Oscar Romero – an inspiration

Oscar Romero, pictured shortly before he was killed

Yesterday, Pope Francis presided over a ceremony in which Archbishop Oscar Romero was canonised, to great rejoicing from thousands of Salvadorans and other Latin Americans who already consider Romero a saint.

Canonisation does not mean much to most evangelicals, since we are an egalitarian group, who believe that we have free access to pray direct to God and don’t need the departed to intercede for us.  Moreover, we believe that we are all saints.  But we do have people we consider worthy of respect and emulation for their lives and character, though with few exceptions we prefer to keep these roles for Protestants rather than Roman Catholics.

San Romero, however, is one of these exceptions, whom we may laud for his courage in speaking out against extra-judicial oppression of priests and the poor in his country.  At a time when politics in El Salvador was heavily polarised between the left and the right, death squads would routinely attack, torture or murder priests, nuns and civilians who put themselves on the side of the poor, and in his regular radio broadcasts Romero would denounce the latest incidents, which would also be listed in the diocesan newspaper.  Reflecting later on the death of his close friend the priest Rutilio Grande, Romero observed: When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”

These days El Salvador may have changed, but there are many of our fellow believers who need a Romero.  Recent crackdowns on independent churches in China have meant that millions of believers are unable to worship together in freedom.  Hindu nationalism threatens the lives of millions more in India.  And throughout the Middle East the remaining Christians who have not yet been displaced have no hope of a peaceful future.

Open Doors continues to advocate for the oppressed church through its World Watch List.  Let each of us stand up with Archbishop Romero to advocate for our brothers and sisters who are poor, marginalised and oppressed.  Support the work of Open Doors, engage with your MP, encourage local believers whom you know.  Let’s let our persecuted family know that we haven’t forgotten them.

 

 

No one is an island

1112138276The recent news of a pastor beheaded by ISIS in a central Asian republic brought to me by a trusted friend reminds us of the continual challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in parts of the world where living openly for Christ really does mean putting their lives on the line.

The writers of the New Testament letters frequently referred to suffering when they wrote to encourage their flocks.  They regularly stressed that it was normal, that we had been warned in advance about it, and that it’s all part of the cosmic conflict in which we are on God’s side.  Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first (John 15:18ff).  We in the West have been mostly insulated by the ‘Christian’ nature of our culture from the normality of suffering which is only too familiar to people in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

The Apostles’ teaching did not deny the tragedy of their suffering, but placed it into a larger context.  We read of Peter and John rejoicing that they had been considered “worthy” of suffering shame after they had been flogged (Acts 5:41)!  Paul talks about “momentary light affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17) and says that the suffering of this life cannot be compared to the glory of the next (Romans 8:18).

For millions of Christians around the world, but particularly in the 10/40 window, their faith means that life is a daily struggle to get served in shops, find jobs, be treated fairly by police, and avoid government oppression or mob lynching.  We in the West can help them by funding agencies like Open Doors which work among our persecuted family to protect, empower and advocate.  We can keep informed about their sufferings by following websites like persecution.org, and we can pray using resources like the World Prayer Map.

It can be so tempting for us just to shrug our shoulders and think it’s just another person we don’t know in a country far away.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is our family, we will meet them one day in heaven and rejoice in the stories of their faithfulness even to the point of death (Revelation 12:11).  But until then we are parted from them, and as John Donne wrote in his poem No man is an island:

…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

World Watch List shows persecution on the rise

WWL

Last week Open Doors published its influential World Watch List, in which it rates countries according to the degree of religious persecution.  Many of these come as no surprise, as once again North Korea tops the list.  But the news which gives most cause for concern is that the frequency and severity of persecution is clearly increasing.  For example, in 2013 the 50th country on the list scored 35 points.  This year, the 50th country had 53 points.  And frequently the reason that some countries are dropping down the list is not that conditions there are getting better, but that persecution is growing even faster in other countries.

This reminds us that despite what we might feel in the relatively secure West, the world as a whole is not a safe place to be a Christian.  The ongoing threat from global terrorism, dictatorial nationalism and religious extremism not only from ISIS and Boko Haram but also in, for example, India, reminds us that the unprecedented levels of comfort and safety that the West experiences is not shared either by the global church or the historical church.  For much of the church’s history, persecution has been the norm.

Persecution has even been seen as evidence that our faith is genuine – the world hates us because it hated our Lord (John 15:18-21).  In this passage Jesus said that the reason people persecute Christians is that they do not know the One who sent him.  Our response therefore, as well as supporting the oppressed and campaigning to protect them, should also be to strive to make sure that the persecutors really do get to know the One who sent Jesus.

You can read a summary of the report, order your copy of the World Watch List and find out how to pray for persecuted Christians by clicking here.  And remember:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church –

there is one church.

Featured Ministry: Open Doors

hist_beetle_driveIn 1955, a young Dutchman went to a youth congress in communist Poland carrying hundreds of Christian tracts to distribute.  During his visit he discovered an isolated evangelical church struggling to retain its morale in the face of communist persecution.  The young man, now known throughout the world by the name ‘Brother Andrew’, embarked on a life travelling to difficult and dangerous places, smuggling Bibles to a needy church, inspired by the words of Revelation 3:2 –

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.

Driving his battered VW Beetle all over the Soviet bloc, Brother Andrew smuggled Bibles into communist eastern Europe.  But his exploits did not stop there.  He pioneered work into China, and then the Middle East and parts of central Africa.  Open Doors, the organisation he founded, has gone on to print Bibles, broadcast the Gospel by radio, coordinate international prayer ministry, keep the church informed about persecution  and become well-known for delivering practical support to the suffering church.  They also advocate on behalf of the oppressed, and their annual World Watch List is a must-have for Christians seeking information about how to pray for countries where Christians are oppressed.

60 years on from Brother Andrew’s first journey, Open Doors has become a worldwide agency working in over 60 countries through nearly 1000 workers – most of them national partners, because in the places they work people who are obviously foreign can’t always be effective.  Many of them work in challenging and dangerous places, training up new generations of church leaders and equipping the church to survive in the most hostile places on the planet.

All this is true to the adventurous spirit of Brother Andrew, who is famous for pointing out that there are no countries which are closed to the gospel.  There are of course countries from which it may be hard for Christians who preach the gospel to come back alive, but Brother Andrew has proved throughout his escapades in places like Palestine, Iraq, China and the Soviet Union, that God really can shut the eyes of the authorities and open doors.

Today tens of thousands of suffering Christians are supported and encouraged by Open Doors’ campaigns of aid and encouragement.  You can read more about these on their website, where you can find more details on how to pray for them and to join in the ministry.  As the UK CEO of Open Doors, Lisa Pearce said at a recent celebration of 60s of Open Doors’ ministry:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church – there is one church.

Or as St Paul put it: “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Let’s be inspired by the example of Brother Andrew and his many colleagues to relieve the suffering and pray for the parts that suffer.

Sykes-Picot and the ISIS dilemma

NThe ISIS insurgency in Iraq has hit the headlines in the last few weeks as this Islamicist group has rapidly gained control of territory and prompted a mass-movement of refugees by its extreme persecution of minority religious groups, prompting many Christians to show their solidarity with the persecuted church by changing their Facebook photo to the Islamic letter ‘n’, which ISIS have been writing on the doors of the homes of Christians so that they can be easily identified.  It stands for ‘Nasrani’, the Arabic word for Nazarene, the local term for Christian.  Many people will not however have heard of the obscure Sykes-Picot Agreement which ISIS has vowed to overthrow.

ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is the successor to a number of Al-Qaeda-linked organisations which emerged in the aftermath of the Western invasion of Iraq, and which gained ground as an insurgent group in the Syrian civil war.  It has gained sympathy among Iraqi Sunnis marginalised by the pro-Shia regime of the recently-deposed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and it aims to impose a Sharia religious state (or Caliphate) throughout the Levant.

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were diplomats, British and French respectively, who in 1916 drew up a secret treaty agreeing how Britain and France would carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which they confidently expected to be defeated in the First World War.  When this happened, The League of Nations gave Britain and France a mandate to run the countries we now know as Syria and Lebanon (France) and Israel-Palestine, Jordan and Iraq (Britain) as part of their Empires while creating independent countries.

Sykes and Picot drew lines on a map with little consideration of ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations, rather as the European colonial powers had done in Africa a generation previously.  The two countries subsequently imposed their own rule on these countries, overthrowing local arrangements which had emerged following the collapse of the Ottomans and reneging on previous agreements, particularly those made with local potentates by British soldier T E Lawrence in exchange for their support in fighting the Ottomans.

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Ongoing persecution for the church in Iraq?

This meant that local groupings had no opportunity to work out their own spheres of influence in the region.  In fact, since the arrival of Islam in the mid seventh century, the entire region has been in the hands of large empires (the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans) which have artificially kept a lid on this turbulent region.  Centuries-old tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims are now erupting  in what experienced Middle East observers, including Lord Ashdown, have pointed out could be their equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War, as rival religious/tribal/ethnic groups vie to carve out their own polities.

The challenge for the Western world, which for the last century has continually tried to keep the lid on tensions in the region through a policy of appointing and supporting local strongmen like Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, is whether we step into this carnage and reimpose order (at what cost to ourselves and the locals?) or let the conflict that might have resolved issues a hundred years ago play itself out – at incredible cost of life and the ongoing persecution of minorities.

The dilemma is whether the Sykes-Picot Agreement should be overthrown, and if so, can we justify the consequences?

Many Christian agencies are working to help our brothers and sisters fleeing from the conflict in Iraq.  Open Doors is one of them.   Christian Today has some very practical suggestions on what individuals can do to help.

Persecuted for their faith in Iran

captiveWe have blogged on numerous occasions about the suffering church worldwide but a visit to hear two young women from Iran talk about their experience of being imprisoned for sharing their Christian faith prompts us to consider the heroism of the many millions who struggle daily just to stay alive, let alone actively share their faith.

Maryam and Marziyeh both grew up in muslim families in Iran, and independently met Jesus while still in their teens as a result of their search for more meaning.  Within weeks they had led family members to Christ, and then shared the gospel with friends and strangers.  Boldly they spent four years handing out New Testaments around Teheran, or leaving them in restaurants, or posting them through people’s letter boxes.  In four years they were able to distribute 20,000 before the authorities finally caught up with them and imprisoned them.

Held in detention in a notorious prison, they continued to share the gospel with guards and prisoners, leading many to Jesus.  When challenged by interrogators, they said it was the fault of the authorities for putting them there!  They pointed out that it was natural for other prisoners to ask why they were there, and they had only answered truthfully, which led to people asking what Christianity was all about.

Which for us at Syzygy raises a rather uncomfortable question: how can two young Iranian believers be so bold in their faith when we in the west feel embarrassed to mention Jesus even to members of our own families?  Many of us will excitedly travel halfway round the world to take part in the latest outbreak of Holy Spirit revival but we won’t walk down the road to share the gospel with our neighbour.  We talk about being persecuted at work when colleagues tease us about being Christians and never have to face a life-and-death choice.  How did we get our values so upside down?  Why can’t we say, with St Paul:

I do not consider my life dear to me, in order that I may finish the course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God…. For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

(Acts 20:24, Philippians 1:21)

Subsequently cleared of the charges, freed, and allowed to emigrate to the United States, Maryam and Marziyeh now devote their time to reminding the church of the plight of believers in Iran, where many Christians are still in prison, and those who are not face significant discrimination and active persecution.  They are currently on a world tour telling their story to help Open Doors raise funds for a much-needed project.  We strongly recommend going to one of their remaining events, which you can find out about here.

Please pray for the suffering church in Iran, particularly those in prison.  You can find out more at the Open Doors website.