I’ve been writing about Paul’s first preserved letter to the Corinthian church. In his letter, Paul refers from time to time to “the present distress”. He’s talking, of course, about persecution. At the time Paul wrote this, the persecution hadn’t yet started in earnest. It was to get far worse. We’ve all heard of Christians being forced to fight wild beasts in the Colosseum or Nero torching Christians to light up his garden parties, and so on and so on.
How many of us realize, however, that Christians still are imprisoned, lose their children, are beaten and burned out of (or in) their houses, are denied employment, ridiculed, have their daughters stolen for the sex trade or to become the wives of Muslim men, and often even die for their faith? Because we in the west feel so safe, does that mean Christians everywhere enjoy that same safety? Certainly not. In light of the tortures endured during life, martyrdom (and that doesn’t mean blowing yourself up for the purpose of murdering “infidels”) begins to look like the easy way out. Churches are destroyed or padlocked; pastors and lay workers beaten and imprisoned; Bibles and other literature stolen or confiscated; false accusations made and slanderous lies spread; whole families incarcerated in gulag-style prison camps . . . it goes on and on.
Surely this must be a rare occurrence that happens only in places like Iran, though . . . right? Not so. Iran isn’t even the worst offender. In some countries the government participates in the persecution. In some, the government ignores the persecution; and in some, persecution isn’t something the government is able to control. Number one on Open Doors’ World Persecution Watch List is North Korea, where tens of thousands of Christians (estimate is at least 20,000, but this is difficult to determine for obvious reasons) are in labor camps, underfed, under clothed, under sheltered, inadequate or nonexistent medical care, regularly beaten and overworked. Believers, their families (whether Christian or not), parents, and children all end up in these prison camps because Kim Jung Il and his family alone must be worshiped. Refugees of North Korea who make their way into the relative freedom of Red China are repatriated as quickly as possible by the communist Chinese government. Though South Korea is willing and eager to give these refugees a home, China prefers to send them back to North Korea where they will be imprisoned and (if they are suspected of being Christians) executed. Women who are pregnant when repatriated are forced to undergo unwanted and unsanitary abortions because Kim Jung Il wants to keep the race “pure”.
I could go on, but you’ll find much more comprehensive information at a couple of websites I frequent. There are more, but these two organizations rank high in history and financial accountability. I’m not saying others aren’t as good–I’m just not personally knowledgeable about them. These are Voice of the Martyrs and Open Doors. China, surprisingly, is only at number ten on the persecution watch list, up from twelfth last year. Persecution has increased recently because the government doesn’t want any unofficial house churches around causing suspicion that maybe people are forced to meet in houses by a government that wishes to micromanage and control official churches. Iran, that notorious regimen, is actually only at number three, while Saudi Arabia is number two. In fact, six of the regimes listed in the “top ten” worst repressors of religious freedom are Islamic majority or Islamic run countries.
Communism has been the worst persecutor of Christians in recent years, falling off dramatically since the fall of the USSR. Persecution is again rising in Russia and in some former Soviet Bloc countries, but of course Communist North Korea is the point of the spear today. Kim Jung Il wishes to be worshiped as the only god in his people’s hearts. These regimes persecute Buddhists and Hindus and other religious groups as well, but they do seem to have a particular fear of Christianity.
Muslim countries are among the most notorious persecutors of Christians (and of course followers of any religion other than Islam). The stories are endless of native-born people being refused freedom of conscience in their choice of religion. In many of these countries, all Christians are persecuted, but Muslim background believers suffer the most. Converts from Islam to Christianity are routinely targeted by their own families to be killed. They are sometimes officially executed by their governments. Do you remember the Afghani man who was slated for execution recently on grounds of heresy for becoming a Christian? The outcry of America saved his life, but there are many others about whom most westerners (or even Middle Easterners in more moderate countries) never hear. Persecution is rampant in these countries. There are so many stories. If you’re interested, check out the news pages of the websites referenced above for the most recent happenings around the world.
Islam and Communism are the two biggest offenders, but Hinduism is working hard at catching up. Indian Christians are suffering a big surge in persecution (and no, it’s not actually because they’re “forcing” people to convert). Lower caste people, relegated to picking garbage and cleaning up sewage because their Karma has “justly” punished them by causing them to be born into the caste of “untouchables” understandably find Christianity an attractive alternative to their native repressive religion. This is disturbing to people of higher castes for obvious reasons. Who will clean up the sewage? Christians are beaten and killed, their houses and churches burned, and their leaders imprisoned. The government doesn’t officially sanction this treatment, but it happens anyway and it’s getting worse.
You might wonder why anyone would even want to know these things. Many Christ followers in the west suspect that persecution might be happening somewhere in the world, but they feel helpless to do anything about it. It’s just depressing. Well, there is something we can do about it. Here’s a short list, and I’m sure you can come up with more ideas.
- Pray. This is the best and biggest thing you can do. How often have you heard someone say (or said yourself), “Well, all we can do is pray.” All we can do? God doesn’t mess around in our lives unless we ask Him to. He’s respectful of the freedoms He’s given us and though He may gently guide us or call us, He will not impose His will on this planet by doing things without being asked. These people are our brothers and sisters–the black, the asian, the caucasion and the oriental. They look different and we can’t understand their speech, but we’re planning to spend eternity hanging out with them. Pray for them. Do you really want to meet them some day and have to say, “Well, no. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t think praying would help.”?
- Give. We have so very, very much. Instead of that trip to McDonalds, how about saving ten bucks and sending it to one of the organizations working to serve the persecuted church. They need so much. Families of martyrs and families denied a livlihood because of their faith need food, shelter, training, encouragement. Churches in repressive areas need Bibles and Christian literature to be smuggled into their countries so they can learn true doctrine. While our Bibles gather dust on the coffee table, these fellow Christians walk miles on the mere rumor of the possibility of obtaining a copy of God’s word. Some Christians need to stay hidden from their families and/or governments. They need encouragement from the free world in the form of radio and television broadcasts. They need computers and cell phones.
- Write. Writing letters to prisoners who may never receive them and who couldn’t understand them if they did may seem like a lost cause, but it tends to result in improved treatment and more likely release from prison. Why? Even the people doing the persecuting know they’re doing wrong. They don’t like thinking that others know or care what they’re doing. When the letters are opened for censorship, jailers come in contact with God’s powerful word. And in some cases, prisoners do receive and understand our letters. To find prisoners’ addresses and stories, go to Voice of the Martyrs’ letter writing site. Here’s a link to instructions and a list of current prisoners. Choose a couple and send some hope out in the next mail run. Do be certain, however, to read and follow VOM’s instructions. Seriously–this is extremely important. If you’re not planning to read and follow precautions, please don’t write at all. You could endanger prisoners further.
- Go. Maybe God will call you to work in a ministry serving the persecuted church, whether here at home or from some other, more hazardous location. If so, you can consider yourself priviledged. God can be pretty picky about who gets to do what.
Finally, next time you’re tempted to complain about not getting that parking place or the way your co-worker slighted you or the price of gas, remember how the rest of the world lives and give thanks to God instead. And take a moment to pray for our brothers and sisters suffering persecution.
Grace, peace, and courage to you,