This coming Sunday, November 13, is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. The effort is billed as “a global day of intercession for persecuted Christians worldwide. Its primary focus is the work of intercessory prayer and citizen action on behalf of persecuted communities of the Christian faith. We also encourage prayer for the souls of the oppressors, the nations that promote persecution, and those who ignore it.” This effort is meant to embody the model of suffering given by Jesus himself: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44–45 NIV)
The political acceptance of Christians has been an issue throughout the Church’s history, beginning with measured toleration by the Romans when viewed as a sect of Judaism, moving on to local and occasional intolerance, and finally the suffering of sustained empire-wide persecution.
This is to say nothing of the Church’s reception by other religious groups. The apostle Paul began his career by persecuting the Church out of a zeal for Judaism. He writes that he “was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” (Acts 26:9–11 NIV) But Paul himself is a clear example that those who once were our bitterest of enemies can become our dearest of friends.
The one comfort that privileged Christians can offer those of our brothers and sisters who are suffering beyond intercessory prayer is a word of reassurance and hope. We are told by the Lord that along with the apostles we will suffer rejection from the world and persecution at the hands of others (Luke 21:12–19), but he says that “By standing firm you will gain life.” Indeed, we honor and pray for the sacrifice of our fellow Christians, realizing at the same time that they are storing up for themselves “treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:20 NIV)
A report published last week by the US State department left a previous listing of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world unchanged: Vietnam, Myanmar, China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Eritrea. The failure to add Uzbekistan to the list is seen by some as political capitulation. Uzbekistan is seen by many human rights groups to infringe on religious freedom to the extent that it deserves to be seen as a “country of particular concern.”
Indeed, Forum 18 News Service reports that the last legally-sanctioned Protestant church in the northwest portion of the country is facing closure. According to the report:
“Harsh measures have been targeted at Christians,” Forum 18 News Service has been told by a Protestant in Uzbekistan, with the authorities especially targeting ethnic Uzbek church members. “Unfortunately in Uzbekistan today there is no Protestant church that doesn’t face persecution, whether registered or not,” Forum 18’s source added.
A prayer “For the Persecuted” from A Prayer Book for Sailors and Soldiers (1941):
O blessed Lord, who thyself didst undergo the pain and suffering of the Cross; Uphold, we beseech thee, with thy promised gift of strength all those of our brethren who are suffering for their faith in thee. Grant that in the midst of all persecutions they may hold fast by this faith, and that from their steadfastness thy Church may grow in grace and we ourselves in perseverance, to the honour of thy Name, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost art one God, world without end. Amen.
For more on the persecuted church:
“Our Particular Concern: Praying for the Persecuted Church,” BreakPoint Commentary, November 10, 2005