“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20).
The things I’m about to describe are not pleasant. But they are true. And we must not ignore them.
The first story is from our own generation. A group of ruthless soldiers attacked a village, tormenting and killing men, women, and children. The village included a number of evangelical Christians. Journalist Mark Danner writes,
There was one, in particular, the soldiers talked about that evening: a girl whom they had raped many times during the course of the afternoon, and through it all, this girl had sung hymns, strange evangelical songs, and she had kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest.
She had lain there with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing–a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, and their wonder began to turn to fear–until finally they had unsheathed their machetes and hacked through her neck, and at last the singing had stopped.
Something similar happened centuries earlier to another young woman. It was the year 177, in the French city of Lyons. Blandina was a young slave in her early twenties. She was arrested and jailed for being a Christian. Before long she and other Christian women, children, and men were herded into a stadium filled with hateful, howling spectators.
The governor, a Roman, ordered the Christians to swear to the divine Caesar as their lord. A few did so with downcast faces and were allowed to leave the arena. The rest refused. “Very well,” barked the governor, “you have chosen the beasts, the fire, and the sword.” A number of soldiers then began to beat some of the prisoners with whips and slash at them with swords. When one of them asked for permission to explain their beliefs to the governor, the soldiers cut him down on the spot. Then they singled out a deacon, beat him, and killed him by crushing him between two red-hot copper plates.
Blandina and the other Christians were then returned to the dungeon. From morning to night the jailers tortured Blandina by cutting her with daggers and wrecking her arms and legs on a rack. They told her to curse Christ and admit the evils of Christianity, but she replied that she was not ashamed to be a Christian. The next day they brought her and some others back into the arena to be attacked by animals. The beasts killed some of the other Christians, but for some reason they left Blandina alone. So the guards hauled her back to prison.
A few days later they brought her back into the arena yet again, along with a fifteen-year-old Christian boy. Blandina urged the boy to stand firm. He did not deny Christ and would not call Caesar divine, so the animals were set loose. Soon the boy lay dead, but Blandina, battered and bloody, remained alive. Despite her suffering, her face was radiant. An eyewitness later said, “She looked as if she were invited to a wedding feast, not thrown to the beasts.” Her tormentors wrapped her in a net and brought in a vicious bull to gore, trample, and toss her. Even then, she still wasn’t dead, so a soldier finally finished her off with his sword.
Two young women: one ancient, one modern. Each died a hideous and holy death. The ancient martyr’s face shone as she suffered; the modern martyr’s voice sang as she suffered. The ancient martyr was finished off by a sword; the modern martyr, by a machete. Both trusted the same Savior. Both trusted a Savior who was himself tortured and murdered, a Savior whose followers in the past faced torture and murder, a Savior whose followers still face torture and murder in many places.
When Jesus lived here on earth, many people hated him, especially the rich and powerful. Jesus was well aware of their hatred, and he knew his followers would also be hated. The night before Jesus was crucified, just a few hours before he was arrested, he told his friends. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first… Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18-20). Jesus went willingly went to the cross, and those who belong to Jesus must be willing to embrace the way of the cross.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Those words can refer to denying our own sinful desires and making daily sacrifices to do the Lord’s will, but for many Christians, the meaning turns out to be literal: they actually lose their lives for Christ.
This has been true throughout history, and it remains true today. Paul Marshall, a leading authority on religious persecution, has written a book, Their Blood Cries Out, which describes and documents the suffering of Christians in our time, and much of today’s program draws on Dr. Marshall’s book. Some of the worst suffering has come at the hands of atheistic communists and militant Muslims.
With the collapse of many communist governments, we might forget how horribly those governments treated Christians, and we may too easily overlook the fact that communists still hold power over a vast number of people. So let’s be aware of what happened under recent communist regimes and what still happens in some places that remain under communist control.
When Lenin’s communists took control of Russia, church property was taken away and the church was prohibited from any involvement in education. Many church leaders were executed, and countless others were imprisoned. Under Stalin things became even worse. About 200,000 Russian Orthodox priests, monks, and nuns were slaughtered. Another 500,000 were imprisoned or exiled to Siberia, where up to 90 percent died in the camps of the Gulag Archipelago. Archives of the Soviet secret police reveal, “Most priests were shot or hanged, although other methods used by Communist death squads included crucifying pastors on their church doors or leaving them to freeze to death after being stripped and soaked in water during winter.” Along with the church leaders who were murdered, tens of millions of ordinary believers suffered imprisonment, torture or death. Other countries in the Soviet bloc often persecuted Christians in much the same way.
Let’s remember the heroism of those who suffered and died rather than deny the Lord Jesus, and let’s keep in mind that many Christians still suffer under communist rulers at this very moment. The collapse of Soviet communism did not make communism disappear from every country. Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, and China (with a billion-plus people) remain in the grip of rulers who have no respect for Christianity and little regard for freedom of religion.
Indeed, after communist dictatorships had collapsed in other countries, China’s government-run news service pointed out that “the church played an important role in the change” and declared, “If China does not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.” Paul Marshall points out that this is what the brutal dictator Herod tried to do to when he was told of the birth of a God-given Savior. Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus before he could ever grow up. So too, Chinese leaders would like to destroy all churches that aren’t registered with the government and under government control, before the movement gets bigger.
Here’s an example from the 1990’s, reported by Human Rights Watch. In China, five Protestants from Shaanxi were arrested and severely tortured without a word of explanation. They were singled out because authorities suspected them of contact with foreigners. According to an eyewitness,
“The officers stripped the three brethren naked from the waist and forced the women to stand with them. Not only did they then beat them, moreover they forced each of the twenty-six other local [non-Christian] people to beat each [Christian] a hundred times with bamboo rods. If they refused … they would in turn be beaten. The three men were beaten until they were totally covered with blood and had gaping wounds and injuries all over their bodies. As if such violent beating wasn’t enough, the officers then hung them up and began to hit them with rods on their backs. They did this until the three men were unconscious and barely breathing. We could hear only the sound of the beating and the cursing of the officers.
Sometimes Chinese leaders denounce the church as a “foreign influence.” But the church is much less foreign to China’s history and culture than communism is. The originator of communism, Karl Marx, certainly wasn’t Chinese. Fact is, communism is a relatively recent import from Europe to China, while there were Christians in China already 1,300 years ago. Indeed, at this very moment there are probably more Christians in China than there are members of the communist party. But the party continues to oppress, and the church continues to suffer. The Chinese government is somewhat less brutal than it was under Chairman Mao. It no longer murders Christians by the millions. It allows people to worship–if they do it the government’s way.
Worship is legal only if people register their church and activities with the government. The head of China’s Religious Affairs Bureau stated in 1996 that the purpose of requiring registration is government “control over places for religious activities as well as over all religious activities themselves.” In registered churches, government officials dictate who may preach; references to topics such as abortion, creation, and Jesus’ Second Coming are not permitted; and registered churches are restricted from teaching Christianity to children under age 18. Christian groups who refuse to operate under such restrictions, who take Christ and not an atheistic government as the church’s highest authority, are persecuted. Millions of Chinese Christians worship in unregistered, illegal house churches, and many pay a price. Property may be destroyed, and many house church leaders are harassed, beaten, and sentenced to spend years in labor camps for “re-education.”
Meanwhile, people outside China often know little about the persecution of Christians there. News media and movies have publicized Chinese oppression of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhists. The Chinese government’s attempts to outlaw and suppress members of the Falun Gong group have also been widely reported. Such attacks on religious freedom should indeed be known and denounced by the rest of the world. But for some reason the suffering of Christians in China often gets less notice than oppression of those who belong to other religions.
It’s reported that in 1996, the newly appointed American ambassador to China met with human rights organizations to discuss conditions in China. People concerned about Buddhists in Tibet found the ambassador was concerned and knowledgeable about their plight. But when someone mentioned Chinese persecution of “house churches,” the ambassador looked puzzled and asked, “What’s a house church?” He apparently knew next to nothing about millions of Christians in China who don’t register with the government and meet in homes instead. He seemed unaware that Christians who meet in house churches are targeted for harassment by Chinese authorities.
Meanwhile, the communists in Vietnam and North Korea are even nastier than the Chinese communists in their treatment of Christians. And don’t forget Cuba. Christianity in Cuba has survived and even grown during four decades of communist rule under Castro, but that is certainly no thanks to Castro and his cronies. It is due to God’s help and the enormous courage and faith of Cuban Christians who have been willing to serve Christ in the face of hardship and even death.
Cuban poet Armando Valladares spent twenty-two years in Castro’s prisons. He writes of one Christian in particular who made a powerful impression:
All of us called Gerardo the Brother of the Faith …
His sermons had a primitive beauty; he himself had an extraordinary magnetism. From a pulpit improvised from old salt-codfish boxes covered with a sheet, behind a simple cross, the thundering voice of the Brother of the Faith would preach his daily sermons. Then we would all sing hymns he wrote out on cigarette packages and passed out to those of us at the meeting. Many times the garrison broke up those minutes of prayer with blows and kicks, but they never managed to intimidate him. When they took him off to the forced-labor field, he organized Bible readings and choirs. Having a Bible was a subversive act, but he had, we never knew how, a little one which he always carried with him.
If some exhausted or sick prisoner fell behind in the furrows or hadn’t piled up the amount of rock he had been ordered to break, the Brother of the Faith would turn up. He was thin and wiry, with incredible stamina for physical labor. He would catch the other man up in his work, save him from brutal beatings. When one of the guards would walk up behind him and hit him, the Brother of the Faith would spring erect, look into the guard’s eyes, and say to him, “May God pardon you.”
In the midst of the apocalyptic vision of the most dreadful and horrifying moments in my life, in the midst of the gray, ashy dust and the orgy of beatings and blood, prisoners beaten to the ground, a man emerged, the skeletal figure of a man wasted by hunger, with white hair, blazing blue eyes, and a heart overflowing with love, raising his arms to the invisible heaven and pleading for mercy for his executioners.
“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” And a burst of machine-gun fire ripping open his breast.
When Jesus was nailed to a cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). When Stephen, the first Christian martyr after Jesus was dying from a vicious hail of rocks being thrown at him by authorities who opposed Christ, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). The Cuban Brother of the Faith was echoing that same prayer as Castro’s thugs gunned him down.
Communist cruelty to Christians was horrific in the past century, and it continues in some places right now. Meanwhile, another source of persecution is becoming fiercer.
Muslim militants are becoming more fanatical and violent. It would be unfair to say that all Muslims are persecutors. In some cases Islam has been quite tolerant of people from other faiths, and many Muslims shudder at the violence committed by the most violent extremists. So let’s not stereotype all Muslims as an intolerant and cruel. But let’s also not ignore what militant Muslims are doing in many parts of the world.
Saudi Arabia insists on being 100 percent Islamic. Saudi law prohibits the expression of any religion besides Islam. Christian worship is banned. It is illegal to wear a cross, to speak a Christian prayer, or even to worship in private. Foreign Christians working in Saudi Arabia can be tortured and imprisoned for long periods without trial. Workers from powerful countries like the United States can usually get away with praying if they keep it very quiet and low profile, but those from less powerful countries face much harassment. Meanwhile, the treatment of Saudi citizens who are found to be Christians is far worse. Saudi Arabia defines itself as exclusively Islamic, so any Christian Saudi is assumed to be apostate from Islam and is subject to death. Since the Gulf War, the situation for Christians in Saudi Arabia has become worse than ever. However, many nations want Saudi oil, so they usually look the other way and don’t say much about the persecution.
Muslim militants control government in places such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Christians have been beheaded or murdered in others ways for the alleged offense of blasphemy, when their only crime is faith in Jesus Christ.
Even in Indonesia, which historically has been more tolerant toward Christians, the Muslim majority has become more militant. Hundreds of Indonesian churches have been burned by hostile Muslims. Our ministry’s Indonesian radio pastor believes the persecution may become even worse and more widespread.
Some of the worst atrocities, though, have been committed in places where Muslim militants are trying to expand their territory and drive out Christians. In the early 1900s Turkish Muslims murdered countless Armenian people of Christian background. More recently, the Azeri-Turks tried to force Armenians out of the region of Nagorno Karabakh. A young Armenian mother tells what happened in one village.
They attacked the village and started cutting the villagers into pieces. I myself heard the screams of a man who was having his head cut off by a saw. Then we took our children and ran away. The next day we returned to the village. The scene was atrocious. People were cut into pieces, their eyes were gouged out, their ears were cut off. We then saw the man whom I had previously seen being decapitated by a saw. The saw was lying next to him and all the blood had flowed out of his body. I’ve seen all these atrocities with my own eyes.
Horrible as all this is, I still haven’t mentioned the worst country of all: the Sudan. The National Islamic Front, which governs this African nation, may be the most ruthless on earth today. The Sudan sponsors international terrorism in Africa and overseas, but the government’s worst crimes are committed within its own borders. The government has tried to force Islamic law on Christians in southern Sudan. Non-Muslims have a choice: either convert to Islam or die in the desert without food, clothing, or shelter. Christian men are murdered; some are crucified. Women and children are carried off as slaves, to work for their captors, or to provide sex, or both. The horrors are so awful and so many that I can hardly begin to describe them. Slave traders sell humans for as little as fifteen dollars each. The going rate for a child is five head of cattle, or perhaps ten for a strong, healthy boy. the thousands of slaves are just part of the picture. Up to three million people in southern Sudan have died, thanks to the National Islamic Front, and more than half the remaining population, eight million people, are confined in camps. “The only apt comparison to the circumstances in Sudan,” says Paul Marshall, “is the world’s turning aside from Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.”
Don’t Ignore the Persecuted
Christians are not the only ones who suffer at the hands of ruthless killers, but they seem to be a favorite target. For decades the Back to God Hour ministry has broadcast the gospel to people in communist China and Russia, and we’ve broadcast to Indonesia and Arabic-speaking lands where Christianity is opposed by Islam. We have received many letters from listeners giving firsthand accounts of the suffering and hardship they face.
Please don’t ignore suffering Christians. Those of us who are Christians ourselves must remember our brothers and sisters who suffer. The Bible says, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3). Honor the faith of those who bear the brunt of persecution. Pray for them constantly. “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8). And, especially during this season of Lent, draw inspiration from the courage of heroic martyrs and resolve to follow Jesus more faithfully yourself.
But what if you’re not a Christian at all? Even so, I hope you’ll stand against the abuse of religious freedom, just as I stand against all religious oppression, whether it’s committed against Christians or those of other faiths. At the same time, I hope that after hearing these stories, you’ll ask yourself what has made so many people willing to die rather than forsake Jesus. Is Jesus really someone who is worth following to the death? If so, maybe it’s time you started to follow him too.
Lord God, give courage and help to persecuted Christians all around the world. Show mercy to them. Show mercy also to their persecutors, that they may turn from their wickedness and find new life in Jesus. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.