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By Kristine Abramoff

COVID-19 has changed the way Christians across Canada commune with believers. We’re privileged to connect through Zoom or livestreams to attend prayer meetings, services, and other church events. But for persecuted Christians living in countries where Christianity is seen as a threat, the COVID pandemic means that believers are struggling in isolation, sometimes even cut off from the basic necessities for life.

Reverend Gary Stagg, director of Open Doors Canada, shares some of the challenges that Christians in hostile countries face as they navigate the difficulties of COVID-19, and discusses the ways that Open Doors works alongside marginalized Christians to support them through this difficult time.

Reverend Stagg, you have a long history of working in missions, ministry, and non-profits. Tell us about yourself and your background.

Reverend Stagg: My background is in pastoral ministry. For thirty-two years I was a pastor, but I was always involved heavily with missions within the church, and with missions teams.

About 21 years ago, I came across Open Doors, and got really interested in their cause and took some trips with them. I followed their literature, and I kept my church informed about what was happening with the persecuted church. I provided resources from Open Doors to my church, participated in the international day of prayer for the persecuted church, and made sure people in my church had prayer calendars so they could regularly pray for the persecuted church. I also travelled to restricted countries with Open Doors and saw first-hand what was going on. This was eye-opening for me.

Three and a half years ago Open Doors was looking for a director, and they thought of me because of my involvement and interest, and asked if I would consider taking over. It seemed that it was the right thing to do.

For those who may not know, what is Open Doors Canada? What does Open Doors do?

Reverend Stagg: Open Doors comes alongside those parts of the body of Christ who live in areas where they can’t express their faith freely. We come alongside the persecuted church to strengthen and equip Christians living in dangerous places. We began as a Bible smuggling ministry. Brother Andrew, author of the bestseller God’s Smuggler, founded Open Doors in 1955. It started with smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. After the Berlin wall came down, Open Doors decided to focus on the plight of Christians all over the world who were living in restricted countries without freedom of religion.

Open Doors’ ministry has expanded, and we work now in more than sixty different countries. We provide Bibles, discipleship programs, safe houses, trauma support, and job training. We also equip and train leaders, and provide for basic human needs. Our approach is to find out what support Christians in restricted countries really need, and to respond to those needs.

Open Doors also produces the World Watch List, which is published every January. It ranks the top fifty countries of the world where it’s most dangerous to live as a Christian. It’s a very well-respected document that’s used by the UN and by governments to get a feel for what is happening with regards to religious rights around the world. We’re doing a lot of research to find out what’s happening, and because of that research we’re able to keep our finger on the pulse of the church around the world.

Can you explain what kind of impact these programs have on persecuted believers and their families, and how they change lives?

Reverend Stagg: These programs impact persecuted believers on very basic levels to fill felt needs. They need the training and discipleship, because they’re not in places where there are theological seminaries. There are some very obvious ways they’re being impacted.

One less obvious way believers are impacted is through the joy of knowing or finding out they’re not alone in the world, and that there are actually other Christians out there who know about them and pray for them. Sometimes that comes as a real surprise to them, because they’re in countries where they have no way of knowing what’s happening in the outside world.

I recently heard a story about a young girl in North Africa who became curious about Christianity. She went on the internet and started looking for more information and reading scripture. She found out how to become a Christian, and she made that commitment. For the longest time she thought that she was the only Christian in North Africa, because in her context, she would not know of another Christian. She did a little more searching and found out there was a group of Christians who connected on an online platform provided by Open Doors. She connected with these people, and found the joy of knowing that there were other Christians in her area, and the even greater joy of knowing that there are people all over the world who are praying for her.

How have you seen COVID-19 impact our persecuted brothers and sisters living in countries like Syria, China, or North Korea? What unique needs have emerged during this time?

Reverend Stagg:: COVID was slower to spread to developing countries, but now we’re seeing it really hitting them. Countries like Syria have been decimated by nine years of war, so the health care system is almost non-existent, and the economy is shaky. Many people in the developing world live close together in larger groups. It’s also completely unthinkable that they would be able to just stay home, because they have to get out to work to make money. COVID hits them quite hard.

These issues are amplified when it comes to Christians, because oftentimes in dangerous countries they’re already marginalized. Christians are relegated to the lowest jobs in society, and have the last chance of getting any kind of promotion or advancement. Their children are unlikely to get into the better schools, so it creates a cycle of marginalization because of their faith. These Christians also don’t have the choice of staying at home and working from home, so they get hit hard.

Additionally, Christians don’t always have access to basic aid. In India, Christian persecution is growing. Aid comes through the government oftentimes from good organizations, but it’s the village elders who are responsible for distributing the aid. Our director found that in these communities, the Christians are relegated to stand at the end of the food line, so anybody who comes after them gets to go before them, resulting in Christians not getting any food at all. Our teams there have sprung into action finding those people who are in vulnerable situations and giving them food because they’re starving to death.

Also, in many of these cases, pastors live from week to week, so it’s from the offering that they receive on Sunday that they would get their amount to live on. If there’s no church, there’s no offering. These pastors and their families are basically left with nothing during lockdown.

What initiatives is Open Doors taking to support persecuted Christians impacted by COVID-19?

Reverend Stagg: We’ve had to adjust our programs on the fly. In Syria, we had set up “Centres of Hope,” where local churches were turned into on-the-ground ministry to the community. They would set up bakeries and everything else in their church, and they would respond to the felt needs of people around them, regardless of if they were Christian or not. This program has been going on for a number of years, and this year the plan was to open more centres of hope, and to move into more training, discipleship, trauma counselling, and job creation. When COVID hit, the needs changed. We’ve put those things on hold, and we’ll continue on with our aid program and ramping that up. This is what people need to stay alive.

Open Doors is unique in the way that it’s set up, because of where we work. We can’t freely go into these countries to do our work, and we’re not known in these countries as an organization because it’s too dangerous. We’ve always had to have an agile approach to ministry wherever we are and we are successful because we find local partners to work with. We work with people who are in the country, on the ground, and looking to stay. We are a ministry that tries to bolster Christians in such a way that they can remain where they are, be the salt and light of Christ, and win their own communities to Christ. Because of that approach, it’s much easier to respond in times like these because we’re not reliant on western missionaries. We already have the people in place to help where the help is needed.

We’re providing the food where food is needed. Food insecurity has skyrocketed among Christians during this time, and people are going hungry and unable to feed their families, so this is a high priority. Medicine is a priority as well, as is help with medical things such as masks and personal protection equipment. We help with all kinds of things like that, but the number one thing for this season is the aid that is needed just to help people stay alive.

While we work to protect ourselves, here in Canada, and follow the advice of the Canadian government, the question of who will support our persecuted brothers and sisters during this time still remains. Is that right? As Canadians, what can we do to help?

Reverend Stagg: People in the persecuted church always ask for prayer. This is the number one thing they’re asking for.

Donating to ministries like Open Doors that are already working in those areas and have systems in place where the need is greatest will also have a huge, immediate impact, because of the way we work.

Educate yourself about Christian persecution, get a copy of the World Watch List, and get copies of prayer calendars and the monthly newsletter. Pray, give, and educate yourself, so you know what’s going on around the world.

Where can readers go to learn more about Open Doors?

Reverend Stagg: Go to our website, There you’ll find a copy of the World Watch List for free. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram to get us in your feed and get all of our updates. We also have a weekly podcast called World Watch Weekly. Also, since prayer is still the number one thing, we’re starting Zoom prayer meetings for the persecuted church on the second Tuesday of every month, starting on July 14th. We’re bringing people from all over Canada onto a Zoom prayer meeting where we can pray for the persecuted church, so I would encourage people to sign up for that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Open Doors Canada
8-19 Brownridge Road
Halton Hills, ON
L7G 0C6
Tel: 905-636-0944
Fax: 905-636-0946

For more information about Open Doors Canada, and to subscribe to their bi-monthly magazine, please visit: