In 1955 a young Dutch Christian joined a Communist youth group in order to visit Eastern European countries, with the intention of discovering how Christians lived behind the Iron Curtain. Weeks later, on a trip to Czechoslovakia, he managed to separate from his group. What he found was a suffering church and that Bibles were very scarce. Officials were angry he had broken away from the official tour and had gained contact with Christians. As a result, he was prohibited from entering the country again, but having seen with his own eyes the levels of oppression, he decided to dedicate his life to aiding the suffering churches behind the Iron Curtain. He obtained a Volkswagen Beetle and spent the next few years smuggling Bibles and Christian literature into Soviet countries.
When a book was published which recounted his life story and experiences, it became an international bestseller, selling over 10 million copies. The name of the book was God’s Smuggler and his name is Andy Van der Bijl, or, as he has come to be known, Brother Andrew. His initial forays into Communist Europe developed and grew into the organisation Open Doors, which now continues his work of supporting the persecuted church in over 60 countries.
Open Doors is just one of a number of global organisations serving Christians living in countries where their freedom to believe and worship is but a distant dream. They stand alongside Barnabas Fund, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, Aid to the Church in Need and others carrying out this important, life-saving work. When Brother Andrew discovered the plight of the churches in Communist Czechoslovakia, he saw first-hand a treatment that has been the experience of millions of Christians ever since the birth of Christianity. Jesus was murdered by those who hated Him, and His followers throughout the ages have paid the price for their faith – through persecution, imprisonment and often with their own lives.
Persecution is to be expected for Christians, because to follow Jesus is counter-cultural and far beyond the realm of mere private morality. Instead, following Jesus involves standing in faith against the powers of evil and darkness, which is a public act. Writing to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul described the Christian life as a struggle ‘not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’
Today has been designated by the World Evangelical Alliance the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. It is a time set apart and remember thousands of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world who suffer persecution for no other reason than that they confess Jesus Christ as Lord.
For those of us who live in countries where personal security is taken for granted, and to attend a church and worship God holds no fear, it is imperative that our spiritual family who suffer for the same faith are never forgotten.
It is to our own great shame that many Western Christians have had to hear about the rapid recent increase in the brutal tyranny against Christians in the Middle East through the secular media: our consciences are pricked by Twitter rather than a sermon. When we see the executions or dislocations of entire ancient Christian populations, anger stirs in our souls. The work of Canon Andrew White – the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’ – has also done much to open our eyes to the painful realities of life in Iraq and Syria.
The appalling treatment of Christians in this region almost defies words, and yet there are other places where the persecution is just as horrendous, if not worse. It is well known that the most dangerous country for Christians is North Korea. Here the entire population is forced to publicly worship Kim Jong-Un and his dynasty as a gods. All other forms of worship are illegal. Every citizen is registered by the state as either loyal, wavering or hostile to the regime. This designation guides what job opportunities people can get and how much food they receive.
Wearing a cross in North Korea will lead to certain arrest, as will owning a Bible or meeting Christians or talking to others about Jesus. Tens of thousands of Christians are held in prison camps, which have high death rates due to malnutrition and execution. The state police send out agents posing as Christians to infiltrate and destroy underground churches. As a result, being able to trust others is almost impossible. The few Bibles available are hidden well away. Scripture is memorised and worship is carried out in silence. Believers will go far into the woods and mountains at night to escape attention in order to pray and share.
Yet, despite this incredible level of hostility, the church in North Korea is growing. Christians pray fervently for their country and will risk everything to share the Good News of Jesus because they know that there is no greater gift in life than to know God and receive His love. One Christian said:
We now pray the prayer of Queen Esther. She was called ‘for a time like this’, as Mordecai told her. That applies to us too. We are called to spread His light in a time like this and under these difficult circumstances. We experience that God uses the persecution to sanctify His church and are grateful that we in our weakness receive His strength. We pray that we are able to do His will in every situation and if we perish, we perish.
The Bible tells us in Hebrews to ‘remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering’.
As we sit in church today, or in our comfy chairs at home, is it too much to pause and think of those who are enduring persecution for the sake of the gospel? Let us remember those who have not eaten for days because they are given nothing to eat; those languishing in prison; Christian families who have watched their homes burn to the ground; pastors who are beaten and tortured for their faith and enduring physical pain; Christian families and children living in constant fear of violence; those who have lost their loved ones and those who are facing death, even right at this moment, for refusing to denounce Christ.
We need to ask God to give His people strength in their suffering and protection against the forces of evil. But as we do so, we should also pray for ourselves that we might learn from their example, grasping the depths of faith and their desire to spread the gospel that has seen the Church grow in many of the most difficult environments, whilst ours continues to move in the opposite direction.