Cover Story

Count your blessings

But this year, growing numbers of American congregations are also remembering the sufferings of their persecuted brothers and sisters in faraway lands

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

in Washington - "And to cast contempt the more upon the sincere servants of God, they gopprobriously and most injuriously gave unto and imposed upon them that name of Puritans," wrote William Bradford of those Pilgrims who set sail for America. "And lamentable it is to see the effects which have followed. Religion hath been disgraced, the godly grieved, afflicted, persecuted, and many exiled; sundry have lost their lives in prisons and other ways."

For Americans at their groaning boards this week, Gov. Bradford brings a potent reminder. The first Thanksgiving feast commemorated deliverance from the oppressor more than entry to a land of plenty. Two years ago, Christian organizers saw an opportunity to extend the American celebration with a season of prayer for present-day pilgrims-persecuted believers around the world. This year International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church reaped important grassroots gains in both civic and church life. Last November Lou Diaz grew a beard. It was "a visual prompt," he says, for members of his congregation, as well as for the 40-year-old pastor of Wheaton (Ill.) Evangelical Free Church, to remember the plight of persecuted Christians in far-off places. His sign of remembrance this year? "A No. 3 buzzcut. It shows the scalp but doesn't leave you totally bald," he told WORLD. "If this felt torturous, then I'd remember to pray for those who are really being tortured, those faithful who are humiliated and far worse for the sake of the gospel." The November haircut places Pastor Diaz on the razor's edge of a phenomenon. Solidarity with the persecuted church came into its own this month, when an estimated 100,000 congregations across the country marked International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Day of Prayer services have erupted overseas as well. In Brazil, 70,000 churches reportedly marked the day. In Rome, Barcelona, and London, national services on behalf of the persecuted were also held. The third annual event in the United States is up from 5,000 participating churches two years ago. Heeding a warning that Western Christians are not sufficiently conscience-pricked about religious oppression elsewhere, participation this month doubled over the 1997 Day of Prayer-measured by numbers of Day of Prayer kits mailed, phone calls to the organizing office, and local press reports. Even The New York Times sensed a trend, giving it front-page (although skeptical) coverage the week before. Involvement from churches and parachurch groups goes beyond evangelicalism. It includes mainline denominations, Catholics, Coptics, Orthodox, and growing numbers of Reformed churches. "I've never seen anything to erase denominational barriers like the cause of the persecuted church," says Day of Prayer coordinator Steve Haas. From a tiny office in a Wheaton strip mall, hedged by a nail care shop and a beauty salon, Mr. Haas and his young staff of five reached more than a million churchgoers across the country with tools to increase knowledge of anti-Christian persecution. Unbound by anything like the civic regimen of the season-turkey, dressing, and pumpkin pie-Day of Prayer events blossomed under grassroots imagination. Prayer walks took place in Texas. Students at Michigan's Hope College held a week-long prayer vigil. Countryside Bible Chapel in Millersville, Pa., built a "Martyrs Wall." Over 200 feet long, it displays the scenes and first-hand accounts of martyrdom-from torched Christians in Nero's garden, through racked-up Puritan forerunners in the Tower of London, to the 1981 death of Wycliffe missionary Chet Bitterman at the hands of Colombia's M-19-all along catacomb-style walls lit by candlelight. The display, originally built for a youth retreat, was moved to Washington, D.C., for this year's national Day of Prayer service at National Presbyterian Church. Testimonials from the persecuted themselves were a feature everywhere. In Tennessee, a Pakistani pastor who goes by the name Jonah told of five fellow believers who remain in jail for their faith. Arrested and beaten several years ago for his own faith, Jonah said, "When Christians live from day to day in a world that hates and persecutes them, it seems that all the world is against them. It makes a person feel hopeless and helpless. What a joy and peace for them to know that they are not alone and that other brothers and sisters around the world are praying for them." Wheaton pastor Diaz takes his congregation through a month-long emphasis on persecution, focusing on scriptural antecedents and recent incidents. His Nov. 15 service focused on persecution in India and Sudan. When WORLD spoke with him, he was in Day 31 of a personal 40-day fast, existing on fruit juices and water, he said, "and no solid food except during communion." A Lenten-style fast, he says, trains his prayer and devotion time on revival and "the fulfillment of the Great Commission in my lifetime." The idea of fasting prior to Thanksgiving feasting is one reason organizers scheduled the Day of Prayer in mid-November. Mr. Diaz had more requests than he could fulfill for a "fasting packet" he put together for his congregation and for a fasting conference held just before the Day of Prayer. Giving for the persecuted is also up. Church of the Open Door in Minneapolis counted $20,000 for ministries to the persecuted after one brief announcement of the collection the week prior to its Day of Prayer service. Oklahoma-based Voice of the Martyrs reports that giving to the organization and the size of its mailing list have tripled since Day of Prayer events began two years ago. It was answered, that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courage. It was granted the dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible. This has been an energizing year for Washington's anti-persecution activists. Congress passed unanimously the International Religious Freedom Act. President Clinton signed it into law last month. In spite of some room for giddy optimism, students of the gospels are forewarned that persecution is a fixed feature of the Christian life. And perennial observers of the persecuted church are careful to wonder if it can remain more than an American hobbyhorse. The contrast between the church that is praying and the church that's being prayed for could not be greater. At the front entrance of National Presbyterian Church, the setting for the national Day of Prayer service, a sign announces an upcoming "Breakfast with Santa!" During the early service, a few power types remain in the parking lot, cell phones tucked to an ear, before Sunday morning worship begins. Inside, Freddie Sun, a former prisoner in China, chides believers in this country who are "persecuted by materialism." Heads nod in unison, but the number of Acuras outside and chrome watches within mock their sincerity. Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom warns that Western Christians easily forget there are no quick remedies. "We think maybe that persecution is going to be overcome. People at the grass roots are not aware of how subtle and patient you need to be on the political side," he told WORLD. Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who helped build the coalition for persecution legislation, also warned Christians against allowing the establishment to coopt their message. He was critical of the Times coverage of Day of Prayer phenomena because reporter Laurie Goodstein challenged persecution data but did not consult with recognized experts like Mr. Marshall. "The Times story should remind us," said Mr. Horowitz, "that the power to spread the truth about worldwide religious persecution is in our hands." With factual information and persistence in Day of Prayer-type activities, according to Mr. Horowitz, "in time, the establishment media may help arrest its declining readership by treating communities of faith as something other than quaint, retrograde forces." Likewise, Mr. Horowitz believes doggedness is the only way to ensure a long, productive life for the International Religious Freedom Act. The act strips the White House of excuses, he said, "provided only that religious and human rights groups maintain a serious level of interest about the fate of religiously persecuted victims." But when man's hope and help wholly failed, the Lord's power and mercy appeared in their recovery; for the ship rose again, and gave the mariners courage again to manage her. And if modesty would suffer me, I might declare with what fervent prayers they cried unto the Lord in this great distress (especially some of them), even without any great distraction, when the water ran into their mouths and ears; and the mariners cried out, "We sink, we sink"... One woman, whose name WORLD is withholding because of concerns for safety, says, "America is not perfect, but the ground here is good. It is freedom. And people are so kind to help me." Nov. 15 found her making a circuit of Washington-area churches, telling and retelling the story of her escape from Algeria last year and spreading infectious cheer about her newfound liberty. The woman became a Christian after the ambassador to Algeria from Ghana, whom she was sent to for a job interview, spoke to her for over an hour about Jesus Christ. Her conversion ostracized her from her Muslim family and made her the target of two armed kidnapping attempts. "I come from a place where the only choice you have is to be a good Muslim or to be dead," she says. Mizan Arefi is another Day of Prayer speaker. He came to the United States via Sweden after authorities in Iran hounded the young Christian, beating him and padlocking his business. Mr. Arefi says he "doubted the validity of Islam" after fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. He learned about faith in Christ from a school friend, and soon discovered it would cost him family ties and his livelihood. Freddie Sun scoffs at 60-minute worship services in America. "In China we preached 10 hours a day," he says. Those marathons earned him 10 years' jail time. His wife Dorothy served even more time in prison and labor camps before escaping to the United States with their two sons. Following Mao Tse-tung's death in 1978, Mr. Sun was released to join his family. Christianity is a threat to Chinese authorities, Mr. Sun says, because it is growing so fast. "Christians can be chained, but God's word is never chained," he said. Thus not profaneness nor wickedness but religion itself is a byword, a mockingstock, and a matter of reproach; so that in England at this day the man or woman that begins to profess religion and to serve God, must resolve with himself to sustain mocks and injuries even as though he lived amongst the enemies of religion.
-from Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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