360+ million Christians share our faith—but not our freedom

July 4, 2022 by Lindy Lowry in Stories of Persecution

Mina Khajavi, 59, Joseph Shahbazian, 58, and Malihe Nazari, 48, are three of the most recent Christians (that we know about)) sentenced to prison for attending and organizing house churches in Iran.

 

They have been sentenced to a combined total of 22 years in prison for practicing their Christian faith. The three were among at least 35 Christians arrested or interrogated by intelligence agents in a two-day sting operation across three cities in the summer of 2020.

 

 

Around the world, more than 360 million Christians like Mina, Joseph and Malihe share our faith in Christ—with no freedom to worship Him.

Because they have a different faith

In places like Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea, North Korea, China, Southeast Asia, Nigeria and many more, Christians around the world are either wrongfully imprisoned for their faith in God or must live as Christians in the face of extreme persecution. n countries where it’s illegal to be a Christian, persecution comes from the state. In other countries, like India, persecution comes from the culture itself–from community members, friends, and even family.

Afghanistan—the No. 1 most dangerous place for Christians

As an Islamic state by constitution, the country does not permit any faith other than Islam to exist. Simply put—it is illegal to convert. Converting to a faith outside Islam is equal to treason; it’s seen as a betrayal of family, tribe, and country.

It is impossible to live openly as a Christian in Afghanistan. If a Christian’s new faith is discovered, their family, clan or tribe feels they must save their own honor by disowning the believer, or even killing them; this is widely considered justice. Alternatively, since leaving Islam is considered a sign of insanity, a Christian who has converted from Islam may be forcibly admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Christian persecution remains extreme in all spheres of public and private life. The risk of discovery has increased since the Taliban controls every aspect of government. This extends to owning documentation—including paperwork from international troops—that may help identify Christians.

However, through it all, faith of Afghan believers continues to deepen as they put their hope solely in Christ. One Christian said, “We will never let that hope be silenced.”

North Korea—persecution reports increasing

North Korea has been at (or near) the top of the World Watch List for more than 20 years; any North Korean caught following Jesus is at immediate risk of imprisonment, brutal torture, and/or death. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are imprisoned in North Korea’s notorious system of prison and labor camps. To make matters worse, often a family will sometimes share the same fate as the person captured.

This year, we’ve received reports of Christians being executed on the spot during worship and their families sentenced to prison, as well as accounts of Christians who have gone missing or caught at the Chinese border.

The government (ruled by the Kim family) views Christians as the most dangerous political class of people, so the persecution is violent and intense. North Korean parents often hide their faith from their children, churches of more than a few people are non-existent, and most worship is done as secretly as possible. Life for Christians in North Korea is a constant cauldron of pressure; capture or death is only a mistake away.

Where believers are known to authorities for past “crimes,” like possessing a Bible, they are seen as the lowest rung of society and neglected for whatever meager food aid is available. North Korea continues to be extremely dangerous for followers of Jesus, and it’s not likely to change until the Kim regime is toppled.

Eritrea—Africa’s North Korea

Despite almost half the population identifying as Christian, believers in Eritrea continue to suffer extreme persecution, making it still one of the hardest places in the world to follow Jesus.

The government recognizes only three Christian denominations: Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran. Those not part of these groups are at risk of severe persecution at the hands of the state. Gatherings are raided and believers arrested. The conditions facing Christians in prison can be inhumane. Some pastors have been incarcerated for over a decade and have faced solitary confinement. There are possibly more than 1,000 Christians imprisoned in Eritrea, with none formally charged. While some are released, many are moved to military service—which is no freedom at all—or house arrest. The ongoing detention of Christians shows the government has no intention of relaxing its repressive policies.

Christians not recognized by the state are especially vulnerable to the everyday surveillance imposed by the state, with phone calls monitored, bandwidth kept slow, and a network of citizens tasked with spying on their neighbors. This intrusive level of monitoring has led to Eritrea holding the infamous title of “Africa’s North Korea” (The Economist, Aug. 14, 2018).

Somalia—harassment, intimidation and murder

For more than 25 years, Somalia has been a haven for Islamic militants who constantly target Christians, both in Somalia and in neighboring countries. Groups like al-Shabab operate with seemingly little pushback and control large parts of Somali territory. The small number of believers in Somalia are largely Christians who have converted from Islam. Christians are viewed as high-value targets by al-Shabab.

Even when Christian converts are not targeted by Islamic extremists, they are intensely pressured by their family. Any conversion from Islam is seen as a betrayal to family and community, so just suspicion of conversion can lead to harassment, intimidation, and even murder. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, al-Shabab continued to be active in 2021, a reminder that life for Christians in Somalia is never safe.

While no part of Somalia is safe, the areas under control of al-Shabab are the most dangerous for Christians. But all Christians who have converted from Islam are in grave danger—from their family, their community and society at large.

Nigeria—A powder keg of persecution

Persecution in Nigeria is brutally violent. In much of northern Nigeria, Christians live their lives under the constant threat of attack from Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), Fulani militants and criminals who kidnap and murder with few consequences. But the violence is spreading. Recently, in south Nigeria, 40 worshippers were killed in an attack on a church service in Owo; two more church attacks followed a week later.

While all citizens of northern Nigeria are subject to threats and violence, Christians are often specifically targeted because of their faith—ISWAP and Boko Haram want to eliminate the Christian presence in Nigeria, and Muslim Fulani militants attack Christian villages specifically. In addition to violent risk, Christians in some of Nigeria’s northern states also live under Shariah law, where they face discrimination and treatment as second-class citizens. Christians who convert from Islam also face rejection from their families and are often pressured to recant their faith in Jesus; sometimes, they are even violently attacked.

Because of the violence, thousands of Christians are forced to live in formal or informal camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). This situation contributes to the vulnerability, because people who have lost their home or loved ones are now effectively refugees within their own country. Women and girls tend to have higher levels of vulnerability, and anyone who converts from Islam to Christianity is likely most vulnerable of all.

India—a systematic targeting of Christians

The persecution of believers in India is intensifying as Hindu extremists aim to cleanse the country of Christian presence and influence. The driving force behind this is Hindutva, an ideology that disregards Indian Christians and other religious minorities as true Indians because they have allegiances that lie outside India. This is leading to a systemic, and often violent and carefully orchestrated, targeting of Christians and other religious minorities, including use of social media to spread disinformation and stir up hatred.

The COVID-19 pandemic has offered a new weapon to persecutors. In some areas, Christians have been deliberately overlooked in the local distribution of government aid and have even been accused of spreading the virus.

Amidst increasing persecution, the faith and resolve of believers continues to strengthen. One Christian said, “The Bible warns us we will face persecution, so we are prepared for any situation.”

Praying with the persecuted

Hebrews 13:3 gives a visceral exhortation to pray for the persecuted: “Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

Please remember the millions of people around the world who are not free to worship. In your prayer time this week, ask God to grant the following to our brothers and sisters behind bars and those who live in constant threat of persecution for their belief and trust in Jesus.

Peace. In the chaos and brutality of prison and persecution, Christians need God’s transcendent peace. Ask the Lord to give His children “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).

Endurance. Ask God to give Christians the endurance they need to keep praying and witnessing to others. Pray especially for those in prison. Time there is often exhausting, and it’s easy to give in to despair. Pray that the Holy Spirit would give prisoners strength to carry on.

Forgiveness. Christians persecuted for their faith are often abused, tortured, starved and mistreated. Pray that God would give them heavenly eyes to see their captors as humans in need of God’s love. Ask God to give believers, especially those in prison, supernatural capacity for forgiveness.

Boldness. Ask God to give Christians boldness to share the gospel and for prisoners, the courage to find ways to witness to their neighbors and cellmates. Even the smallest acts can lead others to Christ, especially when they know they need something to cling to. Pray that God would grant Christians words to speak and show them deeds to do.

Liberation. Pray that God would break the chains of prisoners and those who aren’t free to practice and share their faith without threat. Ask Him for justice for His children–that their churches and Bible could be freely opened, that the cases of prisoners would be resolved, charges dismissed, cell doors opened, and hearts set free.

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