The world couldn’t look away. Twenty-one men stood on a Libyan beach, hands bound behind their backs, heads bowed—in resignation or surrender. Or in a moment of intense, silent prayer. Behind each was a masked man, clad entirely in black, wielding a short, hilted knife.
Most of us stopped right there. News reports fill in the rest: The twenty-one men, whom we learned were Coptic Christians, migrant workers from Egypt, could be seen mouthing the word “Yasou,” or Jesus. Others could be heard singing and praying. Then they were forced down. This time, the camera didn’t cut away as the men were beheaded. Their blood flowed into the waters, churning red.
The image of these Christians martyred by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for refusing to convert to Islam forced the issue of religious persecution into the world’s eye. Though most of us had hardly given a thought to our fellowship with the Copts, adherents of an ancient Christian tradition with whom evangelicals have significant doctrinal differences, we saw that we were viewed by Muslim extremists as one and the same—infidels, worthy of extermination by the most brutal means.
Jesus prophesied to his disciples that “the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God” (John 16:2). After the release of the beheading video last February, and of other ISIS atrocities that followed—crucifixions, orchestrated gang rapes, beheadings of children—many Christians realized that time had already come. Yet there is hope, because history has proven that persecution of Christians never really works.
In October 2015, the US government stated that terrorists are the biggest threat to religious freedom. And there is a consensus that 2015 was one of the worst years on record for persecution of Christians, and for the assault on religious freedoms worldwide. Dr. Kurt Nelson (ThM, 1984), president and CEO of East-West Ministries, based in Plano, Texas, concurs. “Jesus was pretty clear on indicating that things were going to go from bad to worse,” he said. “I think we are seeing that played out in the twenty-first century. Persecution of Christians is clearly on the rise.”
It is impossible to come up with the number of Christians martyred in a given year. Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs, which monitors and supports the persecuted church, notes just one of the difficulties: Are we talking about born-again Christians, or are we talking about Christians by culture or heritage? Other measures, however, document the decline in religious freedoms worldwide.
The Pew Research Center has reported that more than 70 percent of the world’s population live in countries with a “high or very high” degree of religious restriction. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2015 report has identified seventeen countries “whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious.” Among those are China, Iran, Syria, Iraq, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Another ten countries are listed as “Tier 2” for their deteriorating freedoms—including India, Russia, and Turkey.
Every year, Open Doors Ministries publishes its influential World Watch List of the fifty nations where persecution of Christians is most prevalent. North Korea tops this year’s list, followed by Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. A unique case with its bizarre combination of Communism and a cult of personality surrounding the ruling family, North Korea severely represses all religions. But nearly three-fourths of the countries on the World Watch List are Muslim-majority, and this is where East-West Ministries, which supports indigenous Christian workers in fifty-four nations, is seeing the greatest erosion of freedoms. Hindu-majority India is another nation exhibiting a sharp downward trend. Prominent Hindu leaders have called for the eradication of Christianity (as well as Islam) in India, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sent mixed messages on whether he supports religious freedom.
In countries where religious freedom is challenged, repression takes two forms: top-down and bottom-up. China, whose government is reasserting authority over all Christian churches, is a good example of top-down controls. Albania, where the government has an official policy of tolerance for all religions, sees the opposite: social repression of Muslim converts to Christianity. Afrim Karoshi (MABS, 2009; MAMC, 2013), who works in his native Albania with the Cru-affiliated New Life Institute, says that three of his fellow staff members were disowned by their Muslim families, though the breaches have since been healed. In a number of severely repressive Muslim-majority nations, such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia, persecution of Christians comes from both directions—community and government.
The paradox is that, in many repressive nations, the gospel is spreading quickly, and the church is growing stronger. Dr. Nelson observed this dynamic when he interviewed thirty Cuban pastors who’d suffered under Fidel Castro. To a person, they said their congregations became stronger and more united amidst persecution.
Iran remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for Christians, with severe persecution of Muslim-background believers who attend the country’s rapidly multiplying, illegal house churches. And Dr. Hormoz Shariat, founder of Dallas-based Iran Alive Ministries, believes that the United States’ nuclear deal with Iran will make matters even worse. With the lifting of economic sanctions, Iran’s rulers “now have money to oppress their own people even more,” Dr. Shariat said. Nonetheless, Dr. Shariat, a former Muslim whose ministry broadcasts evangelistic television programs into Iran twenty-four hours a day, sees an acceleration of the Iranian people’s disaffection with Islam and openness to the gospel. “More pressure on the people of Iran, especially from the government, makes people more hungry spiritually,” he said.
Iran Alive has connections with hundreds of house-church leaders, and they are seeing a huge wave of decisions for Christ. One young man—we’ll call him Hassan—left behind a life of alcohol addiction, drugs, and illicit sex when he came to Jesus Christ through Iran Alive’s programming. He contacted Iran Alive at great risk to tell his story. When he turned to Christ, he said, his father locked him in a room in their house and told him he couldn’t come out till he recanted. He would rather have a drug addict for a son than a Christian, he told Hassan. The young man, seventeen years old at the time, stood firm: “No, Dad—Jesus has changed my life. How can I deny that?”
The father, a war veteran with government connections, responded by turning his son over to the authorities. His parting words: “I hope that they hang you. And if they do, I will be the one to put the rope around your neck.”
Arrested and jailed, Hassan endured weeks of torture. The young man calmly cataloged his injuries: numerous beatings, forty lashes, and a broken finger that ended his guitar-playing days. The authorities destroyed his education records, so he couldn’t go back to school. Then they broke his leg and released him. In much pain, Hassan contacted Iran Alive again with a question: Should he pursue contact with one of his torturers who was interested in Jesus, or could this be a trap?
After that contact, Hassan disappeared. Dr. Shariat said he recently heard from the young man’s cousin—who had become a believer through Hassan’s witness. Hassan, now nineteen, was back in jail. These are the stories of courage that Dr. Shariat hears often, and they hit close to home, he said. His niece, Naghmeh, is married to Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian leader who was in prison in Iran for three years. He was released after his cause was taken up by international human-rights organizations.
Increasing persecution has changed the ways free-church ministries do their work. Tom Doyle (MABS, 1983), vice president of e3 Partners, based in Plano, Texas, said his organization expects to send out some two hundred short-term missionaries to the Middle East this year, and they will work closely with indigenous leaders who know the places “where Americans can be an attraction [to the gospel], not a distraction.” Likewise, East-West Ministries will send more than seven hundred American believers this year into the world’s spiritually darkest places to partner with national believers in heralding God’s kingdom of light.
Since the frequency of persecution is greater when workers are known to be associated with Western missionaries, part of East-West’s strategy “is to be much more discreet,” Dr. Nelson said. Though Christian workers in these countries cherish the “presence” of fellow believers in the free church, presence is offered in new ways—through email, texts, and material support. “We’ve got to figure out how to do presence without creating risk,” he said.
Instead of shrinking back from the challenge, Dr. Nelson urges the free church to send more workers to repressive countries. “The best defense is a good offense,” Dr. Nelson said. “The reason persecution exists is because of spiritual darkness. The goal is to turn the tide—for enough people to come to Christ where you’ve got a presence of witness that begins to transform the culture.”