Cover Story

Taking on the thugs

With websites and electronic mail lists to help them, Christians are fighting the worldwide persecution of their brethren with the oldest and most effective tool of all-prayer

Issue: "Taking on the thugs," Nov. 6, 1999

Thugs. A short, unpleasant word, but one that increasingly describes the opposition that some Christians around the world are facing. Many countries have official discrimination against Christianity, but others allow and sometimes encourage gangs of tough guys to attack those who put Christ first. Keeping in mind those persecuted both officially and unofficially, 300,000 churches worldwide are expected to participate on Sunday, Nov. 14, in the fourth annual International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church (IDOP). This year lead sponsor World Evangelical Fellowship has gained horsepower for a publicity and informational campaign by linking up with groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide of London, Christian Solidarity International of Zurich, Finland-based Friends of the Martyr Church, Open Doors with Brother Andrew, Release International, and The Voice of the Martyrs. A fully operational website in three languages- www.WorldEvangelical.org/idop-and a phone number for public inquiries-(847) 781-0560-are aiding inquirers. Animating the cause are a proliferation of websites and electronic mail lists dedicated to disseminating late-breaking news about persecuted Christians around the world. When Public Security toughs break down a house church in China and arrest its prominent leader (as happened two weeks ago), prayer chains and press releases can be set in motion even before the debris is swept up. The engine that drives this movement, however, is not how much things change; it is how very much they stay the same. Without the constant of the persecution itself, what's to report? Thugs the world over, unwitting partners to the hand of God, keep the testimonies of the saints fresh every year. The martyrs' file
The thugs burst forth in India near the beginning of this year, on Jan. 22, when a mob set fire to a car in which an Australian missionary and his two sons were sleeping. Graham Staines had stopped his jeep to rest en route to a church meeting not far from his home in the eastern state of Orissa. A medical doctor and Baptist missionary, Dr. Staines, 58, had spent over 30 years working in remote parts of India and among lepers. A band of 40, mostly from the Hindu extremist group Bajrang Dal, shouted slogans, carried torches, and set fire to the vehicle. Dr. Staines and his sons Phillip, 11, and Timothy, 6, all died in the blaze. His wife, Gladys Staines, and 13-year-old daughter, Esther, had stayed home. Mrs. Staines told reporters one day after the killings, "I am terribly upset but not angry. My husband loved Jesus Christ who has taught us to forgive our enemies." She has remained in India and continues to work in Orissa. "When Gladys Staines called for her husband's killers to be forgiven, and pledged to stay on in India, it was one of the greatest, enobling, and inspiring statements people like me have come across in the past 50 years," said Hindu social activist Swami Agnivesh. A government report about the murders said the attack was premeditated, and blamed Hindu extremist Dara Singh for organizing it. More than 50 people have been arrested in connection with the murders, but Mr. Singh is still at large. The murders capped months of harassment and violence against Christians, particularly in Orissa and the western state of Gugarat. Christian workers say that the trend coincides with the ascendance of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janat Party, or BJP. Splinter Hindu groups in these areas, where the church has grown rapidly, see Christian converts as political losses. In the same district as the Staines murders, thugs killed a Roman Catholic priest Sept. 2, using bows and arrows. They killed Arul Doss as he ministered to a gathering of Christian converts. Both incidents occurred on Hindu festival days. In Chechnya, war has been the context for martyrdom. The Grozny Baptist Church had its only remaining male leader, deacon Vitaly Korotun, kidnapped from its midst in August. Thugs beheaded Pastors Alexei Sitnikov and Alexandr Kulakov earlier this year, after a Chechen militant kidnapping. Thugs killed two elderly women in the church in August and kidnapped another member, Alexandra Zaradniskaya. She is being held for ransom. Mr. Korotun, 23, became a Christian only one year ago. His captors demanded, in a Sept. 16 letter to the church, that the church building be sold in order to purchase his release. More than 150,000 Chechens have fled fighting in the Russian republic, but 40 members of Grozny Baptist have remained despite the hardships, to hold regular prayer services and Sunday worship amid the fighting. Fighting between Christians and Muslims on the Indonesian island of Ambon has continued all year. Ambon is an island of 400,000 people, divided equally between Muslims and Christians. Normally the two sides tolerate one another, but radical Muslim leaders calling for jihad, or holy war, have thrown a delicate equation out of balance. Pastors in the area say the incitement has come from outsiders. They also charge that Indonesian soldiers, sent to restore order, have sided with Muslim mobs. In some cases, they shot people huddled inside churches and burned bodies of those already killed. In January, 200 people died. Two schools and 13 churches were burned. Attacks worsened in July and August. Thugs stabbed a Christian pedicab driver, burned five houses, and pelted with stones the Silo church congregation in Ambon city. In Yabok Protestant Church on Aug. 11, Indonesian soldiers killed 30 Christians, according to Compass Direct. Thugs killed at least 150 and injured 300 in summer clashes, according to the news service. The usual suspects
Countries that oppress and persecute Christians as a matter of policy faced a new kind of jury this year. The U.S. State Department issued its first report on religious freedom worldwide, as required under the 1-year-old International Religious Freedom Act. The September report cited both U.S. foes and friends as countries that regularly deny basic religious liberties. Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, it said, are among the most repressive countries. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a new independent advisory panel to the Clinton administration (also mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act), followed up on the report with its own call for action. Commission members, meeting on Oct. 19 with Bill Clinton and his aides, asked the president to pressure Sudan and China to change course. Sudan has targeted Christians for kidnapping and abuse in its war on rebel groups. The commissioners, in particular, called for economic sanctions to prevent financing of a new Sudan pipeline via public offerings on U.S. stock exchanges. The Chinese government regularly harasses churches that will not register with and submit to official religious agencies. The commission asked U.S. diplomats to emphasize religious freedom in discussions with Chinese officials and the U.S. business community. The commission stopped well short of calls for sanctions or trade-status restrictions, which President Clinton has opposed. Chinese officials showed no particular concern about the U.S. campaign for the persecuted. The same day commissioners were meeting with the president, 200 Public Security Bureau police arrived at the house church of well-known pastor Li De Xian in Guangzhou. They arrested Mr. and Mrs. Li and three others. Police had also detained Mr. and Mrs. Li and other Christian believers the previous week, using that opportunity to demolish a shelter outside the church. Mr. Li said that attack was the worst he had encountered; he compared the scene around the church to that following an earthquake. Chinese officials and police have also dispersed a church meeting held by Samuel Lamb, probably to Westerners the best-known house church leader. He was pressured to register his 2,000-member church, which meets openly in Guangzhou. The day before the breakup, Mr. Lamb told WORLD that sometimes security officials "talk to me, but they still let me have meetings. We are still free." Mr. Lamb, who spent 21 years in prison and labor camps and is now 86, said he preaches about once a month and has no plans to register his church. "It is a political thing, and we are evangelicals, so we do as the Bible teaches," he said.

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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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