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.
“Have the Christians in America really heard about me? Yesterday, I cried out to God and said ‘Lord have I been forgotten? Is there anyone helping me?’ Then a man of God from our village prayed for me and said, ‘God will never forsake you.’ I believed that word. I was crying yesterday and here you are today with the help I needed.”
It’s not very often that we get to directly hear and experience the impact that our ministry (and your gifts!) have on our persecuted brothers and sisters, but last month one of our representatives had the chance to sit down and spend some time with the widow of an evangelist who had been martyred by Islamic radicals. Our representative in Ethiopia traveled 125 miles from the capital of Addis Ababa to reach the village where Birtukan lives in a small hut that she shares with her mother, step-father, and seven other people.
Two months earlier, Birtukan and her husband, evangelist Abraham, were living as missionaries in the city of Worabe, in southern Ethiopia, ministering among Muslims in the community. Their home was constantly attacked by Muslims who were enraged by their work as missionaries, and they had received numerous threats on their lives. On April 21, Birtukan, then six-months pregnant, and her husband were assaulted by Muslims. Her husband didn’t survive the attack. Birtukan told us what happened:
On that day, my husband and I were getting back to our home after visiting a sick person. A group of Muslims stopped us and said they wanted to talk to my husband. They started to assault him and forcefully took him away. I followed them. Then they turned on me. They beat me unconscious. I was taken to a hospital. After ten days, I was told that the Muslims beat my husband to death.
Our representative told us, “Her story broke my heart. I comforted her and told her how the gospel of Jesus Christ was passed from one generation to the next generation through the sacrifices of martyrs. I also encouraged her by telling her that the Lord will never leave her.”
Greatly encouraged by our visit as an answer to her prayers, Birtukan affirmed that she was sure the Lord would never leave her and thanked and blessed all those who had a role in helping her, saying, “May the Lord remember you at the times of your needs!”
ICC provided Birtukan with funds to help meet her immediate needs and is also helping her to start a small business where she will work to earn a sustainable income to support her family.
P.S. — At the time of our visit, Birtukan was nine-months pregnant. On July 6, just a few days later, she gave birth to a baby girl.
A decade ago, it was not uncommon for beheadings captured on video to be released by the Taliban, usually a warning to the West to stay out of Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The now-too-familiar executions began with a recitation of Quranic verses, then a jolt to the victim’s neck and a slow severing of the head with a small and sometimes dull knife, and finally ended with a chant of “Allah Akbar” or “God is great” while blood flowed from the decapitated corpse. Some notable killings included Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002 and U.S. defense contractor Nick Berg in Iraq in 2004.
Recently, President Obama announced a pullout plan that will begin reducing troops this year, just one indication that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is closer to completion and the ability for the Taliban to carry out their brutal beheadings has been somewhat constrained. Yet, all the while, Afghan Christians have been warning ICC that without a U.S. presence inside Afghanistan, they will be left defenseless and slaughtered if their religious identity becomes known. Their pleas for protection took on new urgency in early April when another video, this time a blatant warning to Afghan converts to Christianity, was smuggled out of the country by an Afghan Christian and immediately sent to ICC. “Please watch this and forward it to the world so they know how serious it is in Afghanistan to be a Christian,” a leader of the Afghan Christian refugee community in Delhi wrote to ICC.
In the two-minute video, believed to be filmed early this year, four Afghan militants who claim to be the Taliban behead a Christian man named Abdul Latif in Enjeel, a village south of the town Herat. The men, wearing explosive belts and kaffiya head scarves to cover their faces, pin Latif to the ground under their feet while he cries for mercy. “For God’s sake, I have children,” Latif pleads. The militants go on to announce his fate. “Your sentence [is] to be beheaded. Whoever changes his religion should be executed.” A blade is then thrust into Latif’s neck. Once decapitated, his head rests on top of his chest while the militants proclaim “Allah Akbar.”
We have decided to make this video available to the public due to the urging of our Christian contacts in Afghanistan who asked that it be forwarded to the world so that they would understand “how serious it is in Afghanistan to be a Christian.” The video is not intended to shock or exploit, it is simply intended to honor the wishes of Christians in Afghanistan and show the horrifying reality that many believers face around the world today for their faith in Christ. We have attempted to describe what you will see if you choose to watch this video in the paragraph above, so please understand that before you press play. If you do not wish to watch the video, a translated transcript has been provided below the video.
WARNING: The following video is extremely graphic and shows a man being completely decapitated with a blade. Nothing is censored or cleaned up. Do NOT watch this video if you are unprepared or unwilling to see that level of real violence.
Full translation of video:
Victim: For God’s sake, I have children. [He repeats this sentence many times]. I serve your religion. I serve you, my dear brother, ask me first. Let me speak, then kill me. Ask me once. I serve you. I have children.
Talib 1: [Reading a verse in Arabic: "In the name of Allah, peace be on the leader of all human beings, and the high priest of all holy warriors, Mohammad, peace be upon him."] All praise be to our creator, almighty Allah, who helped and blessed the Holy Warriors of the Alfateh Movement. The Holy Warriors of Qenahat belonged to the Afghanistan Islamic Emirates, so we can implement the commandment of Allah on this infidel whose name is Abdul Latif from the (Zefareh/Zekhareh/Sefareh) village of the Enjeel District of Ancient Herat Province, so that he is punished according to his wrong deed. He is punished according to the commandment of Allah as a warning to other infidels.
[A verse is recited from the Quran: "Holy and Almighty Allah says, 'You who joined with pagans, cut their head.'"]
You’re sentenced to be beheaded.
[A verse is recited from the Hadith: "Mohammad (peace be upon him) says, 'Whoever changes his religion (converts), should be executed."]
Praise and peace …….. Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar (God is great)!
Victim: I ate your leftovers, please leave me. I ate your leftovers, please leave me.
[Victim is beheaded.]
All Taliban: Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar!
Talib 2: Come to this side.
Talib 2: Why didn’t you behead him from the backside?
Talib 3: Go away.
Talib 4: Bring the notice (execution order) and hang it on the wall. Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar.
All Taliban: Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar!
Talib 4: Glory and honor to Allah, His messenger, and all believers (Muslims). This is the infidel. This is the infidel. [shouting in Arabic].
Korea’s First Protestant Martyr
“Jesus, Jesus!” shouted the man who became known as Korea’s first protestant martyr as he stood on the deck of a burning merchant ship and desperately opened the cases of Bibles he had smuggled aboard, flinging as many copies as he could to Korean villagers and soldiers who lined the shore. Finally, with his clothes on fire, the 27-year-old missionary leapt overboard with his few remaining Bibles and swam to shore – continuing to put Bibles into any open hand until he was finally captured and dragged away to be executed with the entirety of his crew. Some accounts say that Robert Jermain Thomas of Wales was beheaded, while others say he was lanced through the heart. Whatever the case, they all agree that his last Bible was offered to his executioner.
Thomas’ martyrdom in 1866 occurred on a sandbank outside of Pyongyang, the present-day capital of North Korea. It was preceded and succeeded by two major waves of persecution against the Catholics who first brought literature into the country in 1770. Forty years after Thomas’ death, missionaries provoked by revival in India and encouraged by local revivals began to fast and pray daily for revival in Pyongyang.
Finally, on the evening of January 14th, 1907, the Father poured out His Spirit on the people on whom Robert Thomas had spent his last breath. As a missionary who was leading an evening meeting called for prayer, the entire audience of about 1500 men burst in unison into powerful prayer that has been described in numerous accounts as the sound of falling waters. William Blair, one of two Western missionaries present at the revival, gave us a window into this revival in his book, “The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings Which Followed.”
Blair describes the scene on the first day of the meeting:
“After a short sermon…man after man would rise, confess his sin, break down and weep, and then throw himself on the floor and beat the floor with his fists in perfect agony of conviction. …Sometimes, after a confession, the whole audience would break out into audible prayer, and the effect of that audience of hundreds of men praying together in audible prayer was something indescribable – not confusion, but a vast harmony of sound and spirit, a mingling together of souls moved by an irresistible impulse of prayer. The prayer sounded to me like the falling of many waters, an ocean of prayer beating against God’s throne. It was not many, but one, born of One Spirit, lifted to one Father above.”
The public confession of the people was said to include their hatred against the Japanese who were oppressing them, against foreign missionaries, and one who even confessed his hatred of Reverend Blair, who described this phenomena during the second day:
“Then began a meeting the like of which I had never seen before, nor wish to see again unless in God’s sight it is absolutely necessary. Every sin a human being can commit was publicly confessed that night. Pale and trembling with emotion, in agony of mind and body… looking up to heaven, to Jesus whom they had betrayed, they smote themselves and cried out with bitter wailing: “Lord, Lord, cast us not away forever!” Everything else was forgotten, nothing else mattered. The scorn of men, the penalty of the law, even death itself seemed of small consequences if only God forgave. We have our theories of desirability or undesirability of public confession of sin. I have had mine; but I know now that when the Spirit of God falls upon guilty souls, there will be confession, and no power on earth can stop it.”
The great revival, which spread as swiftly among children as it did among adults, took the Korean Church from deep repentance to total transformation. Repentant hearts forsook their sin and vices, forgave one another, and went knocking on doors to plead for peace with any they had wronged. The Church was also consumed with a zeal for evangelism that helped the fire of revival spread by missionaries and nationals and resulted in explosive growth of the Church.
Fortunately, the deep and purifying work wrought in the Korean people by the Holy Spirit in those times prepared them for the suffering that would follow. The Japanese perceived the revitalized Church as an organization that would be capable of resisting their rule and as a political agent of the Western powers, therefore churches were burned, hundreds of Christians were killed, and thousands who refused to abandon Christ were subjected to imprisonment and torture. Today, North Korea’s persecution of Christians has continued to be the worst in the world. Please remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in North Korea as they risk their lives to follow the one true God and spread His Gospel. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“It’s not everybody who gets to be called a martyr’s wife,” Pauline Ayyad told ICC on a solemn afternoon after much reflection. “That’s a great honor.”
Pauline’s husband, Rami worked for the Palestinian Bible Society and ran a Christian bookshop in Gaza. While Rami was locking up his shop after a normal day of work one afternoon in October 2007, a vehicle pulled alongside him, and several men forced him in the backseat. Rami, remaining calm and trusting in the Lord, was allowed to call his wife. “I’m going with some young men somewhere, but I’ll be home soon,” he tried to reassure her. That was the last time Pauline would hear her husband’s voice.
Hours later, Rami’s body was found. He had been brutally tortured and shot twice, a bullet in the chest, and one in the head. “We don’t know the scenarios that took place with him or what they had done to him, but we believe there was an attempt to force him into something that he didn’t want to be, maybe into the religion of Islam,” the head of the Palestinian Bible Society told ICC. “He’s a martyr for Christ.”
I was moved deeply after contemplating Pauline’s words that it’s a ‘great honor’ to be the wife of a martyr. That statement did not come easy, but carried great wisdom and could only be said after Pauline had fully come to grips with her husband’s murder by forgiving his persecutors and surrendering the burden of his death completely to Christ. Her loss great and her suffering severe, Pauline was forced to embrace a cross unfamiliar to those of us who have never experienced a close family member paying the ultimate price for their faith – martyrdom.
The Road to Forgiveness
“I was so broken after the death of my husband, and I hated the people who did it,” Pauline said. “Why did this happen to Rami? Why would God allow it?” Pauline began working at the only job she was able to receive employment. It was part-time and paid little, but provided health care for her family. Still, Pauline was not able to earn enough to care for her children. Bitterness consumed her, and she felt lonely, lost and helpless.
But slowly Pauline became attentive to God’s purpose and realized that there was nothing she could have done, but that her husband’s death had been God’s plan all along. “God wanted Rami home,” she said. “He didn’t want anybody to interfere. God wanted Rami to be with Him that day and called him home. That was the bottom line. It was then that the Lord poured over me forgiveness for those who killed Rami and those who I used to blame.”
“After that, I totally became a new person, a positive person full of forgiveness. It was a gradual process where Jesus had to touch my heart and heal me. Now, even in my weak moments, the Lord closes the door and removes my doubts. ‘That’s it,’ He says. ‘You are forgiven and you have forgiven.’ After that, I started thanking the Lord for the cross that he gave me. I started feeling that His yoke is light, and God gave me the strength to carry it.”
“It was like a divine healing,” said a close friend of Pauline’s. “The Lord touched her heart so she was able to forgive, and after that, to live. Her life turned 180 degrees after she released those people.”
Rebuilding Her Life
Having been “tested in the furnace of affliction,” (Isaiah 48:10) Pauline victoriously overcame great loss and hardships by obeying and trusting in Christ. She now finds joy and purpose by fulfilling God’s plan for her husband’s life as a living testimony of God building His kingdom through the blood of the martyrs. Unlike her husband, Pauline realized that her greatest impact in this life would not have come as a martyr, but by exemplifying Christ as a martyr’s wife.
Please remember Pauline and her children in prayer. Pauline still tackles the challenges of being a single mother in a Muslim male dominated society. Three years after her husband’s murder, Pauline has been unable to find employment that fully supports her family. ICC is developing a small business that will provide a sustainable livelihood for Pauline and her family. Please consider partnering with us by donating* to this business and blessing this great woman of faith.
*please include Pauline’s name in the donation form note.