Through the Storm

Through the Storm
The persecution Christians face around the world is a daily, sometimes tangible reality. It is suffering on display all around.

Christians Around the World Face Deadly Persecution

Yusuf* was born in Gerewah, Sudan, to a Muslim family. Tensions between the government and a local political party were high, however, and Yusuf’s family was driven to relocate to the nearby village of Al Gazeera al Farhana (The Happy Island). When they moved, Yusuf’s father had been missing for more than 10 years.

When he was 4 years old, Yusuf was taken into a khalwa. Khalawi are Islamic schools that use violence to force children to memorize parts of the Quran. School life was hard on Yusuf, and it only became harder as he grew older. He felt as if he was trapped, living in a prison with his future at the mercy of cruel authority. 

One night he and some of his fellow students escaped from the khalwa. But they endured many of the struggles that come with running away, so they returned to their village, where Yusuf enrolled in a public school. He remained there until his graduation.

By the time Yusuf had finished high school, the God he knew was one who brought suffering and terror, fear and cruelty. Despite this, there was a part of Yusuf that believed there was a loving side to this God, that there was more to God than the horrors of the khalwa or the pain of his people. But he didn’t know if it was even possible to get to know this side of God, much less how. All Yusuf knew was that he wanted to.

Soon Yusuf was accepted into the University of Sudan. There he studied music, specializing in the trumpet. University was an entirely novel place for him, a platform for him to share his culture, ideas, and thoughts on religion with unique people. He thrived. Yusuf loved being able to learn about the world in this open environment.

One of his favorite classes during his time at university was Harmonics, for which he would go to a church to listen to the hymns and study their harmonies. He loved listening to these hymns, and he especially enjoyed spending time around those who sang them. He would marvel at the unity demonstrated by Christians in his church even though he did not believe in their God himself. Or did he? 

Oppression and Escape

He became eager to find the answer. But he could not reveal his curiosity. Because Islamic culture taught that if he tried to find the answer in the church, or worse, if he converted to Christianity, it could result in death.

His newfound curious excitement was to be short lived.

The Sudanese government quickly decided it did not approve of the political conversations taking place at the university. To set an example for the rest of the student body, government officials targeted students coming from war zones who didn’t have any connections to protect themselves. Yusuf knew this new strategic oppression would jeopardize his position at the school, so he began to participate less and less in meetings with his peers, but to no avail. He was imprisoned twice and suffered severe physical and psychological abuse, the effects of which still live with him today.

Yusuf’s time in prison was tainted by doubt. He would constantly ask himself why any of this was happening. “Where is God—the real God?” he wondered. There couldn’t possibly be a God who would allow this, he concluded. But a strong voice deep within him overpowered the doubt. “God is here,” it said.

After some time, and with the help of friends, Yusuf was able to get a passport and escape to Egypt. His health was already poor, and the journey did his body no favors. Upon his arrival, however, a group of young Egyptian Christian men helped Yusuf find treatment. “How come there is so much love between Christians?” he asked them. “Because Christ came in love,” they replied. Thus began Yusuf’s search for Jesus. 

A Path to Christ

His search was not without challenges. He was alone in a new place, receiving treatment from a group of people who worshiped a God he’d always been taught against. Nevertheless, Yusuf continued asking questions and growing in his faith.

Slowly, life began to settle down for Yusuf. He found a job at a leather factory. He began studying the Bible with the Christian doctor who helped treat him. He began attending a church. For the first time, Yusuf was able to be a part of the Christian community that had always intrigued him. He decided to take the next step in his spiritual journey and be baptized.

One day soon after, one of Yusuf’s Muslim flatmates learned of his baptism. He took photos of Yusuf and blackmailed him, threatening to report Yusuf for his faith and his involvement in the church. So Yusuf did what he’d been driven to do his whole life: he ran away.

Once again his world had collapsed all around him. Once again he was lost, starting anew, and living on the streets. Once again he found himself asking, “Where are you, Jesus?”

And once again, Jesus appeared, this time in the form of a group of Colombian saxophone players in Cairo who in turn introduced him to their friend, Rev. Mark. Mark took Yusuf in and treated him like a son, doing what he could to help stabilize Yusuf’s life. As things settled down, Yusuf began to see Christ again, not just through the Bible, but through Mark, through his Colombian friends, and through the unity of Christians all around him.

Christians Around the World

Yusuf’s story is a common one. It might have a different cast, setting, and way of playing out in different places, but its roots remain. It might look like the violent aggression in northern Nigeria or the harsh campaigns of the Chinese government. It might look like the atrocities done by ISIS in Syria or even the hardships of the early church. But it is persecution all the same. 

The persecution Christians face around the world is a daily, sometimes tangible reality. It is suffering on display all around. It is planning travel routes around where the last shooting was. It is making sure your family wasn’t in the church that was bombed earlier that morning. It is pillows damp with tears after long nights of mourning, barely holding it together after witnessing the injustices all around that feel suffocating. It is something you can observe and feel in the very air you breathe.

For others persecution is less apparent, but ever looming around the corner. Persecution is your neighbors, friends, and family monitoring your every move. It is conversations in which every phrase feels loaded. It is moving between gatherings with a hood up, your face concealed from security cameras. Each step is terrifying when every eye is on you. It is coming home at night and being too paranoid to turn the lights on. It is whispering worship songs in your living room with a church of five people as someone listens at the door, knowing that at any second this could all be over.

For others, persecution is crafty. It is silent. Judgment and punishment are all carried out in the darkness. It is being denied from every job you apply to because of your faith. It is living in constant fear of an attacker you have never known. It is accepting that every text sent will be read by several pairs of eyes. It is watching friends disappearing between coded prayer meetings and others being discouraged by a faith that has only brought them loss. 

It is the conflict that comes with not being able to be as openly Christian as as you’d like, if at all. It is wondering how to be bold without being reckless, how to live one’s faith in an unsaved area. It is learning how to coexist peacefully with violence all around you. Can you be free while in chains? How can you proclaim Jesus’ name in silence? 

And how can you cope? How can you possibly cope when it so regularly feels like you are lost in the dark, and the light on the other side is all but hidden from you? How can you survive if all you find yourself asking is “Where are you, Jesus? Where?” 

Hope in the Darkness

It looks like a hopeless picture. And with the rise of technology, mission efforts, and the clash of civilizations, it is a picture we see with ever-increasing resolution. But it must not become one from which we turn away. 

The effects these different shapes of persecution can have on our faith are determined by our perspective on them in the first place. It is already painfully easy to succumb to the world’s influence, but it is even easier when you fail to recognize the severity of the situation. And the situation is severe.  

Jesus prayed this for his followers: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15). Persecuted Christians tend to distinguish themselves, in some way, from their surrounding culture because, ultimately, the culture is spiritually hostile to their faith. As Jesus had prayed, we will never totally escape spiritual conflict in this world.

When we realize this truth and gain the perspective that comes with it, prayers change from “God, please put an end to this struggle” to “God, give me the strength to fight through it.” We set aside our desire to leave hard situations and learn to embrace and adapt to the places to which we’ve been called. Our focus shifts from yearning for the light at the end of the tunnel to being that light, radiating the love of God to the people shrouded in shadows all around us.  

And our God is here. Jesus is with us in the dark. He’s been here every step of the way. 

The story of the true and invisible church is a tale of many trials, of heartbreak and pain. A story of persecutors and persecuted, of broken homes and families longing for reunion. A story of the draining exhaustion of obstacles constantly appearing. A story of suffering and all the scars it leaves behind.  

More than that, though, it is a story of how God molds us through such trials. It is a reminder that our faith is not defined by the trials it faces, but by the ways we respond. It is a story of the pains and joys of our response, of finding any small glimmers of light in the darkness, of perseverance and preservation and praise, of victory promised and obstacles overcome. It is a story of revival born of tragedy, life born from death, reminding us that faith forged in the fire burns all the brighter.  

Our story—the church’s story—is one of seeds of hope planted in the scars by the Almighty Healer, who takes our blemishes and makes them beautiful. God makes us new. 

It is the story of the helping hand extended and the quavering arm reaching out, desperate for a savior, a redeemer who assures us that we are not alone in the den of lions.  

It is the same story we find in Acts, in Hebrews’ great cloud of witnesses, and in the pages of John’s Revelation. Tucked among all these stories, Yusuf’s continues to unfold.  

Today, under God’s healing wings, Yusuf has begun to spread his own wings, to feel his call, to express his gifts, and to find redemption for his scars. Today he speaks freely to his friends and his adopted family of his hope to return to Sudan with the gospel. Today Yusuf’s first love for church music resonates beyond his pain as he practices trumpet in the hot upper-floor apartment where he stays. Today, as has happened somewhere every day for eons, Yusuf’s own neighbors—and the unbelieving neighbors of people like him—will wonder, and perhaps ask why, as they hear the unbroken melodies of those who have endured pain for Jesus’ name. 

God works within, and he works constantly. Jesus does not waste a single note. 

Because this is his song. This is the story of his church. Of his people. Of his battle. Of the unity and victory only possible in and through him.  

He is with us. He is sure to vindicate. His story will not just be told, but shouted from the rooftops in a joyful chorus. And it will be heard across the nations. 

And so we sing: Through the storm, you are Lord. Be Lord of all.

*Names and locations have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Share a story of persecuted Christians you have heard, read, or even witnessed. What insights did you gain from it?
  2. Do you think that Christians in North America are facing persecution? Why or why not? 
  3. How do you find strength to face injustices or persecution? 
  4. How will you lend support to our persecuted fellow Christians in the world?

About the Authors

Jonathan Umran is a Canadian-Egyptian student currently studying English at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church.

Rev. Naji Umran is the Middle East regional leader for Resonate and served on synod’s Committee Studying Religious Persecution and Liberty. He and his wife, Anne Zaki, have lived in Cairo for most of the past 22 years.

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