Our small group of travelers arrived at the airport in Cairo, Egypt, with trepidation. Over a year-and-a-half after the start of the Egyptian revolution, there was renewed violence in the streets.
Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and the coming to power of the Islamic extremist Muslim Brotherhood, Christians were being increasingly targeted. Churches were being burned. Teenage Christian girls were being kidnapped off the streets and forced to marry Muslim men and convert to Islam. Believers were fleeing the country.
Just before we carried our luggage to a waiting van, we met our Christian contact. His first words were: “You don’t know what it means for you to come (to Egypt) at a time like this.”
Those words struck deep in my heart, especially since I’d almost canceled the trip because of the violence. The underlying meaning was clear: We need to know you care. We need you to pray with us for our country. We need you to walk in our shoes, if just for a week.
We can’t all visit suffering Christians in North Korea, Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia. We can’t all be missionaries in Nigeria, Kenya, or Bangladesh, where Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) missionaries work alongside persecuted Christians. We can’t all reach out to persecuted believers in Mali, South Sudan, and Myanmar with World Renew. But all of us should know that many people around the world share our faith but not our freedom.
Persecution and the Bible
Of the many definitions of persecution, I prefer the one used by Ronald Boyd-MacMillan in his book Faith That Endures: “Christian persecution is any hostility, experienced from the world, as a result of one’s identification with Christ. This can include hostile feelings, attitudes, words and actions.”
Jesus warned his disciples that they would “be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and . . . hated by all nations because of me” (Matt. 24:9). In fact, wrote Timothy, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
So it shouldn’t come as a shock to us that over 100 million Christians in more than 60 countries are being persecuted, according to Open Doors, an international Christian organization that has supported suffering Christians for 58 years. A 2012 Pew Research Center study states that the percentage of the world’s population affected by restrictions on religion increased to 74 percent—more than 5.1 billion people—in 2011.
Many faith groups, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Baha’is, face oppression. However, Christians are the single most persecuted religious group worldwide, according to Pew and numerous other sources. An estimated average of 100 Christians are killed each month for their faith. In 2012, Nigeria accounted for 791 of the 1,201 total number of martyrs.
Persecution Takes High Toll
Persecution has many faces. In Nigeria, where CRWM has approximately two dozen missionaries, Christians are often targets of the Boko Haram—an Islamic terrorist group that wants to bring strict Sharia law to the entire country. Christian churches are often targets of bombings, especially in the Islamic-dominated north. Even innocent children are targets. On July 6, 2013, suspected Boko Haram terrorists set fire to a school that housed 1,200 students. Forty-two children and teachers were either burned to death or shot in the back while trying to flee. Many others disappeared into the bush and were never seen again.
This year, the persecution of Christians is taking a disturbingly high toll as oppression and turmoil force believers from their homes or their countries, including Middle Eastern nations such as Syria and Iraq. Earlier this year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stated, “The flight of Christians out of the region is unprecedented and it is increasing year by year.” In our lifetime alone, they said, Christians might disappear altogether from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt.
Interestingly, a Barna report released in 2011 stated that 74 percent of American Christians polled were interested in hearing sermons focused on Christian persecution. But only 48 percent of the pastors surveyed were likely to preach on the persecution believers face today. Either some pastors don’t know enough about religious persecution or they intentionally ignore it.
“From my perspective,” says John R. De Vries, pastor of St. Joseph (Mich.) Christian Reformed Church, “it is important for us to focus on the persecution of Christians around the world to be reminded that purity of faith and persecution go hand in hand. It is not because of a poor technique that the church is persecuted. It is because of a pure faith; pure meaning one that has its foundation on the pure gospel, which is always necessarily ‘offensive.’ It is through that kind of persecution that the purity of the faith is refined. Purity of faith and persecution will always come as a matched set. Far too often we have the idea that a pure faith brings popularity rather than persecution. We need regular reminding that this is not the case.”
Religious Persecution Study Committee Approved
Earlier this year, Synod 2013 approved the appointment of a two-year study committee to advise the denomination on how to respond to religious persecution and religious liberty. The committee’s mandate is “to provide a biblical and theological framework regarding religious persecution and religious liberty” and to direct the church to “walk alongside and intercede on behalf of those who are . . . denied religious liberty” globally and locally.
In my own journey, I have learned from the humbleness, generosity, faithfulness to God’s Word and, yes, even joy in the midst of suffering of those who are persecuted. These are lessons that can make the church in North America more Christ-like and much closer to what God originally intended.
In February, Francis Maina survived a vicious Boko Haram attack that killed six men in his village in northern Nigeria. From his hospital bed he said, “I know that Jesus will raise me from this hospital bed. I am confident of that because the larger body of Christ is aware of our situation (in Nigeria) and is praying for us. Christ’s power will unite his people from every color, nationality, and denomination.”
That should be our hope and prayer too.
What You Can Do
- Pray! You can download prayer resources from such organizations as Voice of the Martyrs USA, persecution.com; Voice of the Martyrs Canada, persecution.net; Open Doors USA, opendoorsusa.org; and Open Doors Canada, opendoorsca.org. An excellent resource for distribution in your church or small group is the NavPress pamphlet “Prayers for the Persecuted Church” available at tinyurl.com/navpressdykstra.
- Observe the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP) on the first or second Sunday of November. Information and materials can be found at the CRC Office of Social Justice website crcna.org/pages/justice.cfm and at the Open Doors USA and Voice of the Martyrs sites.
- Stay informed. Reading the news from around the world offers plenty of opportunities to keep the persecuted church in your mind and in your daily prayers. News about persecuted believers is available at such Christian watchdog sites as World Watch Monitor, worldwatchmonitor.org; and Morning Star News, morningstarnews.org.
- Read. Seek out passages from the Bible that address persecution. The book Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson, 2013) is an excellent primer on persecution.
- Advocate. Many of the agencies that support persecuted Christians have campaigns to urge governments to protect religious freedom. The Office of Social Justice website includes a page that lists ways you can be a voice for the voiceless.
Start a persecuted believer support group in your church or small group to learn about and pray for persecuted believers.