How Can I Help the Persecuted?

Many Christians share my sense of frustration at feeling so helpless in the face of waves of Christian persecution around the world.

But what can I, a lone individual living in faraway Australia do – practically speaking – to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians being persecuted around the world?

I pray for them and I donate money to Christian groups that are active in the field. I try to alert my church to the issues.

But I am not sure what more I can do.

I am full of admiration when I read in the book “Defying ISIS” by Johnnie Moore that in December 2014 the Cradle Fund organization provided direct assistance that enabled tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees to survive the winter.

More recently, the US-based charity Mercury One – founded by media personality Glenn Beck – chartered an aeroplane and flew 149 Christian refugees from Iraq to sanctuary in Slovakia.

When I search the internet for ways to help the persecuted I am advised to write letter to government leaders.

I am not optimistic about that. I have in the past occasionally written to local politicians about issues that concerned me, only to receive the blandest of responses and no evident change in government policy.

My government has pledged to take thousands of refugees from the fighting in the Mideast, and that is starting to happen. Some of these refugees are Christians. Perhaps I should write and ask that Australia take more.

I could help refugees who have arrived in Australia. In fact, I am doing this to a modest extent, as we have several refugees in our church.

I could also help educate people. The more that Christians know about the plight of refugees the more inclined they will be to help. And I do this too, in a limited way, through my writing activities. So I am doing a little.

I am encouraged to learn of a conference to be held in the US in July, called “The Bridge,” and specifically aimed at helping the church to care about, and be involved with, fighting persecution.

Over three days, attendees at the conference will meet the organizations, churches and mission agencies that are working on the ground, and learn how to connect and work with the persecuted.

But the conference has one more goal as well, and this is important. It will urge Christians to seek inspiration in the persecuted church. Speakers will use the example of the persecuted church as a call for revival.

The book “Defying ISIS” touched on this issue after encountering some of the persecuted in the Mideast: “Through their excruciating pain, through the weight of their trauma, and their thousand kinds of brokenness, they don’t resent the call to suffer that God has put upon their shoulders, but they welcome it. They celebrate it, and they feel honoured by it. They inspire us by it.”

I shall continue to look for ways to help the persecuted. But, at the same time, I shall strive to understand that, in their suffering, the Christians of the Middle East might also be helping me and others in our walk with the Lord.

Liberal and Tolerant Malaysia Heading Down the Islamist Path?

I sometimes struggle to understand why Malaysia should be moving steadily up the rankings in the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith. In the 2016 list Malaysia is ranked at No. 30 – classified as moderate persecution – compared to No. 37 last year and No. 40 in 2014.

I live in Australia and have travelled to Malaysia several times – my wife and I took our three sons there on holiday some years ago when they were young – and have always found it pleasurable, open and extremely friendly.

We have many Malaysian migrants in Australia, and every church I have attended seems to have its quota of Malaysian worshippers (mainly of Chinese background). They sometimes travel back to their home country, and – as best as I can tell – attend church in Malaysia with complete freedom.

A young missionary friend found himself sent to do administrative work at one of his mission group’s regional offices. It was in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. He loved the vibrant life there. His wife’s parents, when they visited, used to take advantage of the excellent dentists to have major procedures done at less than half the Australian cost.

The former minister of a church I attended now has a roving ministry, teaching at seminaries around Asia. He bases himself in Kuala Lumpur. He sometimes preaches at the Anglican cathedral there.

Now aged in my sixties, I receive occasional newsletters aimed at retirees. Go and live in Malaysia, they sometimes urge. Enjoy an Aussie lifestyle at half the cost of Australia.

So it is hard for me to envisage Malaysia as a country where Christians experience moderate persecution. And certainly not on the scale of, say, the Central African Republic, China or Algeria, all of which Open Doors ranks similarly to Malaysia.

Indeed, even Open Doors concedes, “Malaysia is still known as probably the best role model of a liberal and tolerant Islamic country in the world.” But then it adds ominously that “this image is increasingly fading, especially given incidents that have occurred over the past year.”

What incidents? “One example of this is the effort to introduce Sharia penal law (hudud) in the federal state of Kelantan. Its implementation requires amendments to the federal law, so the introduction is still pending, but it clearly shows an increasing Islamic conservatism.”

So even in “liberal and tolerant” Malaysia we witness the spreading tentacles of radical Islamism. We have seen this already in neighboring Indonesia, where an aggressive fundamentalist movement increasingly pressures the authorities to place restrictions on Christian worship, with dire results.

Violence is one of the tactics that is used, and so it is little surprise to find this warning to travellers, on the website of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “Terrorists may be planning attacks in and around Kuala Lumpur. Attacks could be indiscriminate and may target Western interests or locations frequented by Westerners.”

Last year, observing the escalating persecution of Christians in Indonesia I wrote: “This is exactly what Christians in Muslim countries fear – the growing belligerence of a violent and intolerant minority who intimidate the majority into passive silence. If ‘moderate’ Indonesia is unable to stand up to this minority, the outlook for Christians in much of the Muslim world is grim.”

It is nothing less than tragic that we can now see the same trends in liberal and tolerant Malaysia.

Who is Truly Happy in Bhutan?

Last week’s official visit to the Kingdom of Bhutan by Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has put the spotlight on this tiny nation, wedged between China and India high in the Himalayas.

With a total population of only around 750,000, Bhutan is not well known to most people in the West, apart from a single snippet of trivia. In 1972 the country’s king introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness – based on Buddhist values – as a gauge of the nation’s development.

So the Gross National Happiness Index embodies not only economic development but also the preservation of traditional cultural values, ethical governance and the protection of the environment. It is rare nowadays to find a media report on Bhutan that does not somehow incorporate a reference to the index and the perceived happiness of the nation’s people.

Sadly this happiness does not necessarily extend to the country’s small Christian population, estimated at fewer than 20,000 people. For Bhutan is ranked at No. 38 in the latest Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith.

The “Operation World” prayer guide comments: “Christians are denied religious freedom and are persecuted in various ways. Church buildings are forbidden in all but a very few cases; most fellowships must meet in homes. Bhutanese who become Christian face the loss of their citizenship, of other benefits – such as free education, health care, employment – and of access to electricity and water. In some instances, harassment and beatings occur.”

(The Duke Of Cambridge is the elder son of Prince Charles, and when he ascends to the throne of the United Kingdom he will also become Supreme Governor of the Church of England. It would be pleasant to imagine that he raised these matters with the Bhutanese authorities. Perhaps he did, though I assume not.)

By chance, happiness has been on my mind recently. This week my church is starting a Bible study group for newcomers to the congregation, and I shall be leading. Our first study is on Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount.

Traditionally, this Bible passage is presented in English as a series of blessings – “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and so on. But the study guide we are using, aimed at new Christians, replaces the word “blessed” with “happy.” Thus, “Happy are the poor in spirit,” and, of course, “Happy are those who are persecuted.”

Clearly Christian notions of happiness are radically different from those of the secular world – or of Bhutan. For a Christian’s happiness is a spiritual happiness that derives from our complete dependence on our mighty God and the blessings we receive from Him.

Now I do not want to downplay the persecution or the suffering of Bhutan’s Christians. I do not envy them their plight. I would not wish it on anyone. Yet, based on words of Jesus, they are among the happiest of all people in their country.

“He Knew!” Persecution Eases in Sri Lanka

I read regular commentaries on the persecuted church, but one in particular has stuck in my mind. It is a chilling 2013 article in America’s Baptist Press titled “Sri Lankan churches attacked, closed.”

It detailed an escalating series of attacks on churches by mobs of Buddhist extremists. In many cases local authorities refused help, sometimes even effectively endorsing the violence. According to the report, some people had become afraid of stepping foot in church.

But it was something else that caught my attention and has remained in my memory. For the article said that the attacks and church closings had not hampered the spread of the gospel. It quoted a pastor as follows: “God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!…He opened our minds to a new way of doing ‘church’ last year. Before this even started happening, we were training lay leaders to lead house churches in their homes.”

So as official churches were closing, house churches were starting up, “in someone’s house, a business or even outside under a shade tree.”

One pastor said his church had started meeting in 16 different homes and was growing for the first time in years. Another said his church had separated into eight groups, and these were reproducing and starting new churches.

According to the report: “Those who were once afraid to go to a religious place for fear of a mob or the monks asking questions are not concerned about going to a friend’s home.”

In 2013 Sri Lanka gave the impression that it might become a country like Pakistan is today, with a Christian minority living in fear of the increasing aggression of belligerent extremists from the religious majority. In 2014 Sri Lanka was ranked at No. 29 in the annual Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith.

But then in 2015 it fell sharply to No. 44. And in the 2016 list, released this January, it has dropped out altogether.

Open Doors commented: “A dictatorial president, Mahina Rajapaksa, was unexpectedly defeated in January [2015] elections after appearing confident of victory. He had close ties to two radical Buddhist movements and, since then, both movements have been quiet.

“Churches are still attacked by local communities, but nationally-approved violence seems to be on the decrease, even if it continues to make little difference if Christians complain after an attack.”

I do not know enough about current conditions in Sri Lanka to be able to draw a direct connection between the rise of the house church movement and the decline in persecution. But that pastor’s beautiful comment has remained lodged in my brain: “God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!”

As we witness the dramatic escalation in the persecution of Christians in so many countries we should heed what has happened in Sri Lanka and we should remember that pastor’s words.

God knows! He is in control. That is a message of hope for all Christians.

Yes, The News Is Good

As Christians celebrate the risen Christ it is a period to remember that the news is good, not bad. The victory is won, the strongholds have been defeated. So at a time when the news media seem to be relaying little but relentless disaster, it is worth looking instead at some good news.

One of my local newspapers, The Australian, has an excellent article on Easter celebrations in China, where, despite repression, the church seems to be continuing its remarkable growth.

The report focused on two Beijing congregations, the Zhushikou Protestant Church in the south of the city and the magnificent baroque Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

A rock band at the former church was leading 300 young worshippers. The lead singer, Gao Liang, a convert of three years, was prominently wearing a WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? – badge.

At the cathedral – which actually maintains a daily Latin mass – a young congregation of 600 packed the building, with a large screen placed outside for the overflow audience.

The report noted that churches in China seemed especially attractive to those in their 20s and 30s, and it quoted one worshipper who said they came “to seek truth and genuineness, to think, and to find belief.”

The writer of the article, Rowan Callick, is Asia-Pacific Editor with The Australian and also an Anglican lay preacher in my city, Melbourne.

In his report he noted pointedly: “An estimated 100 million people in China have already become Christians – more than the 84 million in the ruling Communist Party. As a result more people worship in China on a typical Sunday than attend all the churches in Europe combined.”

The growth of the church in China is of course not news. I have written about it many times.

Some years ago, when the Dalai Lama paid a visit to Australia, the newspapers were full of stories about the modest growth of Buddhism in this country. I contacted a newspaper editor and suggested a story, that I would write, on what I thought a far more significant phenomenon – the stunning number of Chinese migrants to Australia who were turning to Jesus, very often from a non-religious background.

Take a drive around Melbourne and it is truly inspiring to see how many churches have billboards outside in both English and Chinese. My own Baptist church runs English, Cantonese and Mandarin services, and Chinese worshipper numbers are growing much faster than the English side.

But the editor was not interested. Christians are seldom considered newsworthy, unless they are involved in scandal.

Indeed, “if it bleeds, it leads,” is a common newspaper maxim, and the media this Easter have of course been full of stories about the ghastly, bloody events in Brussels. So it is certainly an appropriate time for us to reflect on those packed Easter-time churches in China – where Christianity was outlawed not so long ago – and to remind ourselves that, yes, the news is good.

Pakistani Christians in Thailand Need Help

Outrage is building over the treatment of Pakistani Christian refugees in Bangkok. I wrote about this issue last month, and now the BBC has also taken it up, in a documentary about their plight.

Over recent years the persecution of Christians in Pakistan has been intensifying, with the result that more than 10,000 have fled to Thailand seeking asylum. But in numerous cases they are arrested and jailed in Bangkok’s over-crowded immigration detention center. Using a hidden camera, a BBC journalist documented the oppressive conditions being endured by these Christians.

He was able to show some of the hundreds of asylum seekers being held in stifling heat. They include mothers, detained with their children. Many of the children are suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting, due to the poor sanitation and dirty drinking water

Those of the refugees who are not in prison must often live in cramped apartments and survive on hand-outs from churches and charities, or by engaging in illegal work activities.

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is taking years to process their claims for refugee status. Some observers say that UNHCR officials do not even regard the Pakistanis as being at a real risk of persecution in their home country.

It raises the question of why these Christians feel impelled to make the leap from the Pakistani frying pan into the Thai fire. When they realize that their fate is long years in Bangkok, unable to work legally and relying on hand-outs, and possibly even months in a detention center, why do they not simply return home?

It is not difficult to find reasons. For example, three years ago in March 2013 a mob of 3,000 Muslims attacked Joseph Colony, a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, setting fire to more than 170 homes and two churches. Also in Lahore, just one year ago, suicide bombers attacked two churches, killing 21 worshippers and injuring more than 70.

The BBC report provided further graphic examples. It featured a man named Sabir who fled Pakistan two years ago with his extended family. They now all live – 10 people – in a room with no kitchen or toilet. The UNHCR has said it will not investigate his case until 2018. Two months ago his wife was arrested.

Yet he proclaims that he does not regret leaving Pakistan, where his family was threatened with death if they did not convert to Islam. “Over here, the only fear we have is of the immigration police, nothing else,” he told the BBC.

The BBC journalist also met a pastor who says Islamists tried to cut off his arm and his sister was burned alive, as punishment for converting to Christianity.

But the online BBC report was able to end on a note of hope. It quoted a Pakistani Christian man named Daniel: “Jesus said to us, ‘if someone troubles you, don’t ask for curses for him, instead, you should ask for blessings for him.’ So, we ask for blessings for the UNHCR.”

We must pray that the same spirit of love and reconciliation might quickly touch the hearts of all officials in Thailand.

India – Fears of Worsening Tensions

One of the sadder entries in the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List – of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith – is that of India, which has risen into the top 20 for the very first time. It is at No. 17, compared to No. 21 in 2015 and No. 28 in the previous year.

My parents were old-fashioned Socialists, and I grew up in a household in which India was viewed as a diversely multicultural and enlightened democracy, a country that pointed the way to a bright (and Socialist) future of harmony for the entire world. Our family revered leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

We were not religious, but it even seemed to us – wrongly, it must be noted – that India was a wonderful melting pot where people of many faiths could live happily and peacefully together.

Indeed, Ghandi himself was greatly influenced by Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, which he once said, “went straight to my heart.” Though, when asked why he did not himself become a follower of the Christ whom he so much loved, he famously replied: “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

As for Nehru, he once told the Indian Parliament: “Christianity is as old in India as Christianity itself. Christianity found its roots in India before it went to countries like England, Portugal and Spain. Christianity is as much a religion of the Indian soil as any other religion in India.”

The atmosphere has changed dramatically in the ensuing decades. A new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was elected to power in 2014. He is a staunch Hindu nationalist, and has been accused of turning a blind eye to radical Hindu groups as they persecute Indians of other faiths.

According to Open Doors:

It has been a year [2015] of deafening silence from its Hindu extremist leader Narendra Modi, as attacks on churches and pastors climbed even higher than in 2014. Mobs can act with impunity, as Hindu extremism is deliberately stoked. Rev. Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India said: “Political Hinduism has arrived and majoritarian persecution has begun….Every week there are three to four incidents of mobs attacking Christians.”

The International Christian Concern organization reports that there have been widespread reports of further attacks on Christians and churches this year, leading to worries that 2016 could be a worse period for India’s Christian community than 2015, which itself was the worst year on record for Christians in India’s independent history.

Such has been the rise in attacks on Christians that at the end of February a group of 34 US congressmen sent a letter to Prime Minister Modi, calling on him to condemn the persecution and to uphold the rule of law.

It is difficult to be optimistic. I fear a grim future for many Indian Christians, of worsening tensions and increased hostility.

But then, I was wrong in my idealistic youth, when I viewed India as a multicultural utopia. I hope and pray I am wrong now.

Please Continue to Pray for North Korea

It is easy nowadays to overlook North Korea. Many Christians who are burdened by the plight of the persecuted church now direct much of their prayer to the Middle East, where the flood of horrific news seems ceaseless. By contrast, so encompassing is the veil of secrecy over North Korea that we hear little about the suffering of Christians there.

Thus, the Open Doors World Watch List for 2016 of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith has performed an important service in once again highlighting the appalling regime of North Korea.

For the 14th straight year North Korea has been listed as the country where it is most dangerous to be a Christian.

According to Open Doors, some 50,000 to 70,000 of an estimated 300,000 North Korean Christians are in prison camps.

It says:

Christianity is not only seen as “opium for the people,” as is normal for all communist states, it is also seen as deeply Western and despicable. Christians try to hide their faith as far as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to labor camps with horrific conditions. Thus, one’s Christian faith usually remains a well-protected secret, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked.

Such is the secrecy that prevails, we learn little about true conditions within the country, and in particular the predicament of Christians.

Occasional items of news sneak out. For example, I recently met a man who actually visited the country a few years ago. It is known that North Korea has a tuberculosis problem. According to the World Health Organization, 5,000 died from the disease in 2014. But this man said medical workers told him the problem is almost certainly significantly worse, with numerous cases that are not officially recorded.

In another glimpse, a Bangkok newspaper reported recently that some 2,000 North Korean refugees were arriving illegally in Thailand each year, and the number seemed set to rise.

Most come via China and Laos and were, according to the report, a “growing dilemma.” The newspaper quoted an immigration official as stating that the Thai government wished to work with the Laotian government to stem the refugee flow.

But these are just snapshots, and otherwise we must assume that conditions remain as dire as has sometimes been reported.

I have a particular concern for North Korea. My wife is Korean, from Seoul. But both her parents are refugees who fled from the North during the Korean War. My wife probably has relatives in North Korea, but she does not know who they are and she has certainly never been able to contact them.

So she prays, for North Korean Christians and for all North Koreans. She feels that is about all she can do. Please join her in prayer. Please do not forget North Korea.