It’s hard to beat the excitement of international travel. Yes, of course, it’s a lot of effort, it takes time and persistence, and it’s not cheap. Being wedged in a middle seat for fourteen hours, loading and unloading through security countless times, and wending through customs lines all make for weary days. I’ve found myself lost in international cities more times than I care to remember. I’ve been on the receiving end of derisive looks from nationals when my broken French just didn’t cut it. (Thank heaven for Dutch people, who seemingly speak every language under the sun.) I’ve been stranded in the middle of nowhere when the train I was on stopped dead on the tracks as its employees went on strike. I’ve even had the joy of being thrown out of my seat on a Mediterranean train by some cranky elderly folks shouting at me in Italian.
Lots of adventure and plenty of memories definitely go with traveling to new countries. There’s nothing like planting your feet on the Old World soil of Europe, arid flatland in Africa, lush rainforest of Central America, and so many other world destinations. Experiencing the food, the smells, the language, and the vistas around the world has been a perpetual bucket list item for me.
Despite the personal enthrall of overseas travel, however, real life in many parts of the world is far from scrapbook material—especially for followers of Christ. In the last few weeks, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom issued its annual report for 2017 regarding the state of religious liberty around the world. One thing is clear: Religious freedom is under vicious and unrelenting attack throughout the world today. Christians are not the only targets of such persecution, but neither are they free to practice their faith in many countries around the world. The report can be found at http://www.uscirf.gov/reports-briefs/annual-report/2017-annual-report, and is quoted in part in the discussion below. The report begins with the statement: “The state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. The blatant assaults have become so frightening—attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated. Many observers have become numb to violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” The report discusses more than two-dozen countries that have either perpetrated or permitted serious religious persecution, much of which has been directed toward Christians.
In Iran, “Christian converts and house church leaders faced increasingly harsh sentencing: many were sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for their religious activities. Religious reformers and dissenters faced prolonged detention and possible execution.” In Sudan, “government officials continued to arrest church leaders, harass members of various Christian denominations, and destroy or confiscate church properties. Individuals affiliated with several Evangelical congregations were arrested, fined, and evicted from their homes—and one was killed—for opposing government efforts to take over their leadership and confiscate their properties.” Two churches were demolished. In Uzbekistan, “Christian minorities experienced constant harassment in the form of raids, literature confiscations, short-term detention, and torture.” In Eritrea, evangelical and Pentecostal pastors “have been detained for more than 10 years. Over the past year, the Eritrean government increased its persecution of Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians. Security forces arrested followers of these faiths for participating in clandestine prayer meetings and religious ceremonies. In addition, authorities conducted door-to-door searches and arrested individuals identified as Pentecostal or Evangelical solely for their religious identity.” Sadly, the report goes on and on with similar accounts of persecution.
In North Korea, the “government’s approach toward religion and belief is among the most hostile and repressive in the world. Freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North Korea.” The report continues, “the North Korean regime treats religion as a threat, particularly faiths associated with the West, such as Christianity, and is known to arrest, torture, imprison, and even execute religious believers.” Indeed, for the seventeenth consecutive year, North Korea is ranked the worst for persecuting Christians by Open Doors USA, an organization that exists to help persecuted Christians. (See www.opendoorsusa.org.)
It’s on the level of miraculous that Christians even exist in North Korea and the other nations spotlighted in the U.S. report. How people in those parts of the world wake up each morning and choose to follow Jesus, knowing that it could cost them their security, property, or even their lives, is beyond the contemplation of many of us Christians in the United States. Yet, they do. It is estimated that North Korea is home to 300,000 Christians. This is despite the government’s decades-long torture, execution and persecution of Christians in that nation. Similarly, many of the countries highlighted in the report have substantial Christian populations. (See www.opendoorsusa.org.)
The Church is alive and well even in such spiritually dark and oppressive countries. That is the power of the gospel. Nothing can stop it.
The Church is alive and well even in such spiritually dark and oppressive countries. That is the power of the gospel. Nothing can stop it. Kings and leaders have tried, to no avail. Jesus Himself prophesied that this gospel will be preached in all the world. (Matthew 24:14.) That powerful prophecy spoken by our Savior, however, should not be a cue to us as followers of Christ to be apathetic in our view of the persecuted Church. They need us as much or more than ever before.
So what do we do with the knowledge of such systemic and rampant persecution of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world? Indeed, what can we do?
First, we can consider and think of them. While thoughts alone do not directly help our brothers and sisters under persecution, keeping them and their plight in our thoughts serves to remind us to pray. More than that, though, it serves to raise awareness within and outside the Church. While such awareness does not always lead to relief from persecution, sometimes it does.
Second, we can pray. Pray whatever God puts on our hearts to pray for them. Pray the Word of God over them. Pray that “He who is able to keep us from stumbling” will keep these from stumbling and will help them to remain faithful. (Jude 24.) Pray that the Prince of peace will keep their hearts and minds in the midst of persecution, and that the joy of the Lord will strengthen them. (Philippians 4:6-7, Nehemiah 8:10(b).) Pray for their families and loved ones. Pray for their oppressors and persecutors, that they will come to know Christ. If you don’t already pray regularly for these, consider making a commitment and following through on it to pray each day or each week for the persecuted Church. As you become aware of particular peoples or circumstances, perhaps God will use you to intercede especially for their needs. Eternity will tell how God used His people to impact the persecuted Church for His glory. Third, we can give to ministries and organizations that are supporting, helping or ministering to the persecuted Church.
Finally, we can speak up. For their cause—the cause of Christ—we can speak up. At least at present in the United States, we still have freedom of speech and the ability freely to worship and practice our faith. Will we honor those in the body of Christ who are unable to speak up by publicly professing Jesus as Lord and Savior? Will we honor them by being effective witnesses and ambassadors for Christ, even if it requires us to step out of comfort zones or to subject ourselves to rejection? Will we be willing to endure snickers or ridicule of friends, coworkers, family members, or neighbors who challenge our faith while our counterparts in other places in the world are enduring imprisonment, abuse and worse as a result of their stand for Christ?
For their sake, among other reasons, let us not stand idle in our faith. Let us be committed to prayer. Let us support them when we have the opportunity. Let us refuse to be silent.