The State of the Suffering Church
November 1, 2003 - Nov. 9 is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Millions of Christians around the world suffer daily for their belief in Jesus Christ. The following article describes some of their trials in an effort to encourage Christians to pray for their fellow believers.
by Kristen M. Burke
Imagine that masked men storm into your church one Sunday morning carrying machetes, clubs and torches. They beat your pastor to death because he refuses to stop preaching the Gospel. Then, as the congregation flees in terror, the assailants burn your church to the ground. And the incident doesn't even make it onto the local newscast.
Sound like an unlikely story?
It's not. Around the world, this scene has been replayed often, although one rarely hears about it. Under such brutal circumstances it seems as if it would take a miracle for the Church of Christ to survive—much less grow.
All Who Live Godly Lives
Your life might not be in danger as a Christian, but according to the Bible, everyone who lives a godly life will face some sort of persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).
Patrick Johnstone is co-author of "Operation World," a prayer guide for the nations, peoples and cities of the world. He spoke recently with "Decision" about the challenges that the Church faces.
"In the Western world, we see how Christians are constantly maligned and marginalized," Johnstone said. "Media often try to portray Christians in a very negative way, and that is a form of persecution."
The persecution of Christians in Western society will only worsen as the idea of absolute tolerance is promoted over absolute truth, Johnstone added.
In some parts of Europe this is already true. The governments of Belgium and France, without consulting church leaders, compiled "cult lists" of groups considered a threat to the public. Four Assemblies of God volunteer workers were deported from Belgium in 2002 because the denomination was on Belgium's cult list. Eventually, the denomination was forced to move its ministry to Spain.
Groups included on a cult list are vulnerable to seizure of their assets and denial of building permits and tax-exempt status. Johnstone said that other governments have used the French and Belgian laws as precedents for establishing their own laws against religious activity.
However, according to Johnstone, Christians around the world face much harsher persecution from communism and from adherents of other major religions. These ideologies, Johnstone said, cannot tolerate rivals and are the cause of much of the persecution in the world.
During Billy Graham's 1984 visit to the Soviet Union, Mr. Graham asserted that religious believers were some of the U.S.S.R.'s best citizens. They were not known for alcoholism, absenteeism or theft—problems that plagued the country at the time. However, it was estimated that 200,000 Christians were martyred and a further 500,000 imprisoned during communist rule.
Today, in parts of Asia, communist governments still work to eliminate or control Christian activity. Often these governments equate Christianity with political and economic systems such as democracy and capitalism. Leaders fear that Christians will try to overthrow the government or that Christians are agents of Western governments, said one Christian who works closely with Asian churches.
In some countries, meeting together, witnessing and reading the Bible are offenses punishable by death. And yet, almost without exception, the Church has grown wherever governments have persecuted Christians.
In some countries, religion is a more threatening force than political ideology. Religious extremists and religious governments sometimes consider Christians to be second-class citizens, Johnstone said. Some believe that it is their religious duty to kill Christians.
Johnstone's research shows that the evangelical church in Sri Lanka grew from 50,000 to 240,000 people during the past 20 years. In response, Buddhist extremists are persecuting Christians and trying to create laws that prevent Christian activity, according to K.P. Yohannan, president of the mission organization Gospel for Asia (GFA). "Almost every month we have information of some persecution, of [a pastor being] beaten up," he said.
In parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, "sharia," or Islamic, law rules the land. Converting from Islam to Christianity may bring immediate death. And in countries where the government does not persecute Christians, extremists sometimes take matters into their own hands.
In 1999, Muslim militants in Indonesia's Molucca Islands attacked Christian villages, burning homes and churches, killing thousands of people and forcing thousands more to leave their homes.
Why does the Church survive—and often flourish—during times of suffering?
The peace and forgiveness that Christians demonstrate during persecution, Yohannan says, often makes an impact on their oppressors. This has proven to be true since the earliest days of the Church. And God still preserves His Church in the worst circumstances.
Ethiopia is one of the best examples of how God used the Church during persecution. In 1974, communist revolutionaries overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie and installed a Marxist government that was violently hostile to Christians.
Entire congregations were jailed, church buildings were closed and Bibles became scarce. Christians lost their jobs; some lost their lives. Still, nearly every Christian group in Ethiopia grew, Johnstone says. New churches were planted. Even people loyal to the communist government were drawn to the Church.
Ethiopian Christians credit the years of suffering and imprisonment with teaching them how to pray and study. The Church was unified, and this unity paved the way for the Christian community to double after the fall of the communist government in 1991.
Today, hundreds of missionaries from Ethiopia are preaching the Gospel of Christ in Africa and Asia. Bible schools in Addis Ababa, the capital city, offer theological training to Christians from many denominations.
In many Asian countries, believers suffer severe persecution from religious fundamentalists, but thousands are coming to Christ. In Sri Lanka, where pastors and churches have been attacked, the Church is still growing. GFA has planted 185 churches in the past six years, and other ministries have seen similar results.
From the early 1960s to 1992, Fidel Castro's communist government greatly restricted Christians in Cuba, according to a 2002 U.S. Department of State report. But the Church emerged with strong leadership and dedicated members when Castro eased restrictions in 1992.
Churches grew rapidly, but they could not build new buildings or improve existing buildings without a permit. This is a lengthy and expensive process, and many churches outgrew their facilities.
Believers began to meet in home cell groups, and the growth continued. The Department of State estimates that Protestant churches now have 500,000 members. "Operation World" reports that the government recently has allowed public evangelical rallies, and one rally attracted 100,000 people—including Castro himself. And Castro's own son is now reportedly a believer active in the Methodist Church.
Who can say that God doesn't work miracles?