(With thanks to Open Doors USA and Barnabas Aid for the resources which contributed to this sermon.)
Persecution on the basis of religion has been happening for millennia. A current example is the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar who are being attacked by the army there because they are not Buddhists but mostly Muslim, with some Christians among them. It has been calculated that 75% of the world’s population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions.
While acknowledging that persecution happens to people of all religions, today we are concentrating specifically on Christians who suffer in this way. Christians in 60 countries face persecution from their governments or from those who live around them. The organisation Open Doors ranks the top 50 countries in terms of persecution every year in its World Watch List. (You can get more information on this here: http://www.opendoorsusa.org/WWL). In recent years persecution has increased and spread to new areas. The increase is particularly noticed in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.
250 million Christians face persecution on a regular basis. Every month 322 Christians are killed for their faith; 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed; 772 acts of violence are committed against Christians.
Some of the persecution takes the form of extreme violence against Christians. For instance, in May this year a group of Christians in Egypt was on a church outing for the children. As they travelled on a remote road they were ambushed by Islamist gunmen. The gunmen asked the Christians to recite the Islamic creed, which would be an act of conversion to Islam in their eyes. When the children were asked to do this they recited the Lord’s Prayer together. The gunmen opened fire, leaving 29 dead, including some of the children.
Not all persecution is quite as obvious as that example, but it nevertheless has a huge impact on believers. They may lose their jobs, find that their children are bullied at school, or find they are rejected by family, friends and neighbours because of their faith. In Myanmar the Buddhist schools offer free education and boarding to children of poor families. Christian children whose families accept this offer are not allowed to attend church, they must practise or at least learn about Buddhism and they must become initiated as a Buddhist monk or nun. Two Christian girls in travelling between Amman and Aqaba in Jordan were forced off a bus because they were eating during the day in Ramadan. A Muslim passenger complained about them. When the bus stopped and they got off they were met by police. This despite the fact that even Muslims are allowed to eat during Ramadan when they are travelling.
None of this should surprise us of course. As Jesus said to his disciples in our passage from John’s Gospel: ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.’ St Paul was one of the early believers who faced the promised persecution: ‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’ We can allow ourselves to become fearful when we read the stories of what happens to Christians around the world or we can be inspired by their stories.
So many could save themselves if they would but deny their faith. Instead they count themselves blessed to be suffering for the Lord they love so much. Helen Berhane was arrested for sharing her faith in her home country of Eritrea. She spent almost three years in prison, much of this time in a metal shipping container. Because she would not deny her faith or stop sharing her faith, she was beaten so severely she could not walk. After her release, she wrote this in her memoirs: “Sometimes I cannot believe that this is my life – these four metal walls, all of us corralled like cattle, the pain, the hunger, the fear. All because of my belief in a God who is risen, who charges me to share my faith with these who do not yet know Him. A God whom I am forbidden to worship. I think back to a question I have been asked many times over my months in prison: ‘Is your faith worth this, Helen?’ As the guards continue their rounds, I whisper the answer: ‘Yes.’”
Stories such as Helen’s can motivate us in our own faith. If these people risk their safety and very lives for their faith, perhaps we can take more risks also. Perhaps we can be more open with our neighbours about our faith, both here in SL and in our offline world. As Christmas draws near, perhaps we could ask a friend to join us at a carol service, a Christingle, or some other event that might set them thinking about faith. Perhaps we can show those around us the difference our faith makes by facing the challenges of life with joy, grace and hope. If our persecuted brothers and sisters can proclaim that Jesus is Lord through how they live, how much more should we do it in our very free countries.
It’s too easy to take a different approach and simply decide that what is happening to other Christians in far off countries is nothing to do with us. That’s not how God sees things. We are all members of the one body, the church. If you stubbed your toe, your brain would know about it and your mouth would probably shout about it. Likewise, God expects that when another Christian suffers we should feel the pain and react.
It’s too easy to feel unable to make any difference to suffering believers. What can we possibly do to help them? This story gives us some insight: “As a pastor’s son growing up in Iran, I got used to the fact that sometimes my dad would be gone for a day or two for interrogation,” Andre said. “But then on that dreadful day in January ’94, my father left the house and never came back.” His father’s death allowed Andre to see the Body of Christ in a new light. “It meant a lot to me that someone I didn’t know from another country was praying for me and was caring for me….I have learned we are one big family in Christ – and I think that was the number one thing that gave us courage and helped us heal.”
Prayer is something that persecuted believers long to receive from us. They help to combat the sense of isolation many feel when they are not allowed to spend time with other believers. They give encouragement and strength through that sense of being part of a worldwide body. That is why it’s important to mark this day once a year and to hold persecuted Christians in our prayers regularly through the year.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor