I was transiting through Dubai when I heard the good news that Andrew Brunson, the American-born pastor who was falsely charged with espionage against Turkey and held in custody since 2016, would not be spending another Christmas in prison. He was released, and left for the USA on the 12th of October.
While Pastor Brunson’s case has captured international media attention especially with the support of the US president, very few of the thousands of followers of Christ who languish in prisons or are persecuted around the world are often heard about.
The Open Doors World Watch List which tracks persecution of Christians globally says that as of 2018 there are approximately 215 million Christians considered to be suffering from “extreme” levels of persecution with some of these in prison.
This Christmas in the midst of all our joy and celebration, I feel it will deepen our faith to remember the persecuted church and especially those of our brethren who will be spending this Christmas in prison because of their faith in Christ. This is what the Bible teaches us;
‘Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body’ – Hebrews 13:3
There is a mystery about the Body of Christ – we are truly one.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it…” 1 Corinthians 12:26.
And to remember them in prayer and with any other appropriate action is as healthy as taking care of a part of your physical body that is injured. It is important for the general health of the body not to ignore the parts that suffer.
Persecution has always been, and always will be, part of the story of the Church. History has shown that the Church has often flourished and grown in the midst of persecution. And this is being repeated today in many Muslim nations where Christians face persecution. For example, I have witnessed the Church grow in a place like the islands of Comoros in the past five years since we started working there in spite of the persecution that Christians continue to face.
As far as I am concerned, these persecuted believers are real unsung heroes. One of our missionaries for whose safety I feared after he faced harassment by the Islamic authorities and had a huge threat over his life, told me that he counted it a privilege to suffer for the Gospel. Think of the story of 15-year-old Leah Sharibu who was among the 110 schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria in February this year. All of the others were released within a month but not Leah because she refused to renounce her faith in Christ. Think of that kind of bravery for a 15-year-old school girl! As I write, Leah continues in captivity, and many are praying that she will return home before Christmas.
Christmas is not the same among our persecuted brothers and sisters. Try and imagine how Christmas will be celebrated this year among the persecuted. There are some places like in Pakistan, where the level of persecution does not stop Christians from openly celebrating like we do. In some other places, they cannot publicly identify themselves as Christians because it is against the law.
So while some will meet in secret to rejoice together over a meal; others would not have such luxury as it is dangerous to meet even in secret in any form of gathering. For others there may be no other believers they know around them and so may only find solace by listening to a Christian radio or internet broadcast (where the government has not censored such media). And definitely for those in prison or captivity, there will be no celebration or party or fellowship this Christmas. It will be another Christmas in prison.
Yet even where there is no huge Christmas celebration, often there is joy. Joy in the midst of suffering is something we can all learn from the persecuted church. It has always challenged me how those who have had all of their personal freedom removed (and many times suffered a great loss), often seem more filled with the joy of the Lord than many followers of Christ in our more affluent and free societies. It seems like in the process of losing everything that they have found Christ as the all-sufficient One. Christ has become their joy. As we remember the persecuted church this Christmas, may their lives challenge us not to look to things or others for joy but to Christ alone.
In conclusion, please remember the persecuted church in your prayers this Christmas. PRAY for them to be protected and released if it’s God’s will; that they will find God’s strength in the midst of the persecution and not renounce their faith; for wisdom to live in a hostile environment; and that their lives will be a witness to the unsaved around them. May your Christmas be filled with His joy!