The suffering Church

Are you enjoying our Sunday evening studies in the book of Revelation?  I doubt it.  I hope we’re finding the studies mind-stretching, edifying, even exciting.  But hardly enjoyable.  Many of the things John sees in his vision are shocking, disturbing, at times terrifying.

One of the most constant themes in the book of Revelation is persecution.  John wrote for believers who were facing persecution.  And he took it for granted that believers in every age will be persecuted.

John was a true prophet.  All through history, believers have been persecuted.  And persecution continues throughout the world today.

International Christian Concern has drawn up its list of the ten countries in the world today that most savagely persecute Christians.  (The word ‘Christian’ here is not used to mean people who are truly saved – it means all who consider themselves Christian in any sense).

The list divides the different types of persecution into two main categories:

A  =  Persecution carried out by the government.
B  =   Persecution carried out by other groups  (eg by religious extremists) but tolerated by the government.

And then it assesses how severe the persecution is:

1 = Violent acts against Christians are frequent, including torture, slavery, expulsion, withdrawing of food: treatment that frequently causes severe injury or death.

2 = Regular offences against human rights that occasionally result in Christians dying: e.g. lengthy detention, beatings, confiscation or destruction of property.

3 = Non-violent harassment of Christians: this may include fines, discrimination in education or employment, removal of political rights, insufficient legal representation, and restrictions on places of worship.

Here then is a list of the top ten persecuting countries.  All the information below is borrowed from the ICC website.

VIETNAM  (A- 1,2,3) The constitution officially grants freedom of religion.  But persecution continues. Unauthorized churches are harassed, pastors may be given lengthy prison sentences, and Christian literature is confiscated and destroyed. The repression of the Christian faith is particularly severe among ethnic minorities, especially those of the Central Highland where most evangelical churches have been closed and torture is frequently reported.  A clampdown in the second half of 2002 resulted in the closure of more than 350 churches. On October 29, 2002, three pastors were killed by lethal injection. 56 other pastors disappeared during the same period.

NORTH KOREA (A- 1,2,3) Under dictator Kim Jong, continues its policies of severe repression of the Christian faith. Christians in North Korea live under very difficult conditions as the government does everything in its power to eliminate them.  There is an “official” church but real freedom of religion does not exist. Exact numbers of believers are extremely hard to estimate due to the underground nature of the church, but there may be up to 300,000 Christians in North Korea. There are also many North Koreans in China who accepted Christ after receiving aid from Christian groups working with refugees along the border. Some of these brave believers have returned to their country to share the Gospel, only to be arrested and tortured. Former prisoners report that tens of thousands of Christians are imprisoned in labour camps and are among the worst treated prisoners and may be arbitrarily executed.

MYANMAR (Burma) (A- 1,2,3) Controlled by a military junta which tolerates no opposition.  The main victims of persecution in Myanmar are ethnic minority groups, including the Karen and the Chin, both of which are largely Christianized.  Whole villages have been used as forced labour or have been forced to pay tribute to army officials. During a three-month period during the summer of 2002, 28 Karen villages were looted or destroyed by the military. Indiscriminate killings are not uncommon and many Christians from the ethnic minorities have fled the country for fear of their lives.  The government of Myanmar is set on stamping out the Christian minority.

CHINA (A- 2,3) The underground Christian Churches in China continue to be persecuted by the government as they refuse to register with the authorities. Key Christian leaders of the underground church have been arrested, tortured, beaten, and have been fined and imprisoned, but they boldly continue to serve God. The underground church seems to be growing at a rate of 20,000 to 25,000 new Christians daily.

LAOS (A- 2,3) Christians in Laos have been labelled as the number one enemy of this largely Buddhist state, and are viewed as “subversive elements.” Buddhist organizations are openly promoted, but the government recognises only three Christian denominations.  Christians are often harassed, churches are closed, and believers unwilling to recant their faith in writing are imprisoned.  Believers in prison undergo harsh and cruel treatment, which includes being subjected to prolonged use of stocks, confined quarters, inadequate provision of light, food, water and medication. On release the movements of Christians are restricted by local authorities.

SUDAN (A- 1,2,3;  B -1) The persecution of Christians continues unabated.  Different techniques are used in different areas of the country. The government uses helicopter gunships and Antonov bombers to annihilate innocent civilians in the predominately Christian southern provinces.  The government uses different and more subtle tactics in northern Sudan as they attempt to stamp out Christianity. They have embarked upon a policy of Islamization of the younger generation by requiring all children to be instructed in Islam, including students in Christian schools. Christians also suffer discrimination when attempting to obtain health care; they are refused permission to erect church buildings and are among the worst treated prisoners.

IRAN (A- 1,2,3) Believers in Iran –  a Shiite Muslim state – live in constant fear of government harassment. All activities are monitored.  Most evangelical churches have closed, or have been restricted to conducting services in Armenian or Assyrian. However, many secret underground churches exist in Iran where Muslim converts can worship.  Harassment by the police is common and some believers, including the most outstanding evangelical leaders, have been known to “disappear.”

SAUDI ARABIA (A- 1,2,3) During the past several years the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has arrested and deported foreign Christian workers for attending private worship services in homes. Saudi Arabia continues to be completely intolerant of all religions other than Islam, and severely restricts any Christian activities in public or private. Bibles are confiscated, churches banned, and the display of Christian symbols is absolutely forbidden. Saudi citizens who convert can be sentenced to death for apostasy.

INDONESIA (B- 1,2,3) Since 1999, over 10,000 people have been killed and over 500,000 displaced from their homes due to violence between Christian and Muslim communities. Most of the violence has been carried out by Islamic fundamentalists who are determined to “drive the Christians into the sea.” During 2000 and 2001 several thousand Christians were held captive in their own villages, converted to Islam by force and and had to endure circumcision. Repeated attacks on Christian villages by well-armed jihad warriors led to the destruction of countless Christian homes and churches. Family members witnessed the death of loved ones who were brutally murdered before their eyes.  Despite the endless list of atrocities being carried out by Islamic militants, the Indonesian government has arrested mostly Christians for alleged involvement in the violence while allowing many jihad warriors to go free.

PAKISTAN (A- 2,3;  B-1) Christians in Pakistan have increasingly come under attack by Islamic fundamentalists bent on avenging the deaths of Taliban and Al-Qaeda members killed in the US ‘War on Terrorism’. Between October 2001 and December 2002,  39 Christians were killed and more than 75 injured in grenade attacks on churches and other Christian-run institutions. Militant Muslims in Pakistan have also been known to rape, kidnap, and forcibly marry Christian women. Christians also suffer under the Pakistani legal system, which sentences Christians to death if convicted of blasphemy against Islam. At least eight Christians are currently imprisoned under the blasphemy law, which is often abused by those with a personal grudge against the Christian.

Christians in these ten countries face brutal persecution.  But these ten are only the tip of the iceberg. A full list of states where Christian freedom is restricted would include all the following:

Afghanistan Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Burma, Chechnya, China, Colombia, Comoros, Croatia, Cuba, Egypt, Equitorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Greece, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mexico, Moldova, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan,United Arab Emirates (UAE), Uzbekistan,Vietnam, Yemen.

Not all these countries practise class 1 or 2 persecution.  But many do.  And in all these countries Christians and churches may face restrictions in practising their faith.  You will find details, country by country, on the ICC website.

How conscious are we of our brothers and sisters are suffering?  Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3).

And remember that we may join them soon.  We must not take our freedom for granted.  Persecution has been the norm for Christians throughout the centuries.  It still is in many places.  We have enjoyed relative freedom for a couple of hundred years.  Who knows how long it will last?

The Lord Jesus warned: “All men will hate you because of me, but he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).  And Paul wrote: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).  Do we believe it?  And are we ready?

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