Stories

Portraits of the Persecuted Church

December 1, 2017 by Sarah Cunningham in , ,

Where these children live, it takes more than a village—it takes the entire Body of Christ.

When stories of persecution emerge from dangerous regions, they often focus on the experience of adults. Perhaps this is because it’s too difficult to wrestle with the image of children being targeted because of their faith. How can any peaceable citizen fully grasp the ideological madness behind ISIS or Boko Haram or other Islamic extremist groups? Imagine how difficult it is for children who don’t yet understand the political context of their region to make sense of such actions. Why would a stranger—someone they’ve never even met—target them purely because of their family’s theology?

In this article, we introduce you to three children of the persecuted Church: Hassan,* Meeral* and Maryam.* They are just three examples of millions of children who every day endure bullying and violence, including exploitation, because of their faith. Their stories aren’t easy to read, but they are important to think about as you pray for protection, comfort, encouragement, restoration and healing for the children of the persecuted church.

Five-year-old Hassan* heard the rock being thrown before he saw it. And he didn’t have time to cover his head. Thankfully, it missed him and hit a nearby building with a dull thud.

But for Hassan in North Africa, this misfired stone didn’t matter. The mere attempt to hurt Hassan caused the most damage.

Raising a child today is difficult. Even parents in the developed world often find themselves fighting against unhealthy cultural messages that can impact their child’s identity. But for parents raising Christian children in regions that are hostile toward the Name of Jesus. the challenges are magnified.

After Hassan’s father realized they were in danger, he pulled Hassan tighter and quickly and headed home. Taking many turns and detours, he did everything he could to shake any followers on their trail.

“Are we going home?” Hassan asks.

“Yes, son.” His father replies. “We must. For your protection.”

Hassan couldn’t hide his disappointment. He would rather be outside playing. He didn’t like when this happened. He didn’t like that his father lived in tension, unable to fully relax. He didn’t like that their family couldn’t do something as simple and fun as going out for ice cream without worrying about harassment.

As Hassan and his father enter their home, Hassan asks, “Daddy, why do people throw stones at us? Why don’t the people like us, what have we done wrong?” His father smiles, painfully, as he responds, “Hassan, we are different because we follow Jesus. The people in our town have another religion, and they don’t accept those who are different.”

Hassan nods knowingly. Simple explanations like these are often the only ones children like Hassan can understand: I’m hated because I’m different. And I’m different because I follow Jesus.

Many Countries Have Children Like Hassan

Hassan’s story is just one example of the persecution that Christian children face in communities around the world. In many countries that are hostile to Christianity—from North Korea to Somalia; Afghanistan to Sudan—children are targeted for their family’s belief in Jesus.

Meeral, 6, in the Gulf

Six-year-old Meeral* lives in the Gulf. Her father is involved in Christian pastoral care, and their family is well aware that their faith places them in danger—so much so that Meeral and her mother pray for her safety every day before school.

Times have changed in the Gulf area. Ten years ago, you could casually remark about faith without fear. Now, this region has grown less friendly to free opinion, and the Blasphemy Law is strictly upheld in these areas. Families like Meeral’s must guard their tongues carefully.

Even with this in mind, Meeral doesn’t show fear. Instead, she says she would give her life for “her Jesus” if she had to.

Meeral’s family hopes it would never come to that, but when the last school semester drew to an end, Meeral did come home with a couple of cuts and a bruise on her leg. She tried to hide them, but her older brother, Shazi, told their parents about a fight in school.

Shazi had found Meeral on the floor, with a classmate hurling nasty comments at her for being a Christian. Knowing his sister, and being just as strong in his faith but a little more careful, he cautioned Meeral: “Jesus will take care of your leg, but you need to keep very quiet and come with me.”

A month later, Meeral was still limping from the injury. When asked about it, she responds swiftly, “It’s OK—a boy hit me because I am a Christian. He does not like Christians, but Papa reminded me Jesus was also hit and wounded, and even killed. So it’s OK.”

Maryam, 11, in North Africa

Maryam,* who lives in North Africa, would easily relate to Hassan and Meeral’s stories. She, too, has faced harassment.

“You will go to hell,” a classmate once told Maryam.

Her fellow student then turned around and walked away, leaving Maryam sitting completely alone. Because Maryam is the only Christian girl in her entire class, this sort of thing happened often. Too often. Her classmates didn’t want to talk to her or hang out together.

She was different.

Maryam had largely come to expect this sort of exclusion. It is a normal part of life for Christian children like herself who live in Muslim-majority countries. The other children often target them with messages they’ve been taught: “You are denying your origin,” “You will be punished with an eternal fire,” “You believe in many gods,” or, “Your parents are sinners.”

“It’s difficult, very difficult for the children and for us as parents,” says a pastor raising three teenagers in the same region. “Even teachers sometimes participate in this,” he explains.

“The children come home disappointed; they feel humiliated. This is generally happening to Christian children. One of my sons went through a very hard time. He was so affected by what happened at school that he was too scared to sleep alone in his own room. For three months, he slept in our bedroom.”

Parenting in Persecution

For Christian parents in countries that are hostile to their faith, the challenges are understandably overwhelming.

Hassan’s mother cries as she wonders, “Why don’t they let us live in peace, why does Hassan have to suffer from all this?”

Hassan’s father shares her burden. “Knowing that God has called us helps me a lot,” he says. “Sometimes we are afraid, but we want to remember and teach our son that Jesus is always with us.”

Maryam’s father, too, understands these worries: “As parents, we try to support our children. We hope they stand strong as Christians and are open about this. Of course, when our children are bullied, we get angry.”

“We try to teach them that, in spite of hostility, they should pray, even for those who are bullying,” her dad explains. Frequently, Maryam’s parents pray with her. In church, during the children’s meetings, she sometimes talks about it with the other children. Church is the place where she knows she is accepted.

The Hassans, Meerals and Maryams—all the young members of the persecuted church—will be the ones who share the Word of God faithfully for generations to come in some of the most dangerous places to be a Christian. The global Church has a critical role to play in equipping, encouraging and standing with these young believers.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Open Doors USA’s Presence magazine. Click here to download a PDF of the issue.

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