Asia Bibi is a forty year old mother of two. She has been in prison in Pakistan since 2009. Her only crime was telling her coworkers about Jesus. For this she was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death. Although she remains alive up til now, one of her jailers recently tried to strangle her, and an Islamic cleric has offered a reward of $8000 to anyone who kills her. Her husband and two daughters miss her terribly. She is allowed to see them once per week for an hour. In a recent interview, Asia Bibi stated that she spends her time fasting and praying and has forgiven her accusers.
In March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister of Minorities and the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, was assassinated. Prior to his assassination, he had been working for a softening of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which mandate the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. The Taliban claimed responsibility for his death, stating that it was his punishment for blasphemy.
Youcef Nadarkhani is a thirty four year old father of two. He is the leader of a network of house churches in Iran. He was imprisoned in 2006, released for a time because of international pressure, and then imprisoned again in 2009. Raised a Muslim, originally he was charged with apostasy for renouncing Islam. As Iran’s constitution officially guarantees freedom of religion, and does not support a sentence of death for conversion, the charges against him were later changed to rape and extortion – allegations that both he and his church members strenuously deny.
On several occasions Pastor Nadarkhani has been offered release if he will recant his conversion to Christianity, or declare that Muhammad was a prophet sent by God. He has consistently refused to make any such confession. Reportedly, Iranian government officials, who want Iran to be a monolithic Islamic republic, are quite concerned about the spread of Christianity in their country through the house church movement.
Kim Sung Min, a former propaganda officer for the North Korean Army, is now fighting for the freedom and faith of his home country. According to the Voice of the Martyrs, “once a diehard socialist, Mr. Kim became disillusioned when he saw the lack of freedom and opportunity in North Korea while serving in the military. After defecting, being arrested and escaping again, Mr. Kim began spreading a new message of hope and liberty”. He is now part of a team that broadcasts messages of freedom in Christ into North Korea.
Recently, Al-Shabaab, an Islamic terrorist group based in Somalia, sent a letter to Christian missionary groups operating out of Kenya that were working among Somali refugees. The letter warned missionaries to stop infecting Somalis with what it termed “the cancer of Christianity” and threatened to attack and kill them.
These are just a few of thousands of cases of Christians who have been imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for their faith. While some of this persecution is at the hands of radical Hindus in India, or Communist governments in North Korea, Vietnam and China, by far the majority of cases of persecution are at the hands of Islamic governments or mobs. But all persecution, whether at the hands of radical Hindus, Communists, or Islamists, can be taken as a sign that the oppressors fear the spread of the gospel because it represents a power that they cannot control.
Satan is the source of the rage that fuels these attacks. He hates the spread of the gospel in totalitarian regimes because it is a sign of his impending doom. He knows that the Lord will not return until the gospel of the Kingdom has been proclaimed to every people group on earth, and the Bride of Christ is prepared for her husband.
In 2003, two Chinese house church leaders were asked what the church would be like without persecution. They responded that it wouldn’t grow. They said they saw persecution as a gift from God to the church, to bring about the purification of our faith. So, ironically, the very persecution that Satan incites in his rage and fury is turned by God into an instrument to bring Jesus’ bride to glory. This has been happening for a long time. During the days of the Roman Empire (AD 197), Tertullian famously wrote in his work Apologeticus “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. But even though these periodic storms of hostility against believers are nothing new, we can expect them to become more frequent and more intense as Jesus’ return draws near.
This is not the kind of talk that tends to make Western Christians comfortable. We like our freedom, our prosperity, and the relative peace and safety of Western societies. While it is undoubtedly true that freedom, prosperity and peace are great blessings, they can also tend to make us forget our dependency on God.
There is a wonderful chapter in the letter to the Hebrews that recounts stories of some of the martyrs and heroes of faith among the people of Israel. Towards the end of the chapter, the author describes these heroes as people of whom the world was not worthy. I feel the same way when I read stories about believers who are suffering torture, imprisonment and separation from their families for the sake of the gospel. What especially moves me is the testimony of the love that Jesus frequently deposits in the hearts of these suffering ones towards their captors. It makes me want to pray for them. And when I pray, although I do ask God for their deliverance, I ask Him even more passionately to grant them a revelation of His glorious presence with them in their suffering. We are told in the book of Daniel that when the three young men were in the fiery furnace in ancient Babylon, the king saw a fourth man with them. I believe the fourth man was Jesus who had revealed himself at their time of need. We are told in the book of Acts that when Stephen was being stoned, he looked up and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, ready to receive him. My prayer is that those who suffer for their faith in our times will have a similar experience, and that if they have to die, their blood will be the seed of the church as Tertullian prophesied long ago.
We are sometimes tempted to feel helpless, hopeless and fearful when we hear stories of persecution. The best antidote for such gloomy feelings is prayer. All of us who believe in Jesus can pray for our brothers and sisters in prison. We can also write simple letters of encouragement to them. Such letters and prayers may seem like weak tools, but that is because we do not think the way God thinks. Words of encouragement are powerful. Prayers are even more powerful. They have power not only to bless others but also to change us. If you want to know more about what you can do to stand with persecuted believers world-wide, the following links would be a great place to start. God bless you.