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.
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.
In February, we celebrated the release of Said Musa, our brother in Afghanistan who had been imprisoned for his faith in Christ. One of the crucial elements that led to his release was the publication of letters that he wrote while in prison. ICC worked with contacts inside Afghanistan to gain access to these letters and make them known to the world. Said’s nine letters (which you can find here) not only detail his experience inside prison, but they also collectively provide a picture of a man engaging with God to come to grips with suffering and learn to live as a light in the midst of darkness.
The Father has a way of making pearls out of immense pressure. There is much the Western church can glean from the lives of our brothers and sisters who are shaped daily by this kind of pressure. In addition to encouraging you to read Said’s letters, I want to share a few pearls I’ve drawn from a letter written last year by Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was arrested in October of 2009 and remains in prison today, facing the death penalty for his faith in Christ.
Pastor Youcef begins his letter by asking his brothers and sisters to remember him and “those who are bearing efforts for His name” in their prayers, but devotes the majority of his letter to encouraging the Church. Drawing heavily on Scripture, he reminds us that though “heaven and earth will fade, His word will still remain,” and encourages us to “commit [our] souls to the faithful Creator” and “earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.”
We are reminded that trials are not to be considered strange in the life of the believer but counted as joy as we participate in Christ’s suffering:
“As we have learned from Him in Gethsemane, He surrendered His will to the Father, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.’ What we are bearing today is a difficult, but not unbearable situation, because neither has He tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does He do such. …Consider these bumps and prisons as opportunities to testify to His name.”
Giving us a clue as to the key to his own patience in suffering, Youcef writes,
“Have we not read and heard: because straight is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Many attempt to flee from their spiritual tests, and they have to face those same tests in a more difficult manner, because no one will be victorious by escaping from them, but with patience and humility he will be able to overcome all the tests and gain victory.”
Pastor Youcef signs his letter with a challenging question from Scripture, “As a small servant, necessarily in prison to carry out what I must do, I say with faith in the word of God that He will come soon, however, ‘when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?’”
“Prisoners were fed two pieces of bread three times a day. A bucket in the middle of the room served as a toilet between escorted bathroom breaks, but it constantly spilled and contaminated the room with urine and feces. Many prisoners could not talk due to the lack of water, their tongues stuck to the roofs of their mouth from thirst.”
The quote above is the description of the day to day lives of some of our brothers and sisters who are imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea. The information comes from a leaked US embassy cable recently published by Wikileaks in which US officials quote a recently released prisoner who reported that he and another 600 prisoners were kept together in a 40 by 38 foot cell.
“It was not possible to lie down and barely possible to sit,” he described, adding that his 600 cellmates were “Eritreans who tried to flee the country, military deserters, common criminals, and Protestants [presumably of unregistered denominations].”
Take a moment to imagine yourself with your brothers and sisters in one of these cells, and you might begin to understand why US embassy officials added to the report that “although the physical abuse and deprivations took a toll on [the released prisoner’s] body, it was the psychological abuse of being packed in with so many other people, of not knowing when the next beating would come, and believing he could be killed, that was the most damaging.”
It is estimated that there are currently 3,000 Eritrean Christians imprisoned for their faith in Christ. They are treated as less than animals. Many are kept in underground dungeons, metal shipping containers and military barracks. The “lucky” few who are kept in actual prison cells are still brutalized. Numbers of believers have died in prison due to torture and lack of medical care.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it,” 1 Corinthians 12:26. The body of Christ in Eritrea is suffering. We need to empathize with their pain. You can help the Eritrean Christians by praying for them, providing assistance to the families of prisoners and calling Eritrean officials to ask them to release prisoners.
For information on helping the families of prisoners, please contact ICC.