February 17, 2010
These are difficult days around the globe for religious minorities in general and Christians in particular. According to Global Restrictions on Religion, a study released last December by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, the residents of 64 nations experience high or very high restrictions on religion. Translation: 70 percent of the world's 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on faith.
According to the United States Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because they follow Christ. By persecution, I mean rape, torture, mutilation, family division, harassment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment and even death.
Christian persecution is as ancient as it is widespread. While we in the West have been largely insulated from it, such religiously based discrimination and maltreatment can be seen as a normal part of the Christian life. There are approximately 50 passages in the Bible relating to persecution.
"Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death," Jesus warned, "and you will be hated by all nations because of me." (Matthew 24:9)
"In fact," the apostle Paul echoed, "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (II Timothy 3:12)
Dr. Hanna Massad, a Christian pastor who ministers in the Gaza Strip, has experienced persecution firsthand.
"The Bible Society in Gaza, where my wife is the director, was bombed in February 2006 and again in April 2007," Massad recounts. "Then on October 6, 2007, our beloved brother Rami Ayyad, a member of our church (Gaza Baptist) and employee of the Bible Society, was abducted. The next day his body was found. He had been executed by two bullets, one in the back of his head."
But to acknowledge that persecution is in some sense normal for the Christian is far different from saying we who enjoy religious freedom should stand aside and let these outrages happen to our brothers and sisters in the faith. One thing every believer can do is pray - that the persecuted will stand strong in their faith and for the spread of the gospel. As the apostle Paul said, "Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you." (2 Thessalonians 3:1)
In addition to prayer, Christians need to be informed about religious liberty. Books such as Their Blood Cries Out by Paul Marshall and Faith That Endures by Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, specialized news services such as Compass Direct and websites such as http://www.opendoorsusa.org/ can help us learn what is going on regarding religious liberty. Armed with accurate information, we can then contact our elected representatives to advance policies that support religious freedom.
For example, the administration of President Barack Obama has delayed for over a year to select the next Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. The position was created during the Clinton administration to monitor religious persecution, recommend and implement policies and advise the U.S. State Department and the administration. Open Doors USA has started an online petition drive that has collected over 8,000 signatures in just three weeks calling on the president to appoint a qualified individual to this position.
Taking a stand for religious liberty is thoroughly biblical. Paul himself invoked his rights as a Roman citizen so that he could continue to preach the gospel. Aside from this, it is a simple matter of compassion and justice to speak up for the suffering (Zechariah 7:9, Luke 11:42, Matthew 25:35-36). In following Christ's example, we are to show mercy to those who are suffering, especially those in the household of faith (I Corinthians 12:26-27).
We who live in freedom have much to learn from Christians who face persecution.
"We should not be surprised when there is a cross in our lives—there was one in the life of our Lord," Massad says. "There is no disciple better than his Teacher. If Jesus took the road of suffering, we should not be surprised to take the same road. Rami refused to deny his faith or be converted to Islam. Many Christians in Gaza have also refused to recant their faith over the past few years. He was willing to pay the ultimate price for what he believed."
The question is not whether the church under persecution may be blessed. The answer to that is clear. As the Lord said:
"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:11)
The question, rather, is whether we want the blessings that come to those who take an unpopular stand for religious liberty. It may just be that we in the free West are the ones whom God is seeking to transform through the lamentable persecution of his global church. And if today we stand for them, perhaps one day they will stand for us.