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SHOW OF SOLIDARITY: Christians mourn religious violence in Orissa and other parts of India.
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SHOW OF SOLIDARITY: Christians mourn religious violence in Orissa and other parts of India.

Not forsaken

Religion | A sharp increase in violence against Christians worldwide brings renewed urgency to the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

When Iranian authorities released condemned pastor Youcef Nadarkhani from prison on Sept. 8, Mervyn Thomas of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) compared the moment to an account in Acts 12: As church members prayed for Peter’s release from jail, the apostle (delivered by an angel) suddenly knocked on the door. The Christians were so surprised they nearly didn’t answer.

“I believe it’s no coincidence that Pastor Nadarkhani was released as people around the world were praying for him,” Thomas told supporters. “What a result … and such an unexpected one at that!”

The unexpected result evoked celebration around the world for the 32-year-old pastor, husband, and father of two sons. Nadarkhani had spent more than 1,000 days in a prison in Rasht, and faced a death sentence for apostasy against Islam. Millions supported him through a Twitter campaign, and Christians worldwide prayed for his freedom.

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In a letter published 11 days after his release, Nadarkhani thanked supporters and assured them: “The Lord has wonderfully provided through the trial. … As the Scripture says: ‘He will not allow us to be tested beyond our strength.’”

Less than 130 miles away, another Iranian pastor faces a severe test of strength: Behnam Irani, 41, is serving six years in a prison in Karaj for so-called actions against the state. His alleged crimes include pastoring a group of converts and sharing his Christian faith with Muslims.

The pastor is languishing. In mid-August, CSW reported that Irani was suffering from severe bleeding due to a stomach ulcer and a colon disorder. Sources told the group that prison authorities beat the pastor during the early days of his imprisonment, and that he now struggles to walk.

By late September, the Minnesota-based Present Truth Ministries reported that officials had denied Irani adequate medical care (including potentially live-saving surgery), and that the pastor was vomiting blood. Without intervention, advocates fear the husband and father of two young children could die within a few months. 

Irani’s plight underscores a painful reality in dozens of countries worldwide: For every Nadarkhani released, many more remain imprisoned or persecuted for their Christian faith. That reality offers particular potency to the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church—slated this year for Nov. 4.  

On the eve of the annual event, it’s challenging to grasp the persecution hounding many Christians worldwide. Indeed, Open Doors USA—a California-based advocacy group—publishes an annual list of 50 countries with the worst records on persecution. 

But in a brief look at a handful of countries, a common theme emerges: In a year of answered prayers, the suffering remains steep, the need for prayer remains sharp, and the faith of many persecuted Christians remains strong. 

In Iran, advocacy groups aren’t the only ones reporting Christians’ suffering. In late September, two human-rights experts from the United Nations reported that Iranian authorities were intensifying their clampdown on evangelical churches. 

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, estimated that Iranian authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 300 Christians since June 2010. Shaheed said “scores of Christians” remained in jail “for freely practicing their religion.”

Advocacy groups believe that number is far higher. CSW reported a “steep rise” in persecution against religious minorities in Iran during 2011 and 2012. The list of developments include: “waves of arrests and detentions; regular raids on church gatherings; harsh interrogations; physical and psychological torture (including demands for recantations of faith and for information on the identities of fellow Christians); extended detentions without charge; violations of due process; convictions for ill-defined crimes or on falsified political charges; and economic targeting through exorbitant bail demands.”

The group also noted “a proliferation of anti-Christian rhetoric from senior official figures” and “a systematic infiltration of church networks” by Iranian authorities.

Though Iranian authorities officially recognize some churches, other congregations meet off the grid in smaller house churches. Mansour Borji—an Iranian pastor based in London—says one Iranian Christian describes the house church movement “like a James Bond movie—how they are careful about their communication, how they switch meeting places, how they turn off their phones, how they take out their SIM cards.”

Still, Borji—who leads the 300-member Iranian Christian Fellowship in London and works with advocacy group Article 18—says troubles plague both house churches and official churches.  

He attributes the growing aggression to a public speech in October 2010 by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The country’s top Muslim cleric declared that Iran’s enemies were spreading Christianity to weaken Islamic society. Three months later, Morteza Tamadon—the governor of Tehran—said evangelical Christians had inserted themselves into Islam “like a parasite.”

—For resources on this year’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, persecutedchurch.org offers a list of organizations with helpful information

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