Persecution and Prayer

This All Saints’ Sunday Christians around the world are being urged to pause and pray for their sisters and brothers in Christ who face persecution. Let me encourage my readers to join in, but to pray still more widely for all those who suffer persecution because of religious faith — and for those who persecute them.

While organizations like Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors, and Aid to the Church in Need and scholars like Todd Johnson and the late David Barrett of Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity have long worked to draw attention to the persecution of Christians around the world (see also Charles Tieszen’s article in the September 2013 issue of The Lausanne Analysis), the phenomenon has started to attract broader attention as it has intensified in recent years.

Orthodox Church in Hama, Syria
Greek Orthodox Church in Hama, Syria – Wikimedia

Just last month Germany’s Die Welt reported on the plight of Christians in Syria, some 100,000 of whom have fled during the ongoing civil war, part of an “exodus of Christians” from the part of the world that was “the heart of ancient Christianity.” (H/T John Turner, who summarized the German-language article in a post entitled “The Issue of our Day.” His Anxious Benchmate Philip Jenkins has been warning of the eradication of Christian communities in the Middle East for several years now.) In September the Muslim scholar Reza Aslan likewise spotlighted the maltreatment of Christians in Syria, warning that “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a regional religious cleansing that will soon prove to be a historic disaster for Christians and Muslims alike.”

Several months before Aslan’s piece on Syria, Foreign Affairs also observed the growing persecution of Christians as one of many problems in the Punjab. Also in 2013, the New York Times reported on violence against Christians in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, and Burma. In 2012 it printed multiple wire service reports about anti-Christian attacks in northern Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, and Mali were among the offenders flagged by the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, at least in part on the basis of how Christian individuals and groups were restricted or abused.

Few have been more impassioned in their reportage than National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John Allen, who cried out last month that “the global war on Christians remains the greatest story never told of the early 21st century… The carnage is occurring on such a vast scale that it represents not only the most dramatic Christian story of our time, but arguably the premier human rights challenge of this era as well.” That from a piece in The Spectator; he expands on its themes in his new book, The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Line of Anti-Christian Persecution.

Allen, Global War on ChristiansAllen’s work has prompted strong criticism from scholars like Andrew Chesnut, who warns that “Allen has not only done a disservice to Christians around the globe suffering real repression and persecution but has dangerously fanned the flames of religious conflict by calling upon Christians to resist a fictitious war that exists only on the pages of his book and in the questionable data of certain Christian organizations.”

As Darren Carlson pointed out recently at The Gospel Coalition blog, part of the problem is that we often conflate categories like suffering, marginalization, and martyrdom when we talk about persecution. Moreover, the solution is rarely clear — as the case of Syria makes abundantly clear.

Though prayer, he agrees, is a good start.

But on this International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church, I hope Christians also pray for those non-Christians — e.g., Muslims in Burma, Baha’i in Iran, and Hoa Hao Buddhists in Vietnam — who suffer persecution as a result of their faith. (Pray for the Muslims as much at risk from Islamist groups like Boko Haram as Christians.) As Baptist ethicist Russell Moore recently said, Christians (especially evangelicals) need to avoid the posture of “maintaining our own rights without diligently fighting for religious liberty for all persons.”

Jobbik Rally in Budapest, May 2013
Jobbik rally this past May, protesting the meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest – Creative Commons (Michael Thaidigsmann)

Harder, and more important still… Pray for those being persecuted by Christians. Pray for the Jewish population of Hungary, where the third largest political party is Jobbik, a self-described “radically patriotic Christian party” whose anti-Semitic, anti-Roma rhetoric has made it a significant enough player that the current prime minister has coopted many of its policies. Pray for religious minorities in Russia, where a government closely aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church has — in the judgment of the State Department — is failing to protect the religious liberty of groups as diverse as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Scientologists, and the Falun Gong.

And finally, pray for the persecutors. As much as we are to “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Heb 13:3), so too are we to “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28). Pray, perhaps, with the words of this collect from the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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