Christian persecution is any hostility experienced from the world as a result of one's identification as a Christian. From verbal harassment to hostile feelings, attitudes and actions, Christians in areas with severe religious restrictions pay a heavy price for their faith. Beatings, physical torture, confinement, isolation, rape, severe punishment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment, and even death are just a few examples of the persecution they experience on a daily basis.
According to The Pew Research Center, over 75% of the world's population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions (and many of these people are Christians). Also, according to the United States Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ.
The World Watch List ranks the top 50 countries where Christians face the greatest persecution. See what life is like for persecuted Christians in each of these countries.
There are numerous reasons why Christians are persecuted. In some countries, severe abuse of Christians takes place under authoritarian governments. In the case of North Korea and other communist countries, authoritarian governments seek to control all religious thought and expression as part of a comprehensive plan to control all aspects of political and civic life. These governments regard some religious groups as enemies of the state because they hold religious beliefs that may challenge loyalty to the rulers.
Another reason why Christians are persecuted is hostility towards nontraditional and minority religious groups. For example, in Niger, more than 98 percent of the population is Islamic, and hostility comes more from society than from the government. Historically, Islam in West Africa has been moderate, but in the last 20 years, dozens of Islamic associations have emerged, like the Izala movement, which aims to restrict the freedom of 'deviant Muslims' and minority religious groups like Christians.
The lack of basic human rights is another significant part of persecution in some countries. For instance, in Eritrea, there are violations of the freedom of expression, assembly, and religious belief and movement, in addition to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, extended detention, torture, and indefinite national service, which cause many Eritreans to flee the country.
Freedom of religion, like all freedoms of thought and expression, is inherent. Our beliefs help define who we are and serve as a foundation for what we contribute to our societies. However, today, many people live under governments that abuse or restrict freedom of religion. Christians in such areas suffer deeply, and are denied basic freedoms that humans should be entitled to.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration came as a result of the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany. The document states that every person is entitled to basic human rights. This reaffirmed the dignity and worth of all human beings no matter what a person's race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. In 1966, the United Nations developed the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of the ICCPR focuses on four elements of religious freedom:
The Bible calls us to be a voice for the voiceless. Psalm 82:3 says, "Stand up for those who are weak and for those whose fathers have died. See to it that those who are poor and those who are beaten down are treated fairly."
As Christians, we are called to take a stand for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. Hebrews 13:3 says, "Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." Learn more about how you can help persecuted Christians.
Matthew 5:10-12 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
For almost 60 years, Open Doors has worked in the world's most oppressive countries, empowering Christians who are persecuted for their beliefs. These believers stand strong, despite the many obstacles that they face. What are some of the things that we can we learn from their faith?
There is something about hardship that allows us to know God deeply. When times get really tough, we discover more about who God is and how He works. Christians who have endured persecution for their faith, know this well.
There are no easy answers for why God allows his followers to face suffering. However, the lives of persecuted Christians reveal that even when things look out of control believers can rest secure, knowing that God is still in control. He is able to give courage, peace and even joy to stand strong through the storm. It is through these storms that believers discover God's love in new and powerful ways.
Standing Strong Through The Storm is the curriculum that Open Doors uses to help Christians stand strong in the face of persecution. There are six theological and biblical lessons from this curriculum:
Sometimes you need to build yourself a cell
Be still, and know that I am God—Psalms 46:10
One Chinese church leader, who spent 23 years in prison, once said this to Christians who did not face persecution:
"I was pushed into a cell, but you have to push yourself into one. You have no time to know God. You need to build yourself a cell, so you can do for yourself what persecution did for me—simplify your life and know God."
It is vital that we spend time with God, to grow in Him, so we are prepared to stand strong in the face of persecution.
God keeps secrets
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts—Isaiah 55:8-9
There have been countless stories of persecuted Christians who have died without seeing the fruits of their labor. However, God knows all that has been and all that is to come. Our labor is not in vain, it is in His hands.
Weakness is a direct path to power
That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong—2 Corinthians 12:10
An Egyptian Christian reflected on the way he was treated when he converted to Christ:
"In great suffering you discover a different Jesus than you do in normal life… Pain and suffering bring up to the surface all the weak points of your personality. In my weakest state, I had an incredible realization that Jesus loved me even right then."
True empowerment does not come from human means, but through Christ alone. It often takes being at our weakest point to realize this.
Overcoming is greater than deliverance
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. —Romans 12:21
Persecuted Christians, no matter what country they are from, do not ask us to pray that persecution would end, but rather ask us to pray that they stand strong through the persecution. They do not wish to be delivered from the persecution, but rather ask us to pray that they would be able to overcome the trials that they are facing in a way that is honoring to God.
Extreme hurt requires extreme forgiveness
And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And they cast lots to divide his garments—Luke 23:34
A Christian widow from Iran said:
"I only had hatred in my heart for my enemies who had murdered my husband. But one day a miracle happened. God taught me how I could love my enemies… I had been praying for this, even though on the deepest level I didn't want it to happen. Gradually, through a process of ups and downs, God answered this prayer."
The only way we can get through extreme hurt is by forgiving people as Christ did.
Prayer is the ultimate fellowship
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering—Hebrews 13:3
Many persecuted Christians often feel isolated and alone, since they are unable to fellowship with other believers. However, prayers from Christians half a world away have brought the same amount of encouragement that fellowship would have for these persecuted Christians. Prayer is vital—not only as a direct line to God, but as a way to encourage our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.
1 Corinthians 12:26 tells us that we are one body—when one member suffers, we all suffer. When one member is lifted up, we all rejoice. Persecuted Christians and Christians in the free world are not two separate entities, but rather are one body. The persecuted church needs the free church to support them and most importantly to lift them up in prayer. The church in the free world learns lessons from the persecuted who have stood strong in the face of persecution. Christ is the head of the body and uses the church (both free and persecuted) in unique and powerful ways.