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International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Friday, 10 November 2017  | Elizabeth Kendal



On Sunday 15
th March 2015, the Pakistani Taliban (or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan - TTP) launched near-simultaneous attacks on two churches in Youhanabad (St John’s), the largest Christian ‘colony’ in Lahore, Pakistan. Both churches – Christ Church (Protestant) and St John’s Catholic Church – had been given state security, yet in both cases the security was absent on that day. However, both churches maintained a safety-net comprised of church volunteers who formed a second line of defence.

In both cases, the modus operandi of the terrorists was exactly the same: three Taliban approached the church – two from one direction, one from the other. The task of the two gunmen was to shoot dead any security at the gate. The task of the third Taliban, a suicide bomber, was to breach the perimeter, enter the church and detonate his vest amidst the worshippers.

At Christ Church, Obaid Khokhar, aged 32, rushed at the bomber and overpowered him. As Obaid dragged the suicide bomber away from the church entrance, a TTP gunman opened fire with an automatic assault rifle, killing not only Odaid but also his wife, Amreen, who was nearby, orphaning their four-year-old daughter. Having failed in his task, the wounded bomber detonated his vest.

At St John’s, the two TTP gunmen opened fire from one side of the gate while the suicide bomber attempted to scale the boundary wall from the other. Church volunteer security guard Akash Bashir, aged 16, rushed at the suicide bomber and grabbed his legs. Unable to get over the wall, the suicide bomber detonated his vest.

Of the two thousand believers worshipping at Christ Church and St John’s that morning, fifteen were killed. The explosions were huge and the bombs so packed with shrapnel that more than 70 were wounded, 20 critically. Obaid and Akash are remembered and celebrated as martyrs who laid down their lives for their brethren. Without their sacrifice, the death toll would have enormous.

Contemplate for a moment what it would be like to live amongst such hostility and with such insecurity. Imagine having to decide whether or not to add your name to a church security roster knowing that you may well be required to tackle terrorists and even sacrifice your own life so your brothers and sisters might live.

As horrific as the above scenario is, terrorism is merely the tip of the persecution iceberg. Every day, hundreds of millions of Christians wake up knowing that their daughter could be raped, their son beaten or murdered, a loved one falsely accused and incarcerated, or their home looted and torched – all with impunity, simply because they are Christian. Contemplate for moment how such hardship and trauma might challenge your faith. Would it help you to know that others care and are praying for you?

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In 1960, seventy percent of the Church was white, Western and middle class. Today, our increasingly global Church is almost eighty percent coloured, non-Western and poor. This is not because the Western Church has collapsed, for it hasn’t. The ratio has reversed due to the phenomenal growth of Christianity – in particular Protestant and evangelical Christianity – in the non-Western world. This growth is integrally linked to the emergence of indigenous missions – that is, lands that were once viewed purely as ‘mission fields’ are now sending out missionaries of their own.

However, the trend of explosive Church growth in the non-Western world has converged with other global trends – in particular rapid population growth, mass migration, urbanisation, escalating religious nationalism and the revival of fundamentalist Islam – to produce ‘a perfect storm’ of religious tension. Consequently, hundreds of millions of minority Christians are living radically counter-cultural lives in increasingly hostile environments in states whose names are synonymous with human rights abuses, intolerance, repression and injustice.

A Persian believer who witnesses to Muslims in Iran risks being arrested, charged with national security offences and imprisoned in harsh conditions for a decade or more. Chinese and Vietnamese pastors who criticise Communist Party policy risk imprisonment and torture, as do the Christian human right lawyers who defend them. In India, Scheduled Castes (i.e. Dalits, formerly known as ‘Untouchables’) receive government benefits (financial aid) and reservations (affirmative action in jobs and education) to help address their disadvantage – but only if they are Hindu. Just imagine being in a situation where baptism renders you ineligible for government benefits! In most Muslim-majority states a person’s religion is stated on their Identity Card, a detail that facilitates crippling systematic discrimination.

Not only are Christians and Christianity coming under attack, so too is the very concept of religious freedom as a fundamental universal human right - that is, as a basic human right for all individuals universally. Increasingly today, religious freedom is viewed as neither a fundamental or universal human right, but a totally expendable one. No wonder persecution is escalating.

While none of the persecution in the world today is unprecedented, the Church’s ability to respond most certainly is.

Never before, in the history of the Church, has the Church been in the position that we are in today. With globalised networks and information systems, satellites and digital communication technologies, the Church can now know about and respond to a crisis, even on the other side of the world, even as it is unfolding, sometimes even before it unfolds – for the saving of many lives.

International Day of Prayer (IDOP) for the persecuted Church was the brainchild of a group of religious liberty advocates committed to taking concrete steps to address the issue of escalating persecution. The first IDOP was held in September 1996, with churches and denominations from 110 countries participating.

Since then, global awareness of the reality of persecution has grown ‘in answer to the prayers of many’ (2 Corinthians 1:11). In recent years there has been discernible growth within Christian media of the number of writers committed to raising awareness of persecution, along with publishers willing to publish and broadcasters willing to talk. For a long time, that was not the case.

There is a growing awareness within the Church of the reality and problem of persecution, so that the issue of persecution is gradually becoming less of a fringe human rights issue - one reserved for political activists - and more of a core, Body of Christ issue.

Indeed, God is doing something unprecedented in our day: he is knitting together his increasingly global Church, using chords of love forged in the flames of persecution.

IDOP provides churches and believers around the world with an opportunity to join together in prayer for the persecuted. Churches observe IDOP on either the first or second Sunday in November, while small groups and prayer groups observe IDOP during the week. For some believers it is eye-opening and revelatory – the start of something new. For others it is an opportunity to re-commit to an aspect of worship that, while challenging, is also life-changing. The scriptures exhort us to ‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2). And I can assure you, when you bear the burdens of Christ’s suffering persecuted Church, you do not compound your own burdens, you displace them.

If you have missed IDOP this year, then pencil it into your diary for November 2018. And, for a weekly resource to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer, sign up for the weekly Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin.

Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology. She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (2016). See www.ElizabethKendal.com


Photos: Attacks on churches in Youhanabad on 15th March 2015; Zhang Kai (centre), a Chinese human rights lawyer on 25th August 2015, the day before his arrest.


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