While American Christians sit comfortably in their church buildings Sunday after Sunday with no fear of reprisal, their spiritual brothers and sisters in many parts of the world suffer horribly for their faith. Persecution is a way of life for followers of Christ in some countries. For example:
Mehdi Dibaj, Haik Hovespian-Mehr and Tateos Michaelian — Protestant pastors in Muslim-dominated Iran — were murdered by unknown assailants in 1994, according to government authorities. Hovespian-Mehr had led an international campaign to free Dibaj from death row on charges of apostasy for converting from Islam to Christianity decades earlier. Michaelian had replaced Hovespian-Mehr after his death.
Salamat Masih, a 15-year-old Christian, lives in hiding in Germany after fleeing Pakistan. Masih was sentenced to death for apostasy in his predominantly Muslim home country, but his conviction was overturned. He was injured by gunfire in an attack outside the courtroom which killed a fellow Christian defendant. Militant Muslims have offered up to $30,000 for the death of Masih.
To Ding Trung, an evangelist in Vietnam, is serving a three-year prison sentence after being arrested returning from leading a Bible study for ten people. His trial occurred after diplomatic and trade relations between the United States and the communist country were resumed in 1995 following a 20-year break.
Huang Fangxin, 31, is serving three years in a labor camp in communist-controlled China for heading a gospel team which helped lead many Chinese students to Jesus.
Robert Hussein, a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman, who converted to Christianity was sentenced to death earlier this year by an Islamic court for apostasy. Stripped by the court of custody of his children and of his inheritance, Hussein fled to the United States in mid-August.
These examples from In the Lion's Den, a recently published manual by the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House, provide personal stories for an international problem which is sometimes a massive one in Islamic-dominated countries, as well as the few still gripped by communism.
In Sudan, forces from the Islamic government in the northern part of the African country frequently raid villages in the southern part, killing Christian men and capturing women and children to be sold into slavery. More than 25,000 children from the Nuba Mountains region alone have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, according to Christian Solidarity International.
China holds more Christians in prison for their faith than any country in the world. The estimate is in the thousands. The repression of Christians in China is the greatest since the late 1970s, a Freedom House official testified at a congressional hearing earlier this year.
"An American Bible missionary who recently returned from China said that an arrest warrant with the names of 3,000 evangelical preachers is being circulated by the Public Security Bureau," said Nina Shea, in February. Shea is director of Freedom House's religious freedom program.
It is estimated this century has had about 100 million Christian martyrs, more than the previous nineteen centuries combined.
Despite this century-long toll and the increasing level of persecution in recent years, American Christians have remained largely silent. That began to change in late January. Some evangelical Christian participants at a Freedom House-sponsored briefing in Washington left the meeting expressing shock and disgrace.
"I think all of us were driven by some of the comments to repent at our indifference, our lack of concern, our lack of moral outrage over the scandalous silence of the Christian community towards the persecution of Christians worldwide," said Chuck Colson, chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
At the same meeting, the National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement of conscience calling on the United States government to take specific action to curb such persecution, including the appointment by President Clinton of a special advisor on religious liberty.
Other actions followed by evangelicals. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, and others testified in February at the first congressional hearing specifically addressing Christian persecution. Eight evangelical leaders, including Colson, Land and then-SBC President Jim Henry, wrote Clinton in May, apparently helping thwart a White House response which they said would have been "manifestly inadequate." The SBC adopted a resolution at its June meeting calling for prayer by Christians worldwide and urging the President and Congress to protect religious liberty.
On September 29, churches throughout the world observed the first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Christians. The SBC resolution called on Southern Baptists to participate in the observance.
Government leaders have not responded with such conviction. The President has yet to act on calls for the United States to use its power in foreign policy to protect the persecuted. With few exceptions among its members, Congress has demonstrated little desire to tackle the issue head-on.
Yet, for American Christians, 1996 has ushered in a new era in responding to the persecution of believers overseas.
"I am very much encouraged," said Land. "I clearly think this is an issue whose time has come."
A Call to Action
Christian leaders working to combat global persecution suggest two actions to help the suffering: Prayer and persuasion.
Prayer: Christians have a biblical obligation to pray for other members of the body of Christ, for if "one part suffers, every part suffers with it" (1 Cor. 12:26). To pray effectively, churches need to be informed of the suffering of their brothers and sisters.
Persuasion: The United States government can do much through its foreign policy to hold guilty regimes responsible. Urge President Clinton and your representatives in Congress to act to protect the religious freedom of people overseas.
To help with both these responsibilities, In the Lion's Den, a primer on global persecution of Christians, may be ordered through a toll-free call to 1-888-LETS PRAY. A $10 donation is suggested.
"Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are maltreated as if you yourselves were suffering" (Hebrews 13:3).
Tom Strode is Director of News and Information for the Christian Life Commission's Washington Office.