Mary, a young Egyptian girl, displays her fragile wrist. It is encircled by a bracelet of scarred flesh. Her disfigurement bears mute witness to her abduction, rape, and nine month captivity at the hands of her Islamic kidnappers. As part of their program to transform Mary into a Muslim, her captors poured sulfuric acid on her wrist to remove the tattooed cross that she wore as a statement of her faith.
Mary grew up among Egypt’s six million Coptic Christians, a minority community which faces increased mistreatment from Islamic zealots. At eighteen years of age she was visiting a friend’s home when she was kidnaped by a group of radicals from Gamat Islamaiya.
After they raped her, they moved her from one hideout to another, and along with the continuing sexual abuse she was required to fast, pray, and memorize portions of the Koran. At first she refused to wear the traditional Islamic robe, but they warned her that if she tried to remove it they would pour acid on her face. Eventually, unable to resist her captors’ demands, she signed official papers of conversion to Islam.
While Mary was held hostage her father went to the Cairo police. They told him to forget Mary, that his daughter was safe in the hands of Islam, and ordered him to sign a pledge that he would stop searching for her. He and other family members were warned by the police that if they interfered with Mary and she was harmed, they would be held responsible.
Fortunately, Mary escaped. She was aided by a Palestine group called the Servants of the Cross, who sheltered her. One of its representatives said that in Egypt there are between 7,000 and 10,000 such cases of forced conversion to Islam.
A Mammoth Issue Ignored
The persecution of Christians worldwide is perhaps the largest single human rights issue in the world today, and one which is all but ignored in the churches and in the secular world. What I will do in the following is give a very brief overview in dramatic rather than statistical form.
Knowing about the sufferings of Christians for their faith should alter our view of the situation of Christians in the world. We Westerners tend to assume that most Christians are as comfortable and safe as we are. We still tend to think that Christianity began in Israel and moved north and west with the Apostle Paul, settled down in Europe, and then spread out to the rest of the world from there. This is not the case. From its beginning at Pentecost the Church went in all directions.
Christians were in Africa before they were in Europe. Christians were in India before they were in England. Christians were in China before they were in America. The Ethiopian who met Philip went back to Ethiopia. Legend has it that St. Mark went to Egypt. Legend has it that St. Thomas went to India. We don’t know whether that legend is true, but the Church in India certainly dates from the first or second century. In the fifth and sixth centuries there were bishops in Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Sudan.
There were Christian monasteries in China in the seventh century. You can still see some of their monuments. There was a Catholic Bishop in Beijing in the thirteenth century. The Chinese government is now denouncing Christianity as a foreign influence. There are few more ironic sights than watching a Chinese leader standing under portraits of Lenin, Marx, Engels, and Stalin denouncing Christianity as a foreign import.
At the time of the Crusades most of the population of the Middle East was Christian. At the turn of this century, about one-third of the population of the Middle East was Christian. Since then, many have been massacred, many gave up their faith, many fled—and that flight from the Middle East continues.
The Real Center of World Christianity
Most of us still assume that the center of world Christianity is in Europe and the United States and, as I said, that the situation of Christians in these countries is typical. But let me throw out a few statistics.
65% of nominal Christians live outside the West. The percentage for active Christians is probably 80%. On any given Sunday more people go to church in China than do in all of western Europe put together. This is probably also true of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. It is perhaps true of India, Nigeria, and Brazil.
Even defining a Christian only as one who wants to get baptized, married, or buried in the Church—you know the expression “hatch, match, and dispatch”—the continent with the fewest number of Christians is North America. By that definition, there are probably 220 to 230 million Christians north of the Rio Grande. The continent with the next lowest number would be Asia, with about 290 to 300 million Christians.
In other words, our image of “a Christian” should not be of a white person who lives near Pittsburgh, although many such are Christians. Taking the world as a whole, a Christian is as likely to be a Chinese or Indonesian peasant or an Egyptian shopkeeper or an Indian untouchable as a white middle-class American.
The Growing Persecution
One effect of our thinking that the center of world Christianity is in the free countries of Europe and America is that we do not realize that much of the Church today is persecuted for its faith. I have documented the suffering of Christians in approximately 65 countries.
I try to limit the term persecution to those who face violence, imprisonment, torture, and death for their faith, not those who experience legal impediments to the exercise of their faith, as painful as these can be. Given this definition, we can say that 200 million Christians live in situations of persecution and another 400 million live in situations of legal discrimination and oppression, for a total of about 600 million Christians who are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ. This does not include the hundreds of millions of other Christians who suffer from war, famine, and oppression.
Sometimes we think that the persecution of Christians for their faith was largely a Communist phenomenon and that it has passed away with the demise of Communism. Two facts need to be pointed out.
Communism Has Not Passed Away
First, communism has not passed away. The church is still persecuted by the Communist governments of China, which alone has one-fifth of the world’s population, Viet Nam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba. Communist persecution continues.
In fact, since 1990 and especially since 1994 the Chinese government has intensified its persecution of Christians. The persecution grew even more intense in 1996, at precisely the point the American government was saying that its human rights policies towards China were showing success.
One reason for this is that the Chinese government is aware of the role that the Church played in the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe, by providing an alternative allegiance to the Communist Party. Unlike many Westerners, the Chinese take religion seriously and recognize its influence. The Chinese state-run press said in 1992 that they knew what happened in Eastern Europe and in order to avoid the same happening in China “we must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.”
So the situation in China has been getting worse, for both the underground Protestant and underground Catholic churches. The Roman Catholic Church itself is illegal in China, because no religious body is allowed to have an authority structure which crosses the border of the country. There are currently five Chinese Catholic Bishops in prison.
Second, persecution is continuing and in fact increasing in other parts of the world, principally under radical Islamic regimes, though also in south Asian societies, Hindu and Buddhist. Let me give some examples.
In Mexico and India
You may have read about the Zapatista guerrillas’ revolt in the state of Chiapas in Mexico. Most news media have not covered the fact that many of the people who have been most oppressed in Chiapas are Protestants. 35,000 of them have been driven off their land beginning in 1967, and are still off their land. Many of their leaders also have been assassinated.
Throughout Mexico more generally there is sporadic violence against Protestants. To pick two towns you might recognize, Protestant churches were attacked and burned in Acapulco and Cancun.
In India, about half the 28 million Christians are in the “untouchable” caste. The Indian government has a sort of affirmative action program for untouchables because they are so discriminated against in their society. There are university places and government jobs reserved for them. The rules apply to all untouchables: Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Sikh—except the Christians.
If you are a Christian untouchable, you are at the bottom of the heap even amongst untouchables. And still there are about 28 million Christians in India.
Saudi Persecution and Filipino Evangelists
In Saudi Arabia it is illegal for a Saudi citizen to be anything other than a Muslim. If a Saudi professes to be another religion, it is assumed that he or she must have left Islam, that is, has become an apostate. And apostasy carries the death penalty.
Expatriate Christians from powerful countries like the U.S. are often allowed to worship on company property or in an embassy, because the Saudis don’t want to upset such countries. However, if you happen to be a Christian from Egypt or the Philippines, even a prayer meeting in a private house is likely to be broken up by the Matowa, the religious police. If you speak about your faith openly, you may face the death sentence in Saudi Arabia.
By the way, I should note that often the best missionaries in countries like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates are the Filipinos who are imported to work as servants. Christians who work in these countries are often trained in the background of Islam and cross-cultural sensitivity, both of which are vitally necessary if you are going to work there. Yet it turns out that some of the best evangelists in these countries are not those who have been carefully trained. They are the largely charismatic, Catholic Filipinos, who simply have an unabashed open faith, and talk about and sometimes pay the penalty for it. Nobody has taught them about cross-cultural sensitivity. They just talk to their Muslim employers and say, “You know how we pray? I pray to the Lord Jesus. I love my Lord Jesus.”
Persecution in Iran and Sudan
In Iran the Church is heavily persecuted. Its leaders, and particularly anybody who engages in evangelism, is marked for assassination. Many Christians have fled the country and made their way to Turkey. The U.S. government has allowed the Turkish authorities to process the refugees’ applications on its behalf. The Turks are usually not very sympathetic to Christian refugees, and as you may know, the Turks massacred about 2 million Armenian Christians between 1916 and 1918. That is one reason the number of Christians in the Middle East has dropped so dramatically in this century.
In some countries, in Qatar, in Sudan, in Mauritania, the death penalty for apostasy is part of the legal system, that is, the state will kill you for becoming a Christian. In many other countries the death penalty is not required by law but it is the practical effect of apostasy, because the community will kill you for becoming a Christian. Much of the oppression of Christians, particularly in the Islamic world, is not necessarily done by the governments, but by neighbors, by guerrillas opposing the government, by mob violence.
In Sudan the government is a radical Islamic government, seeking to impose Sharia, the Islamic law, on the entire country. To do this, it is engaging in a religious war or jihad. The principle object of that war are the people in the south of Sudan who are largely black African—the north is largely Arab —and largely Christian, with some animists. That war has now been going on for at least thirty years, but within the last ten years it has been more intense. The death toll there is between 1½ to 2 million people.
(On a world scale, the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya, while terrible, are two of the smaller conflicts. The war in Rwanda is one of the larger ones, as are the wars in Sudan and Myanmar.)
Raids and Forced Conversions in Sudan
Let me give one story from Sudan. This is taken from an account by Baroness Cox of the English House of Lords, who is in Sudan several times a year. She is quoting Akuac Amet, who recalled the day of the raid on her village:
The enemy came early on March 25. This woman was too old to run; so they caught her and beat her so badly it was impossible to know if she was alive or dead. The enemy returned and killed her four sons and kidnaped her daughter. Her daughter can be returned, if the money can be found—but there is no one to pay the money. I came and took care of this old lady and have looked after her. About three hundred people were killed. The enemy divided into two groups—some on horseback, some on foot. We ran with the children to try to hide them in the long grass, but they found us and drove the older children away. Any who refused to go, they killed them. Those who were taken away were tied with rope and pulled like cows behind horses. Some children were as little as seven years old. Some died of thirst, and they were not given any water. The families of those who were captured are still trying to find the money to pay for their children. If they have no money, they can be told that their children are still alive, but are unable to buy them back. We are happy you have come to meet us to see how we are suffering, and how our children have been taken away by the enemy.
There are at best estimates about 100,000 Christian slaves in Sudan. There are thriving slave markets in Sudan—I have seen them. Depending on the laws of supply and demand the price for slaves varies between about 5 and 15 cows.
Many of the slave traders can get better prices for the children by selling them back to their parents rather than to someone else, because the parents will presumably pay more. But since the children have usually been captured in a raid, the parents have nothing left with which to buy back their children, so they are sold to strangers. There is forced conversion in the refugee camps in Sudan, that the government insists it controls. A widespread practice is refusing to give food or water to any Christian who refuses to convert to Islam. If they do not, they are left to starve.
Of all the situations in the world, the situation in Sudan is probably the worst. There is continued massacre, slavery, torture, and probably the use of chemical weapons also.
Examples from 1997
Here are some examples from the first months of 1997. The Indonesian government has been moving migrants from Java, which is very overcrowded, into the Indonesian part of Borneo, which is comparatively empty.
Most of these immigrants are Muslims. The native population (Dayaks) in that area are largely Christians and they are becoming swamped by the large number of Muslim immigrants who are also being educated and given top jobs. This has caused tensions throughout many parts of Indonesia and there seems to have been an eruption a month ago in Borneo, in which several hundred people, mainly Christians, have been killed.
I should mention that Indonesia has usually been a place of relative harmony between Christians and Muslims. I have been there often and it is an open, generous, friendly society, where Muslims and Christians get on well. But that harmony appears to be breaking down, not only because of the government’s immigration policies but because of the increasing riots by fanatical Muslims against Christians.
Just after Christmas in western Java a mob of about 5,000 Muslims burnt down four churches and damaged seven others. In 1996 about 50 Christian churches have been destroyed on the island of Java.
To take an example from China. On November 20, 1996, between 80 and 120 Roman Catholics were arrested, beaten and jailed in Jaingxi Province as part of a now formal, deliberate policy to eradicate the underground Catholic churches. An additional 42 Catholics were imprisoned that same day. Several sources report that early in 1997 in the town of Han Dan a Catholic priest was beaten to death by police during interrogation.
In Pakistan on February 6 of this year, a Muslim mob of about 30,000 people went on a rampage in Punjab Province, burning several churches—including at least 13 Catholic churches—and schools and thousands of Christian homes. Shantinagar, an eighty-year-old Christian town of 15,000, was reported by the local bishop to have been razed to the ground leaving its people homeless, hundreds wounded, an unknown number dead, and two raped. The town has been sealed off by the military.
In Egypt, in March of this year, two of the larger attacks on the Copts in recent years took place miles south of Cairo. In each case nine Coptic Christians were killed. And stories like Mary’s are a regular occurrence.
Also this year, the government of Myanmar (Burma) is subjecting the Karen tribes people in the east of the country to forcible conversion to Buddhism. Burma’s ruling junta are not committed believers of Buddhism, but like any government which is unpopular they reach out to something more popular to legitimate themselves.
It could be nationalism, but in this case it is the country’s traditional religion. The ruling junta is trying to dress itself in Buddhist robes, so to speak, and as a mark of its intentions it is attacking the Christians and Muslims in the country.
The Christian Response
That is a brief, impressionistic survey of some of the events that have happened in just the last few months. Christians are being persecuted and even killed for their faith right now. These stories are not taken from one hundred years ago, or twenty years ago, or ten years ago. They are stories of what is happening all around the world in 1997.
This is probably a depressing catalog of stories. It is at least a challenging catalog. I do not wish for a moment to diminish the hideousness of what our brothers and sisters are suffering in the world, and are increasingly suffering, but I do not want to finish on a note simply of pain and defeat, for two reasons.
First, many of the people I have described live lives of very great joy. Many Sudanese people, for example, even those in refugee camps, are cheerful, friendly, and show plainly the joy of their faith. This is true of Christians in Pakistan, India, and China. It is sometimes only in North America that Christians seem so very cold and dreary in their outlook, perhaps because our faith doesn’t really mean very much to us—perhaps because we do not have to suffer for it.
These Christians experience horrible suffering, but very often they do not feel beaten down and oppressed. They are nervous and fearful, they have lost homes and possessions and family members, but their Churches are alive and growing. As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, who were facing persecution, their faith grows exceedingly (2 Thessalonians 1:3).
Second, the Christian Church is probably now undergoing its largest expansion in history. A mark of God’s grace is that despite the best efforts of its enemies, the Gospel is going forth throughout the world and these changing countries very rapidly.
This expansion is one reason it is being persecuted so much. This oppression, this suffering, this persecution is a mark of the Church’s success, and that success is causing the strong reaction against the Church. As Jesus predicts, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20), and it is not surprising that those whose lives are so Christ-like experience such persecution, nor that the Church grows in spite of the world’s efforts to stop it.
These stories leave us with a calling. The suffering of our brothers and sisters for their faith in our common Lord gives us a special responsibility to them.
As Jesus says in Matthew 25 when talking about the Last Judgment, “When I was naked you clothed me, when I was thirsty you gave me to drink, was hungry you fed me, when I was in prison you visited me.” Peter asks, “Lord, when did we do this to you?” And Jesus says, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
We who are blessed to live in a free society, and blessed with so many of the world’s resources, both financial and intellectual, are called to support and work for our persecuted brothers and sisters. This is a call to serve and minister to Jesus Christ Himself, because as He says, our relationship with them is a mark of our relationship with Him.
It may seem to be a discouraging call, and our ability to affect the policies of other governments and the practices of entire societies is very small. But we also know that as we work with Him and through Him, He works through us that we may have success beyond our own power.
We pray God that it may be so, and that the Lord will use us to bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, to give unto them beauty for ashes, and the oil of joy for mourning (Isaiah 61:1,3).
SourceTheir Blood Cries Out by Paul Marshall (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing; 1997). As you would surmise from the titles, Dr. Marshall’s article should be read as an introduction to his book.
“Atrocities Not Fit to Print” by Nina Shea in First Things (November 1997) pp. 32-35. A report on the failure of the press to cover the greatest human rights story of our age.
Candles Behind the Wall: Heroes of the Peaceful Revolution that Shattered Communism by Barbara von der Heydt (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans; 1993).
Called to Suffer Called to Triumph: Eighteen True Stories by Persecuted Christians by Herbert Schlossberg (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press; 1990).
A Fragrance of Oppression: The Church and Its Persecutors by Herbert Schlossberg (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books; 1991).