forces. The authorities have intercepted his messages, impersonated his contact and led him into a trap.

In Germany, the Christian Uyghur exile, Dr Enver Tohti, is driving along a picturesque country road when his car suddenly swerves into a lake. He and his family smash the windows and swim to safety. Although his claim cannot be verified, Tohti – a prominent dissident who campaigns against the Chinese government – believes his internet-connected vehicle was hacked into and steered towards water.

Thousands of miles away in India, a village’s water supply becomes contaminated and several locals die. Hindu nationalist extremists share messages on Facebook and WhatsApp claiming a Christian in the village has cursed the water. An enraged mob, convinced by what they’ve read on their phones, lynches the Christian.

Believers in various locations across China are startled by sudden police raids, followed by hours of interrogation. It emerges that they came to the government’s attention after a Christian bookstore was shut down by the authorities and its customer data seized.

This is the modern face of persecution; the digital revolution has reached those who are determined to oppress Christians. The faithful living under repressive regimes or surrounded by violent extremists are still tragically subject to traditional threats – imprisonment, physical attack, harassment and even death. But, increasingly, persecution comes via the internet, on social media or courtesy of the smart devices they carry around.

“It’s persecution in a new form, but it also helps facilitate and connect with the old form,” explains David Landrum, the director of advocacy and public affairs for Open Doors, a charity that supports persecuted Christians. Of course, believers in some countries still have their doors broken down, are interrogated and physically threatened, but this is now supplemented by digital surveillance, with the purpose of instigating self-censorship. “If you can modify people’s behaviour, you don’t have to kick their doors in. So often digital persecution is about suffocating the Church in various parts of the world,” says Landrum. 


Francis Davis, professor of civic leadership and international studies at Roehampton University tells me that, in the past, oppressive regimes would insert informers into congregations and spend valuable resources tailing a pastor if they wanted to monitor a church. “Now you can just fly in a drone the size of a fly. Or you can put cameras onto streetlamps opposite. Or you can hack into the streaming…and know exactly who’s in the room. And then you can probably follow the pastor around simply because of the fact that his car is significantly digital, and you can hack into it and listen to the conversations,” he says.

It is inescapable that global technological superpower China sits at the heart of the digital persecution revolution. It is pioneering in both software and hardware, and is also a deeply repressive state. For decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tried to control, suppress and, at times, eliminate the Church within its borders. Particularly since the rise of Xi Jinping to power in 2013, China’s Christians have become the target of the country’s surveillance state.

Chinese Christians are forced to speak in code whenever they communicate online

China is blanketed with CCTV cameras – some estimate that more than half of all cameras on earth are on Chinese soil. Many are connected to facial recognition software, which means specific individuals can be tracked with ease. Pastor Bob Fu, the president of religious freedom charity, ChinaAid, based in the US, describes this as “techno-authoritarianism”. Cameras are not only present in public spaces, but sometimes within churches and even on the pulpit. Accessing many public spaces or buildings in China requires scanning a QR code on your phone, creating another digital paper trail for the authorities. And all this is before believers’ own smartphones are turned against them. Data collected by tech companies is easily accessible by the government should it desire it, meaning GPS location data can be used to monitor anyone deemed an enemy of the state or Party. And if spyware can be surreptitiously installed on a target’s phone, the device itself can be turned into a bug that sends live audio from underground church meetings to the government.

In addition to this, recent laws have made sharing or possessing Christian material online a crime in China. Bible apps have been scrubbed from both the Apple and Android app stores as a result, and the state-sanctioned Protestant Church has obediently removed anything with the characters for ‘Christ’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christian’ from its online bookstore. With powerful AI-driven programmes scanning the Chinese internet for banned or suspicious words, Chinese Christians are forced to speak in code whenever they communicate online. There have been reports of online church meetings finding their live streams suddenly cut because they used banned words such as ‘Christ’.

Some local CCP officials are also reportedly integrating anti-Christian measures into the contentious social credit system being used in various regions of China. Being reported for attending a house church or reading a Christian eBook, for example, could downgrade a person’s social credit score, potentially preventing them from travelling overseas or buying property. The aim of this dual barrage of surveillance and censorship is to cripple the Chinese Church’s efforts to build up believers and spread the gospel. As an Open Doors parliamentary report explains: “Digital surveillance aims to achieve a panoptic effect, where the assumption of surveillance leads to changes in behaviour.” 


China’s chilling effect

China’s reach does not stop at its border. The US government-funded charity, the Open Technology Fund, revealed that there are now more than 100 nations bound into the Chinese ‘technosphere’. These countries have bought into China’s surveillance and censorship technologies, installing their CCTV cameras and building local versions of the Great Firewall of China into their own internet networks. Beyond simply using the same software and hardware as Beijing, these countries sometimes send people to be trained by Chinese officials in how to use this kit for coercion, control and repression.

Landrum uses the example of Nigeria, which was rocked by public unrest and anti-government protests during the pandemic. The authorities responded by buying Chinese technology to monitor opposition activists. But this is not simply a question of buying tech from one firm versus another. “De facto, as a state buys this technology, it is buying into the ideology,” he says. “You are becoming a surveillance state, which is what China is.”

China has invested billions into the developing world, particularly Africa and Asia, in recent years. But as well as building bridges, airports and roads, as part of the deal, China often insists that partner countries install its technology too, especially when building telecoms networks and internet services. Davis says the terms and conditions of these agreements normally include handing all data from these networks back to China.

In Xinjiang province, the mainly Muslim Uyghurs are the subject of such total repression that many observers equate it to genocide. Here, China perfected its techniques of monitoring religious minorities via their phones and the internet, using digital tech to squeeze all signs of Islamic faith and culture out of public life. These techniques are now being exported overseas to any repressive regime that can afford them. “The Chinese Communist Party has turned an entire region into a laboratory in which to hone the most efficient means of technological oppression,” said Sam Brownback, the former US ambassador for international religious freedom, in a report for Open Doors last year. “The Uyghurs have effectively become a marketing tool to sell these technologies all over the world: a beta test for a virtual police state.”

Psychological warfare

The third major strand of digital persecution is the use of disinformation and intimidation. A favoured intimidation tactic in China is to pick up the family of an exiled religious leader, take them to a police station and force them to video call their relative overseas. When the target answers the call, they see a police officer with their family in the background, sternly demanding they return to China immediately…or else.

Across the globe, oppressors have quickly learned that, sometimes, physically attacking a church leader in order to scare them into fleeing carries unnecessary physical risk; spreading poisonous rumours online can achieve the same effect. Anna-Lee Stangl, who leads Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s work in the Americas, said the communist Cuban government had effectively crippled church pastors they saw as a threat by spreading malicious stories online. Sometimes, security agents hack into the Facebook accounts or emails of Christians and post damaging or offensive things online, but, more commonly, they use a network of fake or anonymous accounts to share false stories of infidelity or corruption in order to ruin reputations. 

Nigeria is becoming a surveillance state

One well-known pastor of an underground church in eastern Cuba was the subject of a blog, believed to be run by state security, which accused him of rape and cheating on his wife, as well as accusing his underage daughters of having affairs with men in the church, Stangl reports. “The psychological damage that does to someone…takes its toll,” she says.

Another religious liberty activist Stangl worked with was sent threatening private messages anonymously on Facebook. On one occasion, an hour after he and his family had left for a short Christmas holiday, he received messages wishing him a pleasant journey and trusting his children would arrive in one piece. “Some people become paranoid, and just don’t trust anyone at all…social media has given the government another way of showing people that they have them right under their thumb if they want them,” explains Stangl. 

When online intimidation and disinformation is utilised by a non-state group, such as Hindu extremists in India or anti-Rohingya Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar, evidence shows it is normally a precursor to a real-world physical attack. Far from simply being hurtful words, the internet and social media is being used as the vehicle by which violent rhetoric is used to harass religious minorities and rally an army of persecutors, some of whom will put down their phones and instead pick up a machete or a gun.

Christian activism

So, what can the Church do about turbocharged technological persecution? Some things are simply common sense. Landrum says persecuted Christians, especially in China, have to stop taking their digital devices with them wherever they go. “Go low-tech,” he says, particularly when it comes to attending church service or meetings. Even Open Doors staff in the West have started leaving their phones outside sensitive meetings, Landrum notes, for fear they may have been compromised remotely by repressive regimes keen to eavesdrop. “Genuine relationships of trust, that’s what’s going to really make the difference for persecuted minority churches,” he adds. 

In Cuba, Stangl said important communication now took place via encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp, although this was only as secure as the phone receiving the messages (the government regularly confiscates phones from pastors in an effort to listen in to conversations).

Even Open Doors staff in the West have started leaving their phones outside sensitive meetings 

Christians can also lobby both Western governments and tech companies. While much of the digital persecution is being carried out by Chinese firms, sometimes Apple, Microsoft, Google and others are complicit by failing to challenge legislation that contravenes human rights. Christians should demand that Western companies refuse to yield to ultimatums that call for censorship or surveillance and, as Open Doors’ report concludes, call on their own governments to “introduce a new legal duty on tech firms to prevent human rights abuses on their platforms”.

But there also needs to be a sea change in how religious freedom is understood, Davis argues: “We think that our congregation must send a petition or have another training event [in order to tackle persecution]…but I think we need to get better at targeting the places that have got the leverage.” The old models of advocacy for the persecuted Church are not keeping up with the digital revolution. As well as lobbying tech companies and governments, Christians concerned by these developments should look to influence international regulatory institutions we normally ignore, but which now wield enormous influence in our globalised age.

And, for those passionate about stopping persecution, new vocations might include specialising in accounting and audit, as well as investigative journalism or cyber security, to gain the skills necessary to hold powerful tech conglomerates to high human rights standards. “What we need is a new generation of Christian activists that are robot-literate, tech-literate and data-literate,” says Davis. “Who can read some of the algorithms that go into the AI and decode…what’s immoral.”