Category Archives: Persecution

After Saturday Comes Hope

Last year I conducted a Skype interview with one of the modern-day saints of the Middle East, Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean priest who endured nine days of captivity and torture after being kidnapped by Al Qaeda. I was startled at how surprisingly cheerful and relaxed he appeared as he related his harrowing experiences.

Father Bazi is one of the heroes of a new book that I highly recommend. It is “After Saturday Comes Sunday,” by Elizabeth Kendal. The sub-title sums up its message: “Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East.”

Some of the stories in the book tell the traumatic experiences of individuals such as Father Bazi.

Kendal writes: “Bazi is fed up with Western elites who insist that all the Middle East needs is political and economic liberalization. He is furious that despite having no understanding or practical experience of Islam, they will insist that Islam is inherently peaceful, arrogantly believing they know Islam better than he does.

“’We are in pain,’ says Bazi. ‘I am angry because I know Islam well. In Baghdad they blew up my church. I drove by three bombings, and twice my car was destroyed. I got shot in my leg by an AK-47 – by Islam, and they kidnapped me for nine days.’”

This is a driving theme of the book – that the West does not truly understand the tragedy that is the Middle East. And I can think of few writers better able to explain the history of the crisis to us than Kendal, one of the finest commentators writing today about Christian persecution.

I especially value the regular Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin emails that she sends free to anyone who subscribes. In fact, she actually lives here in Australia, in my city of Melbourne (although we have never met), where she is Adjunct Research Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at the Melbourne School of Theology.

The book’s title is, says Kendal, “a popular Arabic war cry which never fails to make the blood of Middle Eastern Christians run cold….As sure as Saturday (the day of Jewish worship) is followed by Sunday (the day of Christian worship), first we’ll kill the Jews, then we’ll kill the Christians.”

And so much of the book recounts – often in unsparing detail – the horrific “Sundays” endured by Middle Eastern Christians over the past few years as their traditional homelands have come under waves of attacks from an enemy intent on genocide.

But – spoiler alert! – “After Saturday” can have another meaning. Think back to the crucifixion. On Saturday the disciples were in despair. Their Saviour had been executed. Their dreams were crushed. Yet on Sunday came the most joyous news ever heard by humankind. Jesus had risen again.

And so it is today in the Middle East. Amidst the genocide we see the buds of hope. In her final chapter Kendal shows how God is at work right across the Middle East, drawing people to Jesus in spectacular fashion. As persecution intensifies it seems that the number of believers grows.

This book is not always easy to read. The horrors it describes are real, and are happening today, to our Christian brothers and sisters. Yet it is ultimately a book about God and about the Christian hope. Every Christian will feel inspired from reading it.

The Cozy Church

The recent murder of a Catholic priest at his church in northern France, by two young men claiming allegiance to Islamic State, brings starkly to Europe a morbid taste of the horrors that have terrorized the church in parts of the Middle East for the past several years.

Yet sadly, and unbelievably, the response of the church in the West seems little changed. There are expressions of regret and some outrage, but few calls for action of any kind. This is despite the fact that the massacre and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Christians from their traditional homelands in Iraq and Syria surely constitutes one of the most shocking crimes of this century.

It drives me almost to tears that too many Christians in the West seem so indifferent to what is happening to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East.

It is not only the Middle East. The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, an American organization, has launched an appeal to help the thousands of Nigerian Christians who are under siege from Boko Haram. It calls this the “most neglected” crisis.

Maybe there is an element of “compassion fatigue” in all this – an inability to comprehend the scale of it all, of one disaster following another, and therefore confusion about how to respond. I know I suffer from this myself.

But I also wonder if we in the West have become too cozy in our faith.

American Christian writer Eric Metaxas, author of a biography of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, used that word “cozy” in a recent address to The Bridge conference on Christian persecution.

He said that the problem with the German church was that it had become too cozy with the state and too comfortable with its position in society, and thus it overlooked the persecution of Jews. He said it sometimes seemed that the church in the West does not always understand its obligation to come to the aid of Christians who are being killed for their faith in many parts of the world.

I have been asked to preach the sermon soon at my church, to fill in for our pastor. I believe the church sometimes does not understand God’s role for it, and I am taking as my text the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus instructs His disciples in the Upper Room, before the Last Supper. To their shock He shows His servanthood by asking to wash their feet.

I believe that John included this incident to demonstrate that the disciples had not fully understood Jesus and His teachings, despite having spent several years together.

Something similar had already occurred after Jesus miraculously fed thousands of followers with bread and fish. Mark wrote that the disciples did not understand the meaning of this event either.

For my sermon I have some amusing examples from more recent times. I live in Australia. More than 200 years ago British explorers began sending back reports of this land and the unbelievable animal life they had encountered, such as the kangaroo and the platypus.

This caused consternation among some Christians. One wondered if God had somehow made a mistake when He made Australia. Or perhaps, asked another, had this strange place simply been God’s rehearsal for the true creation? Or did the Northern Hemisphere God have a mischievous Southern Hemisphere rival? One writer suggested that Australia must have been formed after the Fall, with God creating monsters like kangaroos in order to terrorize Adam and his offspring.

It seems that, in its cozy state, the British church – or some elements of it – was unable to accept the universality of God’s love and Jesus’s sacrifice.

I cannot help fearing that the church in the West, too cozy, does not understand our obligation to help our persecuted brothers and sisters.

How Can I Help the Persecuted?

Many Christians share my sense of frustration at feeling so helpless in the face of waves of Christian persecution around the world.

But what can I, a lone individual living in faraway Australia do – practically speaking – to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians being persecuted around the world?

I pray for them and I donate money to Christian groups that are active in the field. I try to alert my church to the issues.

But I am not sure what more I can do.

I am full of admiration when I read in the book “Defying ISIS” by Johnnie Moore that in December 2014 the Cradle Fund organization provided direct assistance that enabled tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees to survive the winter.

More recently, the US-based charity Mercury One – founded by media personality Glenn Beck – chartered an aeroplane and flew 149 Christian refugees from Iraq to sanctuary in Slovakia.

When I search the internet for ways to help the persecuted I am advised to write letter to government leaders.

I am not optimistic about that. I have in the past occasionally written to local politicians about issues that concerned me, only to receive the blandest of responses and no evident change in government policy.

My government has pledged to take thousands of refugees from the fighting in the Mideast, and that is starting to happen. Some of these refugees are Christians. Perhaps I should write and ask that Australia take more.

I could help refugees who have arrived in Australia. In fact, I am doing this to a modest extent, as we have several refugees in our church.

I could also help educate people. The more that Christians know about the plight of refugees the more inclined they will be to help. And I do this too, in a limited way, through my writing activities. So I am doing a little.

I am encouraged to learn of a conference to be held in the US in July, called “The Bridge,” and specifically aimed at helping the church to care about, and be involved with, fighting persecution.

Over three days, attendees at the conference will meet the organizations, churches and mission agencies that are working on the ground, and learn how to connect and work with the persecuted.

But the conference has one more goal as well, and this is important. It will urge Christians to seek inspiration in the persecuted church. Speakers will use the example of the persecuted church as a call for revival.

The book “Defying ISIS” touched on this issue after encountering some of the persecuted in the Mideast: “Through their excruciating pain, through the weight of their trauma, and their thousand kinds of brokenness, they don’t resent the call to suffer that God has put upon their shoulders, but they welcome it. They celebrate it, and they feel honoured by it. They inspire us by it.”

I shall continue to look for ways to help the persecuted. But, at the same time, I shall strive to understand that, in their suffering, the Christians of the Middle East might also be helping me and others in our walk with the Lord.

Liberal and Tolerant Malaysia Heading Down the Islamist Path?

I sometimes struggle to understand why Malaysia should be moving steadily up the rankings in the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith. In the 2016 list Malaysia is ranked at No. 30 – classified as moderate persecution – compared to No. 37 last year and No. 40 in 2014.

I live in Australia and have travelled to Malaysia several times – my wife and I took our three sons there on holiday some years ago when they were young – and have always found it pleasurable, open and extremely friendly.

We have many Malaysian migrants in Australia, and every church I have attended seems to have its quota of Malaysian worshippers (mainly of Chinese background). They sometimes travel back to their home country, and – as best as I can tell – attend church in Malaysia with complete freedom.

A young missionary friend found himself sent to do administrative work at one of his mission group’s regional offices. It was in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. He loved the vibrant life there. His wife’s parents, when they visited, used to take advantage of the excellent dentists to have major procedures done at less than half the Australian cost.

The former minister of a church I attended now has a roving ministry, teaching at seminaries around Asia. He bases himself in Kuala Lumpur. He sometimes preaches at the Anglican cathedral there.

Now aged in my sixties, I receive occasional newsletters aimed at retirees. Go and live in Malaysia, they sometimes urge. Enjoy an Aussie lifestyle at half the cost of Australia.

So it is hard for me to envisage Malaysia as a country where Christians experience moderate persecution. And certainly not on the scale of, say, the Central African Republic, China or Algeria, all of which Open Doors ranks similarly to Malaysia.

Indeed, even Open Doors concedes, “Malaysia is still known as probably the best role model of a liberal and tolerant Islamic country in the world.” But then it adds ominously that “this image is increasingly fading, especially given incidents that have occurred over the past year.”

What incidents? “One example of this is the effort to introduce Sharia penal law (hudud) in the federal state of Kelantan. Its implementation requires amendments to the federal law, so the introduction is still pending, but it clearly shows an increasing Islamic conservatism.”

So even in “liberal and tolerant” Malaysia we witness the spreading tentacles of radical Islamism. We have seen this already in neighboring Indonesia, where an aggressive fundamentalist movement increasingly pressures the authorities to place restrictions on Christian worship, with dire results.

Violence is one of the tactics that is used, and so it is little surprise to find this warning to travellers, on the website of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “Terrorists may be planning attacks in and around Kuala Lumpur. Attacks could be indiscriminate and may target Western interests or locations frequented by Westerners.”

Last year, observing the escalating persecution of Christians in Indonesia I wrote: “This is exactly what Christians in Muslim countries fear – the growing belligerence of a violent and intolerant minority who intimidate the majority into passive silence. If ‘moderate’ Indonesia is unable to stand up to this minority, the outlook for Christians in much of the Muslim world is grim.”

It is nothing less than tragic that we can now see the same trends in liberal and tolerant Malaysia.

“He Knew!” Persecution Eases in Sri Lanka

I read regular commentaries on the persecuted church, but one in particular has stuck in my mind. It is a chilling 2013 article in America’s Baptist Press titled “Sri Lankan churches attacked, closed.”

It detailed an escalating series of attacks on churches by mobs of Buddhist extremists. In many cases local authorities refused help, sometimes even effectively endorsing the violence. According to the report, some people had become afraid of stepping foot in church.

But it was something else that caught my attention and has remained in my memory. For the article said that the attacks and church closings had not hampered the spread of the gospel. It quoted a pastor as follows: “God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!…He opened our minds to a new way of doing ‘church’ last year. Before this even started happening, we were training lay leaders to lead house churches in their homes.”

So as official churches were closing, house churches were starting up, “in someone’s house, a business or even outside under a shade tree.”

One pastor said his church had started meeting in 16 different homes and was growing for the first time in years. Another said his church had separated into eight groups, and these were reproducing and starting new churches.

According to the report: “Those who were once afraid to go to a religious place for fear of a mob or the monks asking questions are not concerned about going to a friend’s home.”

In 2013 Sri Lanka gave the impression that it might become a country like Pakistan is today, with a Christian minority living in fear of the increasing aggression of belligerent extremists from the religious majority. In 2014 Sri Lanka was ranked at No. 29 in the annual Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith.

But then in 2015 it fell sharply to No. 44. And in the 2016 list, released this January, it has dropped out altogether.

Open Doors commented: “A dictatorial president, Mahina Rajapaksa, was unexpectedly defeated in January [2015] elections after appearing confident of victory. He had close ties to two radical Buddhist movements and, since then, both movements have been quiet.

“Churches are still attacked by local communities, but nationally-approved violence seems to be on the decrease, even if it continues to make little difference if Christians complain after an attack.”

I do not know enough about current conditions in Sri Lanka to be able to draw a direct connection between the rise of the house church movement and the decline in persecution. But that pastor’s beautiful comment has remained lodged in my brain: “God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!”

As we witness the dramatic escalation in the persecution of Christians in so many countries we should heed what has happened in Sri Lanka and we should remember that pastor’s words.

God knows! He is in control. That is a message of hope for all Christians.

India – Fears of Worsening Tensions

One of the sadder entries in the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List – of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith – is that of India, which has risen into the top 20 for the very first time. It is at No. 17, compared to No. 21 in 2015 and No. 28 in the previous year.

My parents were old-fashioned Socialists, and I grew up in a household in which India was viewed as a diversely multicultural and enlightened democracy, a country that pointed the way to a bright (and Socialist) future of harmony for the entire world. Our family revered leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

We were not religious, but it even seemed to us – wrongly, it must be noted – that India was a wonderful melting pot where people of many faiths could live happily and peacefully together.

Indeed, Ghandi himself was greatly influenced by Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, which he once said, “went straight to my heart.” Though, when asked why he did not himself become a follower of the Christ whom he so much loved, he famously replied: “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

As for Nehru, he once told the Indian Parliament: “Christianity is as old in India as Christianity itself. Christianity found its roots in India before it went to countries like England, Portugal and Spain. Christianity is as much a religion of the Indian soil as any other religion in India.”

The atmosphere has changed dramatically in the ensuing decades. A new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was elected to power in 2014. He is a staunch Hindu nationalist, and has been accused of turning a blind eye to radical Hindu groups as they persecute Indians of other faiths.

According to Open Doors:

It has been a year [2015] of deafening silence from its Hindu extremist leader Narendra Modi, as attacks on churches and pastors climbed even higher than in 2014. Mobs can act with impunity, as Hindu extremism is deliberately stoked. Rev. Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India said: “Political Hinduism has arrived and majoritarian persecution has begun….Every week there are three to four incidents of mobs attacking Christians.”

The International Christian Concern organization reports that there have been widespread reports of further attacks on Christians and churches this year, leading to worries that 2016 could be a worse period for India’s Christian community than 2015, which itself was the worst year on record for Christians in India’s independent history.

Such has been the rise in attacks on Christians that at the end of February a group of 34 US congressmen sent a letter to Prime Minister Modi, calling on him to condemn the persecution and to uphold the rule of law.

It is difficult to be optimistic. I fear a grim future for many Indian Christians, of worsening tensions and increased hostility.

But then, I was wrong in my idealistic youth, when I viewed India as a multicultural utopia. I hope and pray I am wrong now.

Please Continue to Pray for North Korea

It is easy nowadays to overlook North Korea. Many Christians who are burdened by the plight of the persecuted church now direct much of their prayer to the Middle East, where the flood of horrific news seems ceaseless. By contrast, so encompassing is the veil of secrecy over North Korea that we hear little about the suffering of Christians there.

Thus, the Open Doors World Watch List for 2016 of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith has performed an important service in once again highlighting the appalling regime of North Korea.

For the 14th straight year North Korea has been listed as the country where it is most dangerous to be a Christian.

According to Open Doors, some 50,000 to 70,000 of an estimated 300,000 North Korean Christians are in prison camps.

It says:

Christianity is not only seen as “opium for the people,” as is normal for all communist states, it is also seen as deeply Western and despicable. Christians try to hide their faith as far as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to labor camps with horrific conditions. Thus, one’s Christian faith usually remains a well-protected secret, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked.

Such is the secrecy that prevails, we learn little about true conditions within the country, and in particular the predicament of Christians.

Occasional items of news sneak out. For example, I recently met a man who actually visited the country a few years ago. It is known that North Korea has a tuberculosis problem. According to the World Health Organization, 5,000 died from the disease in 2014. But this man said medical workers told him the problem is almost certainly significantly worse, with numerous cases that are not officially recorded.

In another glimpse, a Bangkok newspaper reported recently that some 2,000 North Korean refugees were arriving illegally in Thailand each year, and the number seemed set to rise.

Most come via China and Laos and were, according to the report, a “growing dilemma.” The newspaper quoted an immigration official as stating that the Thai government wished to work with the Laotian government to stem the refugee flow.

But these are just snapshots, and otherwise we must assume that conditions remain as dire as has sometimes been reported.

I have a particular concern for North Korea. My wife is Korean, from Seoul. But both her parents are refugees who fled from the North during the Korean War. My wife probably has relatives in North Korea, but she does not know who they are and she has certainly never been able to contact them.

So she prays, for North Korean Christians and for all North Koreans. She feels that is about all she can do. Please join her in prayer. Please do not forget North Korea.

Religious Freedom Tightening in Former Soviet Republics

The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union sparked hopes among Christians for a new era of religious freedom. Sadly, these dreams have been only partially realized.

This has been confirmed in the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most severely persecuted for their faith. Five of the 15 former Soviet republics – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – make the list. Three others – Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus – are just outside the top 50, but are nevertheless characterized by Open Doors as countries with “high” levels of persecution.

Worse, in the 2016 list, two of the biggest jumps from the previous year – showing a sharp deterioration in religious freedom – came from a couple of these nations. Tajikistan rose from No. 45 to No. 31. Azerbaijan went from No. 46 to No. 34.

All of these countries have their own peculiarities, but certainly a unifying factor is the rise of Islamic extremism. It means that many Muslim states that are often thought to practise a more “moderate” form of Islam – and this includes those former Soviet republics where Muslims comprise a majority of the population – are rushing to regulate all religious expression, ostensibly to stall the rise of extremism.

Evangelical Christians, though generally small in number in most of these places, can find themselves a particular target.

Other factors are also at work in some of the countries, including a potent dose of what Open Doors describes as “dictatorial paranoia.”

In addition, we see moves in regions of the Muslim world towards a stronger religious observance among parts of the population. Again, this would seem to be in some measure a response to the rise of Islamic extremism.

A young church friend spent some years with a mission organization in one of the former Soviet republics, working especially with university students.

“When I arrived only a minority of the students observed Muslim rituals like Ramadan,” he told me. “But by the time I left I would guess that a majority were taking part. They would joke about it to me. ‘Fasting is good for my health, so I’m doing it,’ they would say. But it was clear that they felt a lot of pressure on them to become more religious. It happened in a relatively short period of time.”

He also noted that in his years in the country there was a noticeable increase in the number of mosques, with foreign countries often providing the financing.

This is a disturbing trend. The rise of Islamic extremism has been a tragedy for Christians in parts of the Middle East. But increasingly it seems that it has ramifications that extend right throughout the entire Muslim world. This is very much to the detriment of Christians.