(CNSNews.com) – Embattled Christians in Islamic nations including Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; in communist countries such as North Korea; and in less self-evident problem areas elsewhere like India, will be the focus of fellow believers around the world over the next two Sundays, marked as the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
Churches around the world are being encouraged to dedicate November 3 or 10 to praying for an estimated 200 million people around the world who are targeted by their governments, compatriots or both, for their faith in Jesus Christ.
Advocacy groups are making resources available online, including prayer guidelines, sermon outlines and ideas for youth and children’s activities.
The annual event was launched 16 years ago by a coalition of Christian organizations who pledged to end their “silence in the face of the suffering of all those persecuted for their religious faith.”
Over the years since, the day has also helped advocacy organizations draw attention to especially critical situations in various parts of the world.
The plight of minority Christians in the Syrian civil war has resonated particularly over the past year. Christians fared relatively well under the Assad regime, but have become increasingly caught in the crossfire – and been directly targeted by radical Islamists among the anti-Assad rebellion.
Most recently Barnabas Fund, an international agency that supports struggling Christian minorities, reports that as many as 70 Christians were killed during the siege of two Syrian villages, invaded by Islamist rebels on October 21 and retaken by government forces a week later. The villages of Saddad and Haffar had previously been seen as safe havens for Christians fleeting from fighting elsewhere.
The deteriorating situation catapulted Syria this year to 11th place on Open Doors USA’s annual list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, up from the 36th spot and the biggest jump of any country on the list.
In Egypt, Coptic Christians bore the brunt of Islamist anger after the military removed the Muslim Brotherhood administration over the summer. Supporters of the ousted president attacked churches and other Christian targets, including schools, businesses and homes.
Copts, an Orthodox denomination dating back to the early church, have for years faced multiple forms of discrimination, both under the Mubarak regime and at the hands of Islamists, but Barnabas Fund called it “one of the worst periods of targeted violence against them in modern history.”
Two weeks ago four Christians, including girls aged eight and 12, were shot dead and others injured in a drive-by shooting at a Cairo church after a wedding.
Saudi Arabia may be stable compared to Syria and Egypt, but religious freedom for Christians there is non-existent, with not a single church allowed to operate openly and legally. Expatriate workers are periodically arrested while attending services in private homes, detained and deported.
Saudi Arabia has the number two spot on the Open Doors watch list – a position the kingdom has held for most of the past decade.
Iraq, number four on the watch list, has seen a steady exodus of Christians over the past decade. A 1987 census recorded 1.4 million Christians in the country; advocacy groups say the number today could be as low as 330,000.“Due to intentional and systematic persecution of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, the number of believers living in those countries makes up only four percent of the inhabitants, compared with 20 percent a century ago,” Open Doors said this week. “The area is now 93 percent Muslim. Christianity in the Middle East is near extinction.”
‘Faithful in the midst of suffering’
Top of the Open Doors list is North Korea, where the Stalinist regime’s brutal treatment of Christians is notorious.
“In the last 50 years, 300,000 North Korean Christians have disappeared and are believed to be dead,” says World Help, a Virginia-headquartered non-profit humanitarian agency.
“Today, about 100,000 North Korean Christians are rumored to be living in the country’s infamous labor camps. And typically, if one individual is accused of following Christ, their entire family is arrested on suspicion of treason and sent to these camps as well.”
“The North Korean government has tried repeatedly to extirpate Christianity from the country, but the underground church has survived and has overcome severe suffering,” says Seoul USA, an organization focusing on North Korean Christians.
Seoul USA CEO Eric Foley said underground believers in North Korea “don’t ask God to deliver them from persecution. They pray they’ll remain strong and faithful in the midst of their suffering.”
The plight of India’s Christian minority was spotlighted in October when seven Christians – who had already been incarcerated for five years – were sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted for the 2008 murder of a prominent Hindu leader.
Even though Maoist terrorists active in eastern India claimed responsibility for the killing of Laxmanananda Saraswati, radical Hindus directed their anger at Christians in Odisha (formerly Orissa) state, launching attacks that cost more than 100 lives, and saw dozens of churches and thousands of homes torched, and tens of thousands displaced.
Christian leaders called the sentences a travesty, with some claiming the judiciary was influenced by powerful Hindu extremist elements.
Saraswati was a veteran leader of a fundamentalist organization called the World Hindu Council (Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP), which strongly opposes the conversion of Hindus to Christianity.
For decades, Christians in Odisha have been targeted by an anti-conversion drive. The VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, accuse Christians of bribing poor Hindus – especially those designated as Dalits or “untouchables” at the bottom of the Hindu caste system – to convert, a claim denied by Christians.
Meanwhile Barnabas Fund says at least 10,000 Christians in Odisha remain homeless, five years after the wave of violence. “Some have been unwilling to return to their villages knowing that their persecutors may still be at large. With so many churches destroyed and others closed, it is also difficult for them to meet for worship.”
Christians make up less than three percent of India’s population of 1.1 billion.
A prayer produced for this year’s International Day of Prayer remembers “those who are imprisoned for their faith and ask that they, like the Apostle Paul, would be able to see that their chains have helped to further the gospel, not frustrated it. May they inspire and embolden their fellow believers to speak the Word of God more courageously and fearlessly.”
The prayer asks God to comfort and strengthen those facing persecution, and to help other believers to be “ever mindful of our brothers and sisters around the world who need us to stand with them as they suffer in Your name.”
Some IDOP resources: