I remember as a kid trying to wrap my head around the concept of eternity: of living forever without end. Inevitably, the enormity of the concept would terrify me and I would frantically distract myself with something less overwhelming.
As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve found myself being overwhelmed by different things. The idea of an eternal life after death has become a comfort, but it’s the world and its problems that are terrifying. The scope of the world’s problems—starvation, racism, economic disparity—are so unfathomably huge I distract myself with day-to-day life. While I feel embarrassed to admit it, this is often what happens when I hear about the persecuted church.
I see statistics like the ones in this infographic and don’t even know where to begin. How can I help? Where do I start?
As Christians, we know and believe the most powerful force for change we have at our disposal is prayer. Not only does the Bible tells us prayer is powerful and effective, but as we pray, God often stirs our hearts and provides direction on how He is calling us to action. So if you, like me, need a place to start in knowing how to pray, here are 7 areas in the world where persecution against Christians is increasingly difficult, along with a brief prompt on how you can be praying:
In the past decade, North Korea has gone from a mysterious country no one knew about to a focal point of global politics. North Korea, under the brutal rule of the Kim family, is ranked as the most oppressive country in the world for Christians. Christianity is outlawed there and anyone caught worshipping God, praying or reading a smuggled Bible is sent to prison camps.
How to pray: That God would continue to stir up an underground church, for protection for Christians living there, and that God’s Kingdom and justice would come to North Korea.
Syria is another country playing a visible role in American foreign politics. It’s also the sixth most oppressive country in the world for a Christian to live. As the Syrian civil war has progressed, the opposition to the government has become increasingly controlled by Islamic militants such as ISIS. Because Christians tend to live together in geographic pockets and are (perceived) to be pro-government, they are an extremely vulnerable target.
How to pray: For our government to have wisdom in how to wisely and compassionately interact with Syria. For the Christians (some of whom are deliberately remaining behind) who are living out their faith at a heavy cost. And for Open Doors efforts there, such as relief aid, Bibles, discipleship materials, leadership training and grief counseling.
Not only is South Sudan experiencing one of the worst famines in history, the country as a whole continues to be one of the most hostile nations to Christianity on the planet. There’s no true rule of law under the authoritarian leadership of al-Bashir and arrests, attacks and murders plague all the Christian villages in the country, particularly those in the Nuba mountain region.
How to pray: Sudan’s cultural landscape is a complicated blend of both ethnic and religious conflicts. Pray for peace and reconciliation among all people groups in the country, for aid groups to be freed to provide food to those who need it, and for God to establish just leaders in the country.
Iraq has become an afterthought in the American political scene, but the plight of Christians there is dire. There has been a Christian presence in Iraq for nearly two millennia, but it currently sits on the verge of extinction due to the invasion of ISIS in 2014 and the continued oppression by Muslim extremists in the region.
How to pray: Pray first and foremost that in the face of persecution, the Christian church would not just survive, but explode in power, transforming the communities they live in. The Iraqi government is still new and (in theory) democratic. The more Christianity transforms communities, the more the possibility of governmental influence increases. Secondly, pray for the Islamic extremist groups. Pray that God would miraculously change the hearts of these groups. That they would be transformed from the inside out.
Christianity in Iran is more than just another religion, it’s a sign of Western influence. As the government struggles to retain control of its people (especially a younger and more secular generation), it has stepped up its hostility to anything deemed an assault to its values. The two most persecuted groups in Iran are Muslim Background Believers and any Christians found actively evangelizing.
How to pray: Iran, more than other countries, is teetering on the edge of a change in leadership. Pray that God would bring justice and peace to this nation and would raise up people in Iran committed to tolerance and religious freedom. Pray for boldness among Christians in Iran who are often treated as second-class citizens and persecuted for sharing their faith.
Of the countries on this list, Eritrea is probably the least-known. Located on the eastern end of Africa, Eritreans fleeing their country has contributed greatly to the refugee crisis around the world. The Eritrean government is intolerant of dissent and free expression, and in 2007, deposed and replaced the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC). The EOC has itself persecuted those who convert to evangelical or Pentecostal denominations and the government treatment of Christian prisoners has received international attention, with some being locked in shipping containers and dying.
How to pray: Pray for Eritrean refugees; that God would open up places for them to find shelter and rest. Pray for the corrupted EOC; that God would break the hearts of the leaders of this church and make it a bold force for peace. And pray that the communities of Christians suffering persecution from both the government and the EOC would have comfort, boldness and relief.
Saudi Arabia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and has established strong relationships with several key countries, especially the United States. It is also one of the worst countries in the world in its treatment of Christians. To be a Saudi citizen is to be a Muslim due to a tightly intertwined connection between their religious and social worlds. Because of this, there are no church buildings in Saudi Arabia and Christians have to practice their faith in strict secrecy.
How to pray: One of the biggest enablers of the Saudi monarchy is its comfortable relationship with powerful governments. While the political and economic realities of this situation are complicated, pray that God would convict leaders around the world to demand Saudi Arabia exercise better human rights and religious freedom. Pray for comfort for Christians in the midst of persecution and boldness as they take the potentially life-threatening risk of sharing their faith with family and friends.
Ultimately, we know that our fight in this world isn’t against corrupt governments or horrifying terrorist groups. There is an Enemy intent on razing this world to the ground, destroying the shalom (fully-realized peace) God intended. All of our prayers then ultimately trace back to the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: God, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done.