By: Stan Guthrie|Published: August 4, 2016 7:57 PM on BreakPoint
It’s been a rough few years for religious liberty, the global church, and world missions, to say the least. Unfortunately, the road ahead looks even rougher.
The recent execution of an 86-year-old Catholic priest in Normandy, France, is just one of the more recent attacks against Christians by the Islamic State or its surrogates. Christians worldwide cheered in the spring when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry finally admitted that ISIS attacks against Christians in the Middle East amounted to “genocide.”
According to Open Doors, Christians are being martyred at an accelerated pace over the last three years, by a variety of groups, including ISIS. Open Doors counts more than 7,000 Christians killed for their faith last year, a substantial increase from 4,344 in 2014 and 2,123 in 2013. These figures do not necessarily include Iraq, Syria, or North Korea, where accurate numbers are hard to come by.
The 2016 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also paints a grim picture. “By any measure,” the 276-page report says, “religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault since . . . 2015.” The victims are not just Christians, either, the report says: “From the plight of new and longstanding prisoners of conscience, to the dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, to the continued acts of bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Europe . . .there was no shortage of suffering.”
Parts of the globe where the roots of communism reach deep have also been problematic. Despite widespread protests from Christians and human-rights advocates, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has just begun implementing a series of laws that will likely curtail religious liberty for the nation’s minority faiths—including, and perhaps especially, Protestants.
Written ostensibly to fight terrorism, the measures allow sharing one’s faith only in a registered church building. Even private homes are off limits to religious activities. Those deemed in violation face fines up to $780 as individuals and $15,500 as organizations. Foreigners who transgress could be deported. The majority Russian Orthodox Church, of course, is exempt from the law.
In an open letter to Putin, Sergei Ryakhovsky, leader of the Protestant Churches of Russia, and several other evangelical representatives said the legal package violates religious freedom and personal conscience. The letter says, “The obligation on every believer to have a special permit to spread his or her beliefs, as well as hand out religious literature and material outside of places of worship and used structures is not only absurd and offensive, but also creates the basis for mass persecution of believers for violating these provisions.”
This is but the latest development in an alarming trend for Russia. In 2012, Moscow passed a “foreign agent” law that requires expatriate groups to file detailed paperwork and be subject to government audits and raids, according to Christianity Today. Since then, the number of NGOs serving in Russia has contracted by a third.
Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia, told CT that believers are prepared for whatever happens with the new law. “They say, ‘If it will come to it, it’s not going to stop us from worshiping and sharing our faith,’” he said. “The Great Commission isn’t just for a time of freedom.”
In China, meanwhile, the Communist regime continues restricting the activities and visibility of Christians, who are a growing presence in the nation of 1.4 billion people. New regulations require that the roughly 7,000 foreign NGOs in China register with the local police and find in-country partners. Also, they are banned from performing or funding religious activities. “The measure could expel Christian groups that are doing medical, developmental, or educational work,” CT says.
In general, the climate for Christians has been getting chillier in China lately. “Over the past year, the Chinese government has stepped up its persecution of religious groups deemed a threat to the state’s supremacy and maintenance of a socialist society,’” the USCIRF report says. “Christian communities have borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down.”
Yet even in the darkest oppression, the light of the gospel continues to shine. The Islamic world is Exhibit A.
David Garrison, author of “A Wind in the House of Islam: How God Is Drawing Muslims around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ,” describes how the Spirit is moving among Muslims. Garrison, who conducted more than a thousand personal interviews with Muslim-background believers around the world, estimates that 2 million to 7 million former Muslims now follow Jesus Christ. Most of that global growth has come in recent years. Garrison says God is preparing many in the House of Islam to hear the gospel before they hear it from missionaries.
“I was hearing from Muslim-background believers that they had met Jesus,” Garrison told Christianity Today. “Sometimes we as Christians feel we take Jesus to people. What we forget sometimes is that we’re attesting to a living Christ who continues to break into peoples’ lives, into their dreams, into their visions, and into their prayers.”
Garrison says that God can reach Muslim hearts even when Muslim minds seem closed to the good news.
“From West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Indonesia, I met people whose lives had been shaken and rattled by their encounter with Christ,” he said. “They were not persuaded by logical doctrine or a better civilization, but by that encounter with the living Son of God who changed their life and world. They can't go back to life as usual.”
The road to kingdom glory often winds through long stretches of kingdom oppression. But Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against His church. That promise is as true today as it was when given two millennia ago.
The question is: Do we believe it, and are we willing to act on it, even in the midst of persecution?
Image courtesy of connect11 at Thinkstock by Getty Images.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is editor at large for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and for Christianity Today. Stan blogs at www.stanguthrie.com. He is the author of “Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century.”