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Not forsaken

"Not forsaken" Continued...

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

Since then, Borji says arrests of Christians have “skyrocketed.” Many don’t share their cases publicly because of threats by Iranian authorities. Borji says the harassment includes authorities forcing churches to close, confiscating church property, closing mid-week Bible studies, shuttering Sunday schools, and confiscating and destroying Bibles and other Christian literature: “It’s an attempt to suffocate the church.”

Despite the worsening crackdown, Borji says that house-church networks report growth, including increasing numbers of converts. If Bibles aren’t available, some churches rely on satellite television for Christian teaching. And they also welcome visitors, despite the risk of spies, he says: “Many people do not let that fear paralyze them.”

Fear also isn’t paralyzing some Christians in Syria, perhaps one of the scariest places on earth over the last 18 months. A brutal civil war has pitted rebel groups against the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, and has killed as many as 30,000 people. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that at least 21,000 of the dead were civilians. 

Some Christians—who once enjoyed a measure of freedom in Syria—have reported growing aggression by militant groups that may view them as loyal to Assad (see “Syria’s pain,” Sept. 8, 2012).

In early October, a Syrian pastor wrote an email to Open Doors USA describing the deteriorating situation for both Christians and non-Christians. He described millions forced from their homes, many sleeping outdoors, others mourning the loss of loved ones, and refugees living without access to shelter, clean water, power, food, and medical care.

“I can cry like Nehemiah because the walls of our cities are burnt and the people in great trouble and disgrace,” the pastor wrote. “I can weep like Jeremiah because of the intensity and the spread of evil. I can mourn like David because of the indiscriminate brutal killing of innocent people, children, women, elderly, youth.” 

But the pastor said despite the dangers, churches remain determined to extend the gospel and to offer aid to neighbors as they’re able: “While we can see and sense the evil powers spreading a dark cloud over the country, closing the door for the light of hope, we still trust our all-sovereign God ‘who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ.’”

The procession continues in Egypt as well. While Christians have faced challenges in the Muslim nation for years, they also enjoyed a measure of security under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

With a newly elected President Mohammed Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—Christians worry that some of their freedoms could recede, and they note the Muslim Brotherhood motto: “Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Quran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”

They also point to spurts of violence against Christians, including last year’s “Maspero Massacre,” when the Egyptian army opened fire and used tanks to plow down Christians protesting the burning of a church in Cairo. The crackdown sparked a riot that spread across the city and killed 27—mostly Coptic Christians.

During recent protests in Tahrir Square over the offensive film Innocence of Muslims, demonstrations reached Kasr el Dobara, the largest evangelical church in the Middle East. Though no worshippers were inside, staff and other workers donned gas masks during a hail of gas bombs outside.

In an email interview, assistant pastor Nagi Said suggested the attack was spillover from the larger demonstrations, and not initially directed at the church. Still, he confirmed that the gas attacks lasted into the early hours of the next morning, though no one was hurt.

In other parts of Cairo and beyond, Christian persecution takes a more systematic form: For example, thousands of Christians live in grinding poverty in the city’s garbage districts, with little chance to progress.

Christian groups like Stephen’s Children (SC) continue to work with the poorest Christians in the city, as I saw this spring during a visit to the destitute garbage village of Helwan. SC workers went door-to-door in a neighborhood of shacks and single-room homes with dirt floors, sharing Bible stories with children and learning about each family’s needs. 

A nearby learning center helped Christian children develop reading skills, and offered critical nutrition in a region where residents earn small bits of money by selling garbage. One weekday morning, I visited with an SC nurse as he cleaned out the ears of a small girl and nursed open wounds. “This is probably a first for her,” he said before giving her a clean pair of pink flip-flops. 

—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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