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Should Christians join social protests?



Thomas K. Johnson

Learning to love the Persecuted Church (II)

As I have listened in person to the prayer requests from persecuted Christians, two themes have caught my ear. The first is the fear that they will be forgotten or abandoned by other Christians.

FEATURES AUTHOR Thomas K. Johnson 17 JUNE 2016 09:55 h GMT+1
Photo: Jeremy Bishop (Unsplash, CC)

Read the first part of this essay by Prof. Thomas K. Johnson.


I am sure we are all wondering what we can do that will truly help Christians in Syria and Iraq. But before we consider that question, I should mention that the Christians in Syria and Iraq are not the Christians under the highest level of persecution today. The story gets worse.

About three years ago, in 2013, I participated in an international consultation on religious freedom research in Istanbul, Turkey. Many had perceived that the persecution of Christians in many countries was getting worse, so 40 or 50 researchers and activists gathered to discuss the problems. We quickly realized that Christians from around the world and across traditions within Christendom needed to cooperate much more extensively in responding to growing persecution. So the World Evangelical Alliance, working with the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, and the Pentecostal World Fellowship, called a meeting of representatives of persecuted churches. Because we were concerned about an ISIS attack, we held this meeting secretly in Albania in November 2015. About 70 representatives of persecuted churches and about 75 representatives of churches in the free world attended.

My role in this event was that of senior editor; this means that, with a team, I edited the books that we specially printed to give to the delegates who attended. As part of this effort, we combined information and analysis from evangelical and Roman Catholic researchers about the status and causes of persecution in the 50 worst countries around the world. While I was working on these data, studying stories of terrible brutality, I sometimes felt sick to my stomach. One day I looked to see where my waste basket was, in case I began vomiting at my desk. But we confirmed important patterns among the causes of Christian persecution. For example, at that time in 78% of the 50 worst countries where Christians are under serious persecution, one of the main causes, often combined with another cause, was some type of extremist Islam (though there are very different types of Islamic extremism). In several other countries, the leading cause of the persecution of Christians is some type of Hindu or Buddhist nationalism. And in a few places, the main cause of the persecution of Christians is organized crime or simple corruption. But the country with the worst level of persecution of Christians is North Korea.

In the past few years I have met representatives of persecuted Christians from some surprising places—surprising in the sense that I did not expect those people to be able to travel so freely: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Kurdistan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Cambodia, or China. But I have never met a Christian from North Korea. Not many Christians from North Korea are able to travel to tell their story, but the reports I have heard suggest that the combination of communism with a personality cult makes a ferocious beast.

But what should we do? What is the duty of love that Christians in the Romans 13 world owe to Christians in the Revelation 13 world? One of the purposes of the meeting in Albania was for leaders and researchers from churches in the free world to listen to leaders from the persecuted church, so that we could develop better “to do” lists. Love has to be practical. Two types of “to do” lists were developed in the meetings, one oriented toward churches and the other toward the world. I think these lists are extremely valuable and must be implemented in our circles. But two matters seemed so important that they came before practical “to do” lists.[1]

Our first duty is prayer for the persecuted churches. Even if we do not know much about their theology, ethics, and worship, we can pray for them. As I have listened in person to the prayer requests from persecuted Christians, two themes have caught my ear. The first is the fear that they will be forgotten or abandoned by other Christians. They do not want to die for their faith without other Christians knowing about their martyrdom. The second theme is their prayer request for boldness in witness and proclamation while many of their members are being killed. I have heard people say, “Pray that we would be bold till we die, so that there will still be a church in our country to bring the gospel to our neighbors after this time of persecution is past.” I think it is appropriate to include prayer for persecuted Christians in private, in our families, and in our normal congregational prayer, as well as to have special Lord’s days dedicated to prayer for the persecuted churches.

The second matter that seemed to come before a practical “to do” list was to address our tragic Christian history of internal intra-Christian persecution. At the suggestion of the Pope, our Roman Catholic colleagues took the lead in asking us to say: “We repent of having at times persecuted each other and other religious communities in history, and ask forgiveness from each other and pray for new ways of following Christ together.”

In this context, it seemed clear that the Roman Catholic Church had openly repented to Evangelicals and Protestants for their role in persecuting them in the past. This repentance was accepted by Evangelicals and Protestants at the meeting. I see this as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. The era of intra-Christian persecution should be past. This achievement was of extreme value, and by itself this made the time and treasure invested in the meetings worthwhile. The history of Christians persecuting other Christians has been forgiven. In principle, internal Christian persecution should be finished!

Some other themes in our Tirana “to do” lists are important and must be implemented. We said:

In communion with Christ we commit ourselves:

(a)        To listen more to the experiences of Christians, Churches, and of all those who are discriminated against and persecuted, and deepen our engagement with suffering communities.

(b)        To pray more for Churches, Christians, and for all those suffering discrimination and persecution, as well as for the transformation of those who discriminate and persecute.

(c)        To speak up more with respect and dignity, with a clear and strong voice together, on behalf of those who are suffering.

(d)       To do more in mutual understanding to find effective ways of solidarity and support for healing, reconciliation, and for the religious freedom of all oppressed and persecuted people.

The second “to do” list coming from the Albania consultation was oriented toward the world, and it includes the types of things that should, in my opinion, work gradually—over the very long term—to help in changing Revelation 13 countries into Romans 13 countries. To quote from this list, the consultation called on:

All persecutors who discriminate against and oppress Christians and violate human rights to cease their abuse, and to affirm the right of all human beings to life and dignity.

All governments to respect and protect the freedom of religion and belief of all people as a fundamental human right. We also appeal to governments and international organisations to respect and protect Christians and all other people of goodwill from threats and violence committed in the name of religion. In addition, we ask them to work for peace and reconciliation, to seek the settlement of on-going conflicts, and to stop the flow of arms, especially to violators of human rights. 

All media to report in an appropriate and unbiased way on violations of religious freedom, including the discrimination and persecution of Christians as well as of other faith communities.

All educational institutions to develop opportunities and tools to teach young people in particular about human rights, religious tolerance, healing of memories and hostilities of the past, and peaceful means of conflict resolution and reconciliation.

We have to see the significance of these words. Representatives of almost all the organizations in the world that call themselves Christian churches were calling on the other main institutions in society, government, media, and education to take up their proper roles to reduce the persecution of Christians and related human rights abuses. This is not something we can do in five minutes after church. This requires serious long-term efforts by people responsible for our churches, government, media, and educational institutions. And, I believe, these duties fall especially on those Christians and churches that have a rich intellectual and educational history, and that therefore can figure out how to express effective love for persecuted Christians in government, the media, and education.

Keep in mind what I claimed a few minutes ago: the governments in the Romans 13 world usually have some important moral influences upstream of what they decide to do today. In many or most of the countries with religious freedom, somewhere in the last 200 years, there was a significant influence of some biblical themes—perhaps about human dignity, perhaps about freedom of conscience before God. We have to use the means of church, government, media, and education to try to make that happen for Christians in the Revelation 13 world. Many researchers think the persecution of Christians around the world has become much worse in the last five years. Multiple beasts have returned. We have to use all legitimate means to respond.

So what should you do, personally or with your church? Let me give some suggestions:

1. Pray!

2. Start to read about the problem. My favorite source for reliable information is the World Watch List, which provides both shorter and longer reports about the countries where religious persecution is extreme.[2] For many years I have helped to develop the books, journals, and various reports published by the International Institute for Religious Freedom; we have a growing body of serious literature written by our researchers that addresses many dimensions of the problem.[3]

3. Start to learn about human rights documents and principles. At least since the United Nations endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), freedom of religion has been regarded as an important human right, even if many nations ignore it. It would be a worthwhile step if all Christians knew something about human rights.

4. Ask what your government says and does in regard to religious freedom and persecution. Do not be surprised if your government is not completely consistent with its own principles. Ask your officials if they are implementing their own principles in both domestic and foreign policy.

5. Ask if your school or university should do something more educationally with regard to human rights and religious freedom.

6. Ask if your church could develop a partnership with a particular persecuted church.

I hope that the location of our November consultation on discrimination, persecution, and martyrdom might be an encouragement to persecuted Christians. We held it in Albania, not only for security reasons but also to celebrate the fact that the terrible persecution under communism has ended. Albania itself would have been near the top of the list of persecuting countries a generation ago. For many years during that country’s totalitarian regime, it was effectively illegal not to be an atheist.[4] But this changed with the end of communism, so that there is now a good level of freedom of religion in Albania. Severe persecution often comes to an end; freedom often returns. With this in mind, I would like you to finish reading this essay by praying for the persecuted church, keeping in mind the requests I have heard from persecuted Christians.

Thomas K. Johnson, Religious Freedom Ambassador to the Vatican, representing the World Evangelical Alliance. He spent 21 years serving as an educator in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe.

[1] The entire text of the Tirana message is found in an appendix at the end of this essay.

[4] This policy direction began during the closing months of World War II and reached its high point in Albanian law in the constitution of 1976 and the penal code of 1977. The ban on religion was effectively reduced in 1985, and since 1990 Albania has enjoyed a good level of religious freedom. The efforts of Mother Teresa contributed to the transition.v




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