Over the past year, we’ve all experienced a measure of isolation and restriction. 2020 had us all floored, it had me at times. We’ve met as scattered believers; doing church at home and online, masked and worshipping in silence; few of us could have predicted how much could change. But what if isolation, restriction were permanent? What if ‘lockdown’ was more severe and your faith put you in prison? What if spies were watching your every move? What if your family threw you out because of your faith? What if owning a Bible was illegal? What if following Jesus meant violence or even death?
Welcome to the persecuted church.
On Wednesday January 13th Open Doors UK presented the 2021 version of their annual report into the levels of persecution and suffering currently being endured across the world. This World Watch List (WWL) offers plenty of frightening statistics and MP’s, Peers and partners of Open Doors heard challenging testimony from 3 countries. But these details and statistics are not to be looked at as dry and boring figures, for us this is family business.
The WWL 2021 highlighted that at least 340 million sisters and brothers of ours around the world right now are experiencing systematic discrimination, unfair treatment and persecution. That’s almost the same as the population of the United States, 5 times the population of the UK. Put another way: 1 in 8 Christians globally share in Christ’s suffering – facing high or extreme levels of persecution simply for daring to follow Jesus.
As you think about your own local church family, think about the impact of these figures;
1 in 8 Christians globally face persecution.
1 in 6 in Africa
2 out of 5 in Asia
and 1 in 12 in Latin America
The World Watch List ranks the places where following Jesus costs the most. There’s no list like it. (The latest map, together with country profiles, is available here; https://www.opendoorsuk.org/persecution/world-watch-list/)
But what the list shows all too clearly and quite simply, is that persecution has reached unprecedented levels; it’s reached pandemic proportions. For the first time since the list began, all top 50 countries score at least ’very high’ levels of persecution.
In many of the countries in the Open Doors World Watch List, Christians have to worship in secret. They meet in houses or apartments. They gather on remote mountainsides, or deep in the jungle. They disguise their meetings, so that services look like simple meals or baptisms look like swimming parties. Wherever they meet Jesus is there. Their courage and ingenuity are beyond question, but the pressure is intense.
For secret Christians in Eritrea (#6 on the World Watch List), for example, there is no let up. At school their children need to be careful what they say. And at home neighbours are always on the alert for any signs of secret gatherings. “Christians continue to receive teaching and pray together,” says Eyal, an Eritrean underground church leader. “It is very difficult. We are watched all the time. Believers cannot move around freely and this makes outreach very difficult. But as hard as it is, we have to continue.”
In the background, behind every secret church meeting in Eritrea, is the fear of a police raid. Musse is a church leader who was sent to an Eritrean prison – yet even there he found a way to stand up for Christ. “In prison, one of my main purposes as a Christian was to evangelise,” he says; “you continue teaching. Of course, it is forbidden to do it openly, but we did it at night-time when everybody was asleep. We even had Bible portions we could study in secret.” He found people desperate for hope. “Those people loved what we taught and shared. Some of them even tried to cover for us. We saw many conversions. The gospel can’t be chained.”
However, when pastors are arrested, secret churches are often left without leaders. That’s why Open Doors underground networks help train church leaders, as well as providing smuggled Bibles and Christian literature, and digital teaching and discipleship resources.
“Thank you for your help to us, thank you for praying, thank you for being on our side. With the help of God and because of you, we are doing our Christian activities. We are coming together, meeting and helping people in different ways.” Eyal, Eritrea, “No one, not even the government, can block the gospel.”
It is that sense of faith, and the reality of how our Christian family suffers today, that prompts me to stand up and speak out for the work of Open Doors, alongside my role as Pastor at Nailsea. As an Ambassador for Open Doors, I feel compelled to share these stories and to encourage churches across our region to stand alongside our persecuted family, offering prayer and support in the midst of lockdown and hardship beyond anything we can imagine happening here.
I would love to share more of the reality of suffering to your own churches and, if I can help in any way, please do get in touch with me.