Open Doors estimates there are 215 million persecuted Christians today. To put that in perspective, if you began saying the names of these believers, one by one, and continued for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it would take just over 34 years to read each one.
How many names does it take to get our attention?
Five years ago, the American wife of an imprisoned pastor in Iran called on her fellow Americans to gather at the capital cities of all 50 states to cry out for his freedom. It was a call for both awareness and prayer to believers—and a call out to God for His boundless grace. A group of us had been praying for the pastor and his family since his imprisonment in 2013 and accepted the call to assemble on the steps of the capitol building in Little Rock, Arkansas.
What a reminder of the stark contrast in the life of a believer in the United States and Christians in more than 60 other countries who don’t enjoy our same freedoms! As modern-day Americans who have never had to live in oppression, we’re prone to take our freedom for granted.
This wife’s advocacy for her husband’s freedom was also a wakeup call to all of us to just fall on our face in gratitude to God for our country and the privilege of living out our faith without fear of persecution. And it was God’s call to us to advocate for and stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
God’s Word teaches us to pray for everyone (1 Tim. 2:1), to remember those in prison as if we were there with them (Heb. 13:3), and to use our freedom to serve one another through love (Gal. 5:13). God hears our prayers for our persecuted family every day, and as Scripture reminds us, He hears our groanings for our persecuted family when we pray in agreement with others (Matt. 18:20).
On the Steps of the Capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas
On September 26, 2014—the first anniversary of the pastor’s imprisonment—we prayed for this pastor, his family, and for his release standing on the steps of our state capitol building in Little Rock, Arkansas. We also prayed for other persecuted Christians by name, by group, and by country, as well as for their persecutors. And we prayed for the United States and the world’s leaders. We sang praises to God. For us in Little Rock, it was a prayer vigil for persecuted Christians. All of them.
A couple of years later, once again we filled the steps of the capitol and the plaza—this time with praises as we celebrated this pastor’s release! And we continued to lift up those still in chains for Jesus, those still enduring persecution, those who still persecute, and our country and all the world’s leaders. Now each year around September 26, we continue to gather on the capitol steps for our Annual Prayer Vigil for Persecuted Christians in remembrance and praise of that first call to assemble.
That date almost always guarantees us uncomfortable weather in Central Arkansas. In previous years, we have just about melted from the heat and humidity; this year, rain and thunderstorms threatened. But we have all come to believe that we’re just supposed to be a little uncomfortable when praying for our persecuted family.
This year, we used pop-up tents to avoid the downpour, and we had a contingency plan to continue from our cars if lightning struck. That wasn’t necessary; in fact, God brought a respite from the rain just in time for the Arkansas prayer circle, where the 25 or so participants could stand, hand-in-hand, and lift up prayers for the persecuted.
Praying for Our Persecuted Family
As we planned this year’s prayer vigil, the first piece we talked about was the music. Two songs immediately came to mind: “Blessed Be Your Name” and “Mighty To Save.” That day, it became incredibly apparent why these songs were our first choice. They were perfect! Lyrics like, “Blessed be Your name/on the road marked with suffering”; “You give and take away”; “Everyone needs compassion”; “A love that’s never failing”; “Everyone needs forgiveness,”; “I give my life to follow everything I believe in”; “Shine Your light and let the whole world see”—all of the words become so real as we repeated them, thinking about our persecuted family.
Every year since we started, we have prayed for Asia Bibi, the mother of five on death row in Pakistan sentenced for blasphemy. This year’s event marked 3,625 days she has been imprisoned. We intend on praying her right out of that prison cell. Again, we prayed for U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson under arrest in Turkey. We were so hopeful our prayer time for him would be a praise for his release this year. We continue to trust God and His timing. For the third straight year, we prayed for a pastor from Pakistan who first visited us in Central Arkansas and shared firsthand stories of Christian persecution in Pakistan. We prayed for him, his family, and his ministry.
We prayed for four church leaders in Iran recently imprisoned: Youcef, Yasser, Omidi, and Saheb, who have been “in trouble” with the government since they first said “yes” to Jesus and “no” to Islam. They have been imprisoned before. They have been beaten before. And yet, all four testify that God’s grace is enough (2 Cor. 12:9). Each is facing 10 years in Iranian prisons as “prisoners of conscience,” but they are confident they are walking in the center of God’s will. They continue to trust Him for His plan for their lives and their families’ lives.
We prayed through probably 15 prayer points for Nigeria and the unrelenting, seemingly never-ending persecution of Christians at the hands of an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria More and The Fulani are a large ethnic group in West Africa. A third of all Fulani people are pastoralists, making them the largest nomadic community in the world. More militants. We prayed tor those impacted by the attacks, deaths, and destruction of villages this summer. For the 112 Chibok girls that haven’t come home yet and their families, now four-and-a-half years since the April 2014 kidnappings. And we prayed for Leah Sharibu, the lone remaining captive of the 116 Dapchi girls kidnapped over six months ago. We prayed for Leah’s family, and for the government facing the one-month deadline hanging over Leah’s life.
Praying for Those in Chains
Something new at this year’s gathering was the reading of a list of names of those in chains for Jesus. No telling of their stories, just knowing they are in chains for Jesus, listening to their names being read. It seemed as if the names entered our ears, flowed to our heart and out of our mouths—to be received by God as a sweet fragrance (Psalm 141:2). We read a list of 23 names of our family members imprisoned in China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. We spent some time in preparation, learning how to pronounce the names as best as we could. The moment was quiet and solemn, as each name was read. We knew we were at the throne of God interceding and crying out for our brothers and sisters.
This was the third prayer vigil for the leader who led us in prayer for those who persecute—a biblical command (Matt. 5:44). His time with us was poignant, as he asked difficult questions that our persecuted family is often forced to answer:
“How would I pray for the man who killed my wife?”
“How could I pray for the an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria More fighter who kidnapped and raped my daughter?”
Through tears, he answered the heartbreaking questions by saying that he remembered when he was an enemy of the gospel and how God had extended grace to him and saved him. And that was his prayer—”that God would withhold His wrath against the persecutors of Jesus (Acts 9:4) today and extend them the grace that saves. And that each one would come to a saving faith in Jesus.”
We thank God for the privilege, the opportunity, and indeed the responsibility to join with God’s people to pray for those persecuted for Jesus’ sake. And we pray that God uses these special days of intercessory prayer to remind us to lift up our persecuted family every day.
Today we join hands and hearts with all those who are members of different church bodies and different denominations—rallying around our common proclamation that Jesus is our Lord and our Savior. Priceless.
Kevin McMahan is pastor of Journey Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas. He is a volunteer Connector for Open Doors USA, serving the persecuted around the globe. And he is a founding member of Federal Practice Group, a for-profit business in the affordable multi-family housing industry. Kevin and his wife, Sandi, are the parents of three adults who have blessed them with seven grandchildren that live in Alaska, Arkansas, and Texas.