“Hello, my name is Tai Chi Poh, I am 13 years old, I am from Burma. I came here with my younger brother and sister. My mother died of some disease, she was very weak, and I remember she died in the jungle while we were in hiding. There were no doctors or medicines to save her. I can remember that we needed to cross many rivers and mountains. We walked and walked, and then we took a boat and then climbed the mountain again to come here. I come from a Christian family. I still have a father and a baby sister in Burma. My father and baby sister are still in hiding, my father hopes to get back to our village to take care of our farm.’ [The last thing my father said to me was,] ‘Save yourself and your siblings, this might be the last time we see each other here on earth, if so, we will see each other in heaven.’”
Tai Chi Poh related this story to a caretaker in our orphanage in Thailand where we have taken in Burmese children who have been orphaned by the ongoing war between the Burmese junta and the indigenous people groups of Burma, many of whom are Christians. Our caretaker told us that his eyes filled with tears as recalled the last words of his father, but that the next morning she awoke at 4:30am to hear Tai Chi Poh singing “hallelujah” outside of their hut as he prepared for church.
These children are so young, yet have already experienced so many horrors in life – it is hard to imagine how they manage to survive. Yet they are wise beyond their years and filled with the hope that only Jesus can give. In the safety of this home, Burmese children like Tai Chi Poh are being given an opportunity to live as children ought to live – playing, laughing, growing, and above all, learning about the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
Recently, a friend of ICC’s traveled to this orphanage and witnessed some of our Special Blessings gift boxes being delivered to these children (these are gifts from our supporters and donors). He told me that these children were so excited to receive these gifts that they immediately began a trading system with each other – bartering dolls for toy trucks and yo-yo’s for costume jewelry. They played with their new toys, shared openly with each other, and showed off to one another. I am happy to realize that it doesn’t matter what hardships a child has experienced in life – when it comes down to it, children are still children, and will find ways to enjoy their childhood as much as they can.
In Burma, as in many other places throughout the world, children are being targeted for violence, kidnappings, and even forced military service – and Christian children are often especially vulnerable. Jesus promised His followers that in life we will experience many hardships and trials, but to hold fast to our faith, as He has overcome the world (John 16:33). We need to teach these children to remain steadfast in their faith, and to do whatever is within our means to protect them from such persecution – for childhood is precious, and once it’s been taken away, it can never be returned.
In modern terms, most of us understand that a martyr is someone who has been killed for their faith, cause or conviction. But did you know that the word is actually derived from the Greek word for witness? There’s no better place to trace the word’s evolution from witness to martyr than in the book of Acts, beginning with the resurrected Jesus promising his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
To be a witness means that you bear testimony to what you have seen. When the Holy Spirit was poured out and Peter began to preach to the multitudes, his testimony was this: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Peter professed then what would become the hallmark of the apostles — they had been made witnesses of the resurrection.
You Will Be My Witnesses
It is for this testimony — the testimony of eternal, resurrection life — that most of the apostles ultimately gave their lives as martyrs. They had witnessed Jesus lay down his life that “through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death…and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15). As the first partakers of this Life in the power of the Holy Spirit, the apostles went everywhere upsetting the powers of darkness by proclaiming their defeat in the resurrected Messiah.
At Pentecost alone, three thousand souls once held captive by the fear of death that chains men to their wealth and self-interest were snatched from the fires of slavery into the waters of baptism. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the earliest believers followed the example of Christ in embracing a death to their natural desires and ambitions that allowed them to give sacrificially of their wealth and time, to patiently endure scorn and reproach at the hands of family and friends, and finally to suffer imprisonment and persecution.
Where the world coveted and saved for fear of want, the church gave it all away and lacked nothing. Where the world sought the accolades of man, the church endured humiliation and received an eternal weight of glory. Finally, in suffering and fear of death, when the world would crumble, curse God and die, the church leapt for joy to die and yet live with Christ.
This is the testimony of the church that has been left as the witness of Christ in the earth. The persecuted are prepared for martyrdom because they know the God who raises the dead. The persecution the church faces in some areas of the world requires that they count the cost well before they ever come to Christ. Many give up social status, wealth, freedom, and even relationship with their unsaved friends and families, and yet God meets them in their sacrifice to bring life and peace that surpasses understanding.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost, He brought all things to nothing before the immeasurable worth of Christ. In the same manner, the Holy Spirit enables some to suffer a martyr’s death and daily enables the persecuted church to live life abundant in the midst of their suffering and sacrifice.
Living With Christ
And while they may not be martyrs in the traditional sense of the word, the families of the martyrs live on to daily bear a testimony of the resurrection in how they choose to live and love in the face of such tragedy. The testimony of Pauline Ayyad, the widow of a Christian worker who was murdered in the Gaza strip, is that after the Father helped her overcome her grief, she is now able to say with pride, “It’s not everyone who gets to be called a martyr’s wife.” Birtukan, the wife of a martyred evangelist, named her infant daughter the Amharic word for “light” due to the light of the gospel that spread in their village after her father’s martyrdom.
Their stories are just a few of the countless ways that the persecuted church is spreading life where there should be death, saying with Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11).
The Way of the Martyr
Most of us won’t be facing a martyrdom like many do today in countries like Somalia and Nigeria, but in some ways, the harder road is to walk in the way of the martyr every day. To do that, we can choose daily in the Spirit to offer up our lives as a “living sacrifice,” to love instead of hate, and to be patient, kind, and bold in affliction — pointing our friends as well as our enemies to life in Jesus.
Can you say with Paul and the persecuted church that you are always carrying in your body the death of Jesus so that His life might shine in you? Can people smell the aroma of Christ when they meet you? Be encouraged today to walk in the way of the martyr — the way of everlasting life — by remembering the words of the Faithful Witness to fretting Martha at the tomb of her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live” John 11:25.
Washington, D.C. (September 16, 2011) – International Christian Concern (ICC) commends the Obama administration’s designation of eight nations as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) – a classification appointed to countries that severely violate religious freedom – in the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom released on Tuesday. However, the report failed to designate Egypt as a CPC despite the increase of violence targeting religious minorities and the killings of more than fifty Christians in 2011.
On April 28, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, had recommended for the first time that the State Department designate Egypt as a CPC. “Instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically,” said USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo. “Since President Mubarak’s resignation from office in February, such violence continues unabated without the government’s bringing the perpetrators to justice.”
Attacks against Egyptian Christians in 2011 include, but are not limited to:
• The bombing outside the Church of the Two Saints on New Year’s morning that killed 23 worshippers leaving a midnight mass celebration in Alexandria.
• The destruction of a church by a Muslim mob following reports of a romantic relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman in the village of Sol on March 5.
• The killing of nine Coptic Christians by a radical mob and the Egyptian military while Copts were protesting in the Mokattam Hills in Cairo on March 9.
• The killing of twelve Christians and Muslims by an Islamist group that attacked St. Mina Church and Virgin Mary Church in the Imbaba district of Cairo on May 7. One church was burned to the ground and numerous Christian-owned apartments and shops were vandalized and looted.
Egyptian Christians are also concerned that religious freedom will decline further if Islamist-based parties win the majority seat in Egypt’s parliament in elections scheduled for November. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is the most organized and financed contender in the elections and has publicly stated their intention to institute forms of Sharia (Islamic law) in the country.
While the U.S. gives 1.3 billion dollars in foreign military assistance to the Egyptian government annually, a CPC designation can carry economic sanctions if the Egyptian government fails to address U.S. concerns. Several U.S. congressmen have voiced frustration to ICC over the “illogical” approach taken by the U.S. in continuing to give billions of dollars in aid to a government that is yet to be elected and that may not be interested in honoring previous agreements made between the U.S. and Egypt, like maintaining a peace treaty with Israel.
“Egypt should be classified as a CPC,” Coptic scholar Magdi Khalil told ICC. “Further monitoring of persecution, like the special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Middle East known as [house bill] H.R. 440, would be pushed forward quicker and taken more seriously if Egypt was a CPC.”
Aidan Clay, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, “In light of increasing attacks on Christian communities and the Egyptian government’s failure to enhance security and institute nondiscriminatory reforms to protect religious minorities, we urge the Obama administration to strongly consider designating Egypt as a CPC. A CPC designation will give the U.S. additional leverage to place sanctions on existing military and emergency economic aid and to direct a portion of that aid to enhance security for religious minorities and fund civil society groups who are adamant about promoting religious freedom.”
Just weeks before the attacks on St. Mina Church and Virgin Mary Church in Imbaba on May 7, Coptic Christians had received warnings by Salafists, a radical Islamist group, that there “will be blood” if anyone showed up to St. Mark’s Cathedral in the Abbassia district in Cairo. In response, hundreds of Coptic Christians protested outside the cathedral that April day making a “human shield” around the cathedral to protect the church and its clergy.
Here at International Christian Concern, we at times find ourselves working tirelessly to defend fellow brothers and sisters in Christ whom we have never met living in countries we have never been to. We remember Jesus’ promise to those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the persecuted: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:41). We find joy in helping fellow believers and come to the realization, as I shared with a house fellowship of Indian immigrants in Qatar last week, that we are all equal and co-heirs with Christ in God’s kingdom (Rom 8:17). “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Our shared oneness in the body of Christ compels us to bear one another’s burdens regardless of the trials or tribulations that may follow.
This foundational teaching is sometimes forgotten by God’s children, even among those sent by churches in the West to represent Christ in the lands of the persecuted. One brother in Christ, Said Musa, was imprisoned nine months in Afghanistan before being released. The news of his circumstance was kept secret for five of those months until a courageous few – despite the disapproval of persuasive Christian expatriates in the country – decided to publicize his plight. Once public, the international community took notice and pushed their governments to act. The international pressure eventually led to Musa’s release last February. Meanwhile, Musa had been abused, raped, sleep deprived, mocked, and spat upon as he waited patiently in his prison cell for help.
Our Security in Heaven
While some Christian aid workers in Afghanistan wrote private letters appealing to the U.S. embassy in Kabul and other government agencies to assist Musa, they determined not to draw attention to the case and demanded that others follow their lead. They neither spoke to the public about Musa’s imprisonment nor visited him in prison, afraid that any connection to the case could jeopardize their work. Meanwhile, Musa and other Afghan believers both in Kabul and in the refugee community of New Delhi, India, pleaded with foreigners to raise awareness and advocate on their behalf. The Afghan church sought the prayers of the international church and wanted their sufferings to be known. Yet only a few heeded their words.
“Our security is in heaven, yet many trusted more in human security than what the Lord promised us,” a Christian couple in Kabul, who were the only foreigners to visit Musa in prison, told ICC. “When Musa was arrested, people were afraid. When we tried to get help, one organization said, ‘We are not going to let our project be jeopardized, or our presence for forty years in Afghanistan, for one person.’ It broke our hearts completely to hear that from a Christian. Musa is not a nobody; he’s our brother in Christ. He’s an Afghan brother, like you and me. For us, we had no choice. Of course our NGO is in danger. Of course our life is in danger. Of course we may get in very much trouble. Of course! But we felt we had no other choice.”
“When we visited [Musa] in prison, I was trembling,” the couple continued. “I can tell you, my heart was beating and I put on a veil – I’ve never put a veil on in Kabul – but I put on a veil because I was very, very scared. But when we saw him, all the people were shouting [obscenities at Musa for his apostasy] and it broke my heart. But even though I was very afraid, I would go again. It’s our duty. We thought we just cannot let him rot and be killed in prison.”
The couple approached many human rights agencies, including Musa’s fifteen year employer, the Red Cross, but were told time and again that a Muslim conversion to Christianity is a highly sensitive issue in Afghanistan and they would not intervene.
Regardless of fear and inaction, God carried out His perfect plan by keeping Musa in prison so that other Afghans may also know Him. During his imprisonment, Musa shared the Gospel with and witnessed the salvation of at least four fellow inmates.
“Two guys were addicted to opium,” Musa said of two prisoners chained next to him. “Their hands were in the chain. The commander tied them beside me in the corridor. He told me, Musa you are a true man, you are a right man, don’t let them smoke opium or hashish. I said, ‘I’m not a good man, God is good, but I will advise them.’ [The prisoners] spoke to me little by little. ‘Musa, I did many right things in Islam. I read the Quran, I prayed, but my life has become a bad thing. Despite everything I did, everything bad happened to my life.’ I told them, ‘If you want eternal life, if you want to become good, then you believe in Jesus, the Son of God.’ And I spoke to them little by little, and both of them believed in Jesus.
“For me it was amazing. We spoke about the Holy Bible and I prayed for them. And they became really good men. When they left the jail, we hugged each other and they said, ‘Musa, I will become really sad about you. You are a good friend to me. A good advisor. You are now my brother.’”
Though some foreigners in Afghanistan were afraid to publicly condemn Musa’s arrest or defend his religious rights, Musa on the other hand was openly sharing the Gospel to Muslims in a Kabul prison! He was not afraid of death but considered it his duty and joy to preach the Good News.
“We should suffer for our faith, because our Lord has suffered,” Musa said. “To speak the truth is better because the light is always over the shadow. I told my brothers and sisters in Afghanistan that they should be encouraged because the Holy Spirit is always with them. Jesus is always with them. If they kill me or others it doesn’t matter because it’s for our faith in Jesus.”
While Christian humanitarian organizations working in countries ‘closed’ to the Gospel hope that their actions, love, and words will lead nationals to Christ, they must also consider how they plan to respond when a national who comes to faith is arrested or in danger. Will they visit their brother or sister in prison, or hide to protect their humanitarian aid projects or their own neck? Is one brother’s life worth more than aid work that may save hundreds? And, if it was a western expatriate rather than a national who was arrested, would the organization react any differently? Some argue that the Bible does not grant us the liberty to decide whether or not we should attend to the needs of our brethren, but simply commands us to “do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith (Gal 6:10).”
ICC is often confronted by this dilemma as well – whether to speak out on behalf of injustice against national believers or remain quiet to protect the work of Christian aid organizations or missionaries inside the country. We have at times honored the requests of missionaries on the ground, but we have also been the ones to take a stand for the persecuted when they are begging us to assist them against the wishes of missionary organizations. We seek to serve both communities, but ultimately we know that every situation is different and we strive to seek and follow the counsel of the Lord in each instance.
Nonetheless, all of us must ask ourselves whether we will stand boldly for the name of Christ by defending our persecuted brethren even until death, or if we will cower in the face of oppression and injustice and persecution. Musa has made his choice.
“What great rewards for me if I am crucified on my cross… Please do not be afraid for the Lord is with us,” he wrote from prison on December 1, 2010.
Romani Hakim, a 19-year-old Coptic Christian, was murdered near his home by Salafists, a radical Islamist group, in Imbaba, Cairo on May 7, 2011. Twelve people were killed, more than 200 were injured, and two churches and numerous Coptic-owned homes and businesses were attacked in the day’s violence which targeted Egypt’s Christian community. An ICC representative visited Romani’s mother at her home.
The Shouwang Church in Beijing, China has been barred from its building and forced to worship outdoors since April 10th, 2011. Every Sunday, members show up for outdoor worship services, knowing that arrest is imminent. More than 480 pastors, leaders, and congregants from this house church of over 1,000 members have been arrested for their subversive actions against the communist regime.
This year alone, at least dozens of Catholic priests and Protestant pastors have been kidnapped, arrested, and sent to China’s prisons and labor camps where they suffer physical torture, solitary confinement, heavy labor, and political re-education.
For the past sixty years, churches who are not officially affiliated with the government-sanctioned Three-Self Church (Protestant) or the Patriotic Catholic Association have not been legally allowed to operate. But for many years now, especially in large urban centers, these illegal house churches have been allowed to gather openly despite government knowledge of their existence and usually left alone. But for Christians who choose to be a part of these churches, their decision is still a risky one. At any given time, the Chinese government can choose to actively persecute underground Christians, and attacks have been recently on the rise.
This year alone, underground pastors and priests have been arrested and sentenced to years of hard labor in China’s re-education labor camps where physical torture and solitary confinement are commonplace. Christian laypersons have been sentenced to house arrest where they are cut off from the outside world for months at a time, suffering with limited access to food and other basic necessities. Christians have been forced out of their rental homes by landlords coerced by the government to evict them, have lost their jobs with no reasonable explanation, have been detained for questioning at any given time, and have been kidnapped by the communist regime, never to be heard from again.
Despite the risks and growing incidences of attacks, underground Christians are remaining steadfast in their faith.
So why has China’s stance on the underground Church changed recently? Some believe that this year’s revolutions in the Middle East have motivated the communist regime to preemptively strike against any potential pro-democracy groups, such as the perceived Western-aligned underground churches. Others cite China’s growing economic and political prestige as the source of the nation’s blatant disregard for its citizens’ freedoms and rights, believing that as China becomes more autonomous and powerful in the world, the more it will increasingly oppress its citizens and turn a deaf ear to the world’s cries against its actions.
China may be attacking Christians out of fear that their subversive, yet peaceful allegiance to Christ will pave the way to a nationwide revolution against the abusive communist regime, or China may be attacking Christians because its leaders have gained so much power both nationally and internationally that they no longer need to succumb to pressures to act in moral and just ways, and have allowed the sins of pride to fully take over and fuel their violent attacks. Regardless of whether fear or pride are the driving forces behind the increasing persecution of Christians, we do know that out of the suffering of our Chinese brothers and sisters, the Chinese Church will continue to grow as Christ is glorified in their resilience.