The suffering church
By John W. Kennedy
Leonid* grew curious about rumors of unusual meetings going on inside a nearby church. So one Sunday morning he decided to check out the people who called themselves Pentecostals.
He picked an inopportune time for a visit. Leaders of the local police force in the Central Eurasian country were also inquisitive. Officers interrupted the service and rounded up the attendees.
The arrest shocked Leonid. After all, he didn’t belong to the small band that gathered in seclusion. He didn’t believe any of their doctrines. He had only stopped by for a look.
Nevertheless, he experienced the same consequences as the others after a local newspaper listed the names of those arrested. When supervisors at the factory where Leonid worked saw the article, they labeled him a potential troublemaker. Even though Leonid excelled in his job, his boss promptly fired him.
Although dismayed at the injustice of the situation, Leonid admired the tenacity of the Pentecostal believers he encountered. Every day they persevered through their trials. As he saw how the power of God sustained them, Leonid sought to learn more about Christianity. Soon he committed his life to Jesus.
Leonid went to seminary and became pastor of a church, a congregation that today has thousands of worshippers every Sunday. It’s a congregation that faces the same threats and risks believers encountered years ago. Leonid has been jailed repeatedly, yet he continues to plant churches.
Most Americans don’t grasp the reality that multitudes of Christians throughout the world suffer. In a wealthy democracy, people tend to think of distress in economic terms. To some, deprivation means going without a latté from Starbucks for a couple of weeks because the budget is a little tight, waiting for the health insurance deductible to kick in before agreeing to medical treatment, or buying a vehicle every four years instead of every two.
But that’s not genuine suffering.
Suffering is when you can’t go to church because no church exists.
Suffering is being unable to worship freely because it’s against the law.
Suffering is not being allowed to own or even read a Bible. Possessing Scriptures or any religious literature results in imprisonment.
Suffering is losing your job, enduring beatings, being forced to pay fines and losing access to water — all because you won’t recant faith in Jesus Christ.
It’s been this way since the Early Church. A religion in which followers profess allegiance to a Kingdom beyond the earthly one in which they live is bound to cause suspicion in a communist dictatorship or dogmatic theocracy.
Numerous examples of how Christians around the world have been afflicted in just the past three months show those in power often feel threatened when even the tiniest minority expresses faith.
• Lina, a Christian believer in Southeast Asia, goes into hiding after receiving death threats for being an apostate.
• As a Central Eurasian pastor eats lunch with a dozen guests, police raid his home, confiscate his laptop computer and seize all his Christian literature.
• A Christian woman in Southern Asia who is seven months pregnant is gang-raped by three men in retaliation after members of their families refuse to renounce Christianity.
• A Christian journalist in Northern Asia is fired and taken into police custody after urging officials to investigate the demolition of a church under construction.
• Fifteen people huddling for protection in a church in Southern Asia are killed in fighting between government troops and rebels.
• A sword-carrying mob of more than 100 men sets fire to an evangelical church in Southern Asia after the first night of revival services.
• In an African city, 35 pastors and church elders are jailed, subjected to forced labor and tortured because of their religious beliefs.
• Four young single African mothers — all new Christians — drown with their children when their boat capsizes as they attempt to flee their country.
A changing world
Although in a sense we now live in a global village, Americans still tend to view life through a grid of individual liberties that skews the view of basic human rights. It’s hard for our culture to comprehend real, faith-related traumas elsewhere. In the United States the debate is about “lifestyle choices,” not belief systems.
Even faithful evangelicals forget about Christians suffering thousands of miles away from our nation’s shores. When Christian bookstore shelves are full of titles telling individuals how to be blessed financially or how to eat according to a biblical diet, the concerns of believers who face death for their faith often fade from the radar screen.
But as never before, the ideologies of 21st-century nations are being shaped by either the religious liberties or restrictions in place. World order is not so much about politics and business as it is about religion.
Half a century ago extreme Islamic law ruled in only one country — Saudi Arabia. Now it dictates daily life in more than a half dozen nations in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Likewise, several countries dominated by Hindu or Buddhist policies have tightened controls on Christians.
In countries where they are a religious minority, Christians often experience subtle forms of discrimination. It might involve being denied housing or losing a job promotion. In severe cases, suffering for one’s spiritual beliefs results in imprisonment or even martyrdom.
Those who suffer the most are national pastors and their families. Often their children are not admitted into schools and their families are left out of housing programs and may even forfeit their food ration card. In one Eurasian nation, Christian martyrs can’t be buried in cemeteries. Their bodies are thrown in an unmarked grave for “infidels.”
Yet a new boldness is evident among many Christians in crisis situations. They know discipleship can be costly. For example, a national leader in Eurasia recently opened a Bible school in a region populated by religious extremists who once threatened to kill him. He is risking his life, but he believes he must proceed for the sake of the gospel. In the world today, much of the conflict between Christianity and other religions is a direct response to the spread of the Christian church.
Ironically, suffering frequently strengthens a Christian’s resolve to hold fast to the faith. In several instances, children of incarcerated and even murdered pastors have become ministers themselves. When individual believers suffer, the church grows stronger. That doesn’t mean the congregation will necessarily gain new converts, but the commitment level of those who remain tends to deepen.
Assemblies of God personnel have been linguistically and culturally trained and are prepared to work with national leaders in several countries where missionaries are not permitted. Although how they will minister in those nations remains unclear, when a window opens they will be ready to go, just as they were 15 years ago when communism fell in Eastern Europe.
The right response
It’s not feasible to try to impose a spiritual belief system — or American standards of justice — on regimes governed by nonbiblical principles. An international outcry demanding immediate results works only infrequently, as it did in March in Afghanistan. Abdul Rahman faced a death sentence in a Kabul court after converting to Christianity from Islam. His family brought the complaint under the country’s Shariah laws. But after religious liberties organizations and foreign governments exerted influence, the court dismissed the charge and Rahman was granted asylum in Italy.
Certainly there are instances when American Christians need to call their congressional representatives and demand pressure be put on governments where believers are jailed. But usually pressure from the outside, especially in a post-9/11 world, is counterproductive and may prompt other governments to carry out reprisals.
In 1994, global protests led to the release of jailed Assemblies of God pastor Mehdi Dibaj in Iran. But within months, Dibaj and prominent Assemblies of God pastors Haik Hovsepian-Mehr and Tateos Mikaelian all suffered martyrdom. Many in the small Iranian Christian community subsequently fled the country.
Those in the West who clamor for action at injustice don’t have to live with the fallout. U.S. Assemblies of God officials and missionaries usually take their cues from national church leaders on how — or even if — to proceed in such situations. Most of the time, missionaries can flee repression, but nationals must stay behind and face possible incarceration.
In dealing with an antagonistic government, U.S. Assemblies of God World Missions personnel weigh the long-term goals. Pressing for reform in the public eye runs the risk of losing a platform to be in the country. Praying and fasting that the Holy Spirit will break bondages is more effective.
Sending U.S. dollars can be a tremendous help to Christians whose homes and churches have been destroyed, or to widows whose husbands have been imprisoned or killed. However, American Christians — even if they have altruistic motives — need to work through existing channels to avoid a possible crackdown in the aftermath. Visiting those suffering hardships in an effort to help sometimes leads to negative attention from those in control and results in further mistreatment.
Assemblies of God members have better opportunity to express concerns through prayers and contributions as a way to identify with those who suffer. In recent years, Christians in various countries have been jailed and fined on charges of “forcible conversions.” Officials sometimes equate giving food and clothing to the poor as an unlawful incentive to conversion.
Assemblies of God World Missions provides practical, tangible support for oppressed believers in other nations. In several instances, funds are used to support the families of pastors sent to prison for their biblical beliefs. AGWM also assists students who accept Christ on university campuses and are disowned by their families. On occasion, the Fellowship has relocated Christians whose lives were threatened.
Why should we care
Praying for brothers and sisters living under oppressed conditions is one of the responsibilities of Christians living in a free society. Sometimes the prayers of those living with full liberties are what sustain saints in intolerant environments. Believers can pray for safety, basic human needs such as food and shelter, and spiritual strength.
But petitioning the Lord that democracy would flourish in a particular society isn’t necessarily the best path. That’s because times of suffering serve to easily discourage the merely nominal believer. When people realize there is no social or political advantage to being a Christian — and in fact there might be a distinct disadvantage — it separates those who may belong to the faith for the wrong motives.
If you think you are too busy to pray for the suffering church, ask yourself this question: What if you lived under tyrannical conditions? Could the United States lose its religious liberties? Would you hold out hope the prayers of Christians elsewhere would help you?
Would you remain steadfast and uncompromising in your faith if you sat in solitary confinement? Would you be content in your isolation? If you lived in a country where your pastor was martyred, your church destroyed and your Bible confiscated, could you survive solely through a relationship with Jesus?
Forced conversions in the 13th and 14th centuries in the Near East and North Africa exterminated flourishing churches in multiple communities. Such widespread martyrdom is rare now in an era when hardships often lead to spreading the faith. A century ago Muslims outnumbered Christians 30 to 1 in what is now Nigeria. By 1970, the Christian population equaled the Muslim population in what has become Africa’s most populous country. If for no other reason, American Christians should care about the suffering in Africa and Asia because that is where the majority of Christians may well live in the near future.
God answers prayer. For example, authorities in a Middle Eastern country in July released a lay pastor who had been imprisoned for attending an Assemblies of God church conference. He had been scheduled to serve an additional 14 months of a three-year prison sentence, but officials released him unexpectedly, with no explanation.
Likewise, prayer coupled with fasting often softens the hearts of those in authority in a way no amount of protesting could. Two Asian men had received 15-year prison sentences for receiving New Testaments in their native language. But members of a local church began to fast and pray intensely. After only a month behind bars, a judge inexplicably released the convicted men.
Prayer remains an effective means of reaching out to suffering Christians in other lands. Prayer may not be convenient. It may require getting up earlier in the morning or being responsive if the Lord wakes you up in the middle of the night. Yet intercession at the Spirit’s leading may spare a Christian overseas from suffering, or even death.
* Not his real name
John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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