The Freedom to Worship Jesus
Recently I returned from a trip to the Horn of Africa to meet with persecuted Christians in Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Followers of Jesus in these countries routinely face attacks from Islamic militants, government officials and even family members. One woman I met had been jailed three separate times – for a total of eight years – and yet continues to host church for small groups inside her home. She used her time in prison as an opportunity to witness and spread the gospel, and her incredible strength of character to protect the women with her in the cells from the guards. Despite her circumstances, her love of Jesus and Scripture have only increased. I left meeting with her inspired and energized.
In a startling number of countries, the freedom to worship Jesus, gather in churches and peacefully practice one’s faith is under assault.
In a startling number of countries, the freedom to worship Jesus, gather in churches and peacefully practice one’s faith is under assault. Research compiled for the 2022 World Watch List by Open Doors USA, the organization I lead, reveals disturbing trends. Pressure by governments, cultural oppression, and persecution within the family unit are higher now than at any point in the modern era. An average of 13 Christians are murdered for their faith every day, and more than 360 million Christians currently live in places where they experience high levels of persecution and discrimination, just for following Jesus.
For Christian leaders in the West, it is sometimes difficult to fully grasp the depth of religious oppression that our brothers and sisters regularly endure in countries like China, North Korea and Nigeria. But we should not let that deter us from standing firmly for the freedom of all believers to practice their faith. Here are some trends and tactics which can help the persecuted church around the world sustain and grow under oppression and danger:
Smaller Groups, More Leaders
With China’s ongoing crackdowns on churches, the country’s once-blossoming megachurch movement has been fractured into pieces. Congregations that were once 5,000 believers strong are no longer able to gather. In response to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the church divided itself into groups of 500. Then the CCP divided those gatherings even further, into ever smaller groups. The government even monitors small groups or individual believers who meet or connect online, especially if it senses the church is gaining momentum or citizens have too much religious freedom. Recently, a long-standing Christian website was shut down by the CCP as part of their ongoing efforts to wipe out Christianity. Churches or religious groups are now required to obtain permits to host online worship services, and live broadcasts of religious ceremonies are banned.
This pattern of targeted and systemic repression is frustrating, but it is also creating opportunities within the church for a new wave of leaders to help guide these smaller groups. Parents, too, are being shown that they must take a larger role in raising their children in Christ, no matter the risks. In North Korea, it is expected that Christians must hide their faith, even from their children. When caught, the families of believers also suffer. Recently, several dozen Christians gathered for a secret worship meeting before guards arrested and executed all of them. Their families – exceeding more than 100 people – were also arrested and sent to political prison where conditions are incredibly inhumane. But we know that God uses these attempts at evil and turns them into good, and we pray for parents in North Korea to continue sharing the gospel, no matter the cost.
Centrality of Scripture
The work of Open Doors began more than 60 years ago when “God’s Smugger,” Brother Andrew, put his life on the line and secretly carried Bibles into numerous Communist countries locked behind the Iron Curtain, places like Bulgaria, Poland and Russia. By keeping the Bible central, he reached the persecuted, helping sustain and grow their faith through copies of the Scripture, especially for those who did not have any access to God’s Word.
Persecutors know the power of the Bible and are afraid of it.
Persecutors know the power of the Bible and are afraid of it. In regions like the Middle East and North Africa, one of the first things authoritarian regimes try to restrict is ownership of the Bible, often banning it outright. We are people of The Book, yet even a cursory view of the western Church reveals that charismatic personalities, programming, facilities and media entertainment are now frequently at the forefront of Christianity. Many who are part of the church are easily distracted by the things of this world and have lost sight that the Bible is a central tenet of our faith. We need to pray that the hearts of Christians in the West are turned to the needs of the persecuted church and that our focus is on Jesus and his Word.
Fellowship with Believers
In countries where it is illegal to be a Christian, it is incredibly important that we do not neglect meeting with believers who need our support, even when it is difficult and dangerous. We all too often hear the stories about followers of Jesus who are targeted by terror groups like Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Recently, in Nigeria, the group reportedly detonated an explosive at a Christian-owned market, killing six Christians and wounding more than a dozen others.
Persecution becomes even more personal when it happens at the community and family level. Protestant families in parts of southern Mexico face fines and the threat of losing their water supplies for not participating in certain community festivals. In Uganda, a family was reportedly attacked with acid for leaving Islam and embracing Christianity. Their conversion outraged relatives and local community members who demanded they renounce Jesus. Despite these painful trials, Christians continue to find ways to worship together and to encourage one another.
What persecuted Christians most crave is our prayers, to know they are not alone, and that their brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are supporting them. Brother Andrew often quotes Revelation 3:2 as the rallying cry for his calling to serve the persecuted church: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.” Jesus calls on his believers to embolden the parts of the church that are struggling, and to strengthen ourselves, believers who are free to believe so we can become better advocates for those who share our faith, but not our freedom.
The western church should be inspired and encouraged by the examples of persecuted believers and their unwavering faith. We need to pray for them and speak up on their behalf.
David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which advocates on behalf of those who are persecuted for their Christian faith. Follow on Twitter @OpenDoors. For more than 60 years, Open Doors USA has worked in the world’s most oppressive and restrictive countries for Christians. Open Doors works to equip and encourage Christians living in dangerous circumstances with the threat of persecution and equips the Western church to advocate for the persecuted. Christians are one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world and are oppressed in at least 60 countries. For more information, visit OpenDoorsUSA.org.