Jesus told the early disciples that following him would not always be easy: “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” (Matt. 24:9) Indeed, Jesus gave many warnings about how his followers would face persecution and rejection. It is part of the call to discipleship: “Remember the words I spoke to you: `No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also”. (John 15:20)
Thus it should come as no surprise that followers of Christ will experience troubles in this world. That has been the case throughout church history. However, the situation seems to have gotten much worse as we end the second millennium. Consider some of these figures:
• More Christians have died for their faith this century than in all the other centuries put together.
• 100 million Christians have been killed this century.
• 160,000 Christians are killed each year.
• Over 400 Christians are killed each day.
• Currently, 200 to 250 million Christians are persecuted for their faith.
• A further 400 million live under non-trivial restrictions on religious liberty..
As can be seen, never before has the Christian Church come under so much opposition and persecution. At the moment over 35 countries have mounted campaigns against Christians. Some of the worst offenders are China, Sudan and Ethiopia. Others include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Burma, Greece, Vietnam and Egypt. China is probably the worst of all the countries, with more people imprisoned there for religious activity than any other country.
The persecution of Christians is taking its toll. The Christian presence in a number of countries is declining rapidly. In Iraq, for example, the number of Christians has decreased from 35% to 5% of the overall population. Other countries are witnessing similar declines: In Iran the percentage has dropped from 15% to 2%. In Syria, from 40% to 10%, and in Turkey, from 32% to 0.2% since the early part of the twentieth century.
Lest this sound all too removed and remote, let me present some actual examples:
• In China, three evangelicals were beaten to death by police as part of a severe government crackdown on the independent house-church movement.
• Seven Trappist monks, including an 82-year-old doctor, were taken hostage by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group. Two months later the terrorist group had slit their throats.
• A young Egyptian girl was abducted, raped and held captive for nine months because of her belief in Jesus. In an attempt to convert her to Islam, her captors poured sulfuric acid on her wrist to remove a tattooed cross.
• In Pakistan a 12-year-old child was sentenced to death under the country’s new blasphemy law which forbids speaking out or acting against the prophet Mohammed.
• Thousands of Christian children in the south of Sudan have been kidnapped and sold as slaves to Muslims in the North. This is part of the Sudanese Government’s war against the Christian south.
• A Catholic priest in Vietnam is serving a 20-year prison sentence for teaching adult catechism classes.
• In Indonesia many churches and homes of believers have been vandalised, destroyed or burned down in recent times.
What we are witnessing today, in other words, is a level of persecution that is probably greater than at any other time in church history.
What can we do?
There are a number of things we can do. First, become informed. Find out what is happening. Read up on the subject. Especially recommended are these two books:
Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out. Word, 1997.
Nina Shea, In the Lion’s Den. Broadman & Holman, 1997.
Also, get on the mailing list of groups like International Christian Concern (email: icc@ids@.unline.com ); Christian Solidarity International (email: firstname.lastname@example.org ); Voice of the Martyrs (email: email@example.com ); Open Doors (email: firstname.lastname@example.org ); and other organisations.
Secondly, pray. We are told to pray for those who persecute us. (Luke 6:27,28; Matt. 5:44) When Peter and Paul were in prison the whole church prayed for their release. We need to not just pray but to do all that we can to help our persecuted brothers and sisters. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those in prison as if imprisoned with them”. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “The Bible makes a strong assertion that persecution for righteousness’ sake will ever confront the Christian. But at the same time , it also solemnly charges us to take up the cause of the needy and to speak for those who are victims. The Scriptures challenge us to reach out to those who hurt, to do all in our power for the rescue of those who are victimized, and if need be, to beseech the powers of the land to give each citizen the right of being treated as a fellow human being”.
Third, we should support (or initiate) legislation that protects the human rights of Christians in other lands, and our own. While such legislation is under way in America, Australia seems not to have any.
Fourth, we should inform others as to what is going on. There is a wall of silence in the media regarding this issue. We need to break through this wall. As Nina Shea has put it, “Western Christians must take the lead in breaking the silence. If they don’t speak out, no one will”. Write letters to your newspapers. Raise the subject during talk-back radio sessions. Proclaim the news in the pulpit.
Fifth, we should participate in the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. The next Day will be on Sunday November 15th. It is hoped that 180,000 churches worldwide will participate in the event. Further information, resources and information packs are available from the World Evangelical Fellowship, PO Box WEF, Wheaton, Illinois 60189, USA. E-mail: IDOP@XC.ORG Website: www.persecutedchurch.net/com
Finally, remember the words of our Lord: “… 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…. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:33-40)
I finish with a story which begins Paul Marshall’s book:
“There was one particular girl the soldiers talked about that evening: a girl on La Cruz whom they had raped many times during the course of the afternoon, and through it all, while the other women of El Mozete had screamed and cried as if they had never known a man, this girl had sung hymns, strange evangelical songs, and she had kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest.
“She had lain there on La Cruz with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing – a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, and their wonder began to turn to fear – until finally they had unsheathed their machetes and hacked through her neck, and at last the singing had stopped.”