For those of us who are regular church-goers, the cessation of regular worship gatherings due to the coronavirus has been wrenching.
With churches shuttered temporarily, the children’s and youth activities, Bible studies, and men’s and women’s groups that they housed have had to close down along with them. Sure, some churches have switched to live-streamed Sunday services and online gatherings, but we’re not able to meet in person to worship or fellowship like we used to.
We probably feel a little hard done by, don’t we?
But there’s one group of Christians for whom these sorts of restrictions have long been an all too familiar reality:
The Persecuted Church.
According to Open Doors, a non-denominational charity supporting persecuted Christians, each year 260 million Christians around the world endure some form of persecution for their faith in Jesus, while untold thousands are martyred.
The countries in which Christians experience extreme persecution include North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Iran and India (source: Open Doors World Watch List, 2020).
For Christians in these countries and many others, facing restrictions on their ability to gather with fellow believers isn’t something rare and shocking: it’s an everyday occurrence. Many Christians around the world can only gather to worship in secret, and risk arrest by the authorities if caught.
In North Korea, the country which for 14 years running has topped Open Doors’ World Watch List as the most dangerous one in which to live as a Christian, even owning a Bible is illegal. Some believers there try to memorize as much of the Bible as they can before destroying it. Others hide their Bible in their homes, reading it only in secret.
Contrast that with our experience here in the West: in my local Christian bookstore, I can readily buy any one of a hundred different Bibles. I can choose between dozens of different translations, select a cover which is leather, hardcover or paperback, and even pick which colour of cover or size of font I prefer. I’m absolutely spoiled for choice. And I certainly face no censure from the state for owning a Bible.
North Korean believers often can’t even share their faith with their family members for fear of being reported to the authorities or being inadvertently given away by their own children. When Christians are discovered in North Korea, they’re sent to labour camps, tortured, or even murdered. Their families often share the same fate, considered guilty by association.
We Christians in the West, on the other hand, are free to share our faith with anyone we please without fear of arrest. We’ve long taken for granted our religious freedoms, our extensive church programmes, and our modern facilities. We even complain if the service doesn’t unfold according to our preferences. “The music is too modern,” we grouch. “Why doesn’t the pastor wear a suit?” we gripe.
Shame on us.
We Christians in the free world should repent for ignoring the suffering of our brothers and sisters in other countries who are in chains for the sake of the gospel.
“Remember the Lord’s people who are in jail and be concerned for them. Don’t forget those who are suffering, but imagine that you are there with them.” (Hebrews 13:3 CEV)
No matter what temporary disruptions to our church services we have to endure because of the pandemic, it’s still no match for what the persecuted church has always had to suffer. We still have freedom of worship: we can say what we please about your faith in public or on the Internet without fear of the police arriving at our door the next day. We should never take that for granted.
I’m reminded of a famous incident which occurred in England during World War II:
During the Blitz, which started in September of 1940, London was being pummelled by gruelling German bombing raids. At one point the city was bombed every night for 57 days straight. Hit particularly hard was London’s East End: home to crucial docklands and factories, it was a prime target for enemy bombs. The resulting death toll was horrific, and countless buildings were destroyed.
On Sept. 13, 1940, the Luftwaffe strafed Buckingham Palace, one of several attacks on the seat of the monarchy in Great Britain during the war. The Palace suffered damage from the bombs, but King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who were in residence at the time, were unharmed.
Afterward, the Queen endeared herself to millions by famously declaring, “I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”
In a way, perhaps it’s good that believers in the West are having our “palaces” shaken through the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Even though it’s still no comparison to what our persecuted brethren in the faith suffer, perhaps being unable to worship together in person has given us a very small taste of what they experience daily.
Maybe now, with deepest humility, we can look the Persecuted Church in the face.
(If you wish to learn more about the Persecuted Church, please visit Open Doors or The Voice of the Martyrs, charities which serve Christians living under persecution.)
© 2020 Lori J. Cartmell. All rights reserved.