Frequently, the freedom and security that we enjoy as Americans can blind us to the issues faced by many other people in the world. We either don’t know that they are a problem, or underplay the severity of those issues because they don’t line up with our own experiences. However, simply because we don’t see those problems doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t serious. One such problem has started to creep back onto some Americans’ radar because of the atrocities committed by ISIS: religious persecution, in particular the persecution of Christians.
Religious persecution was a common theme in early Christianity. In fact, Jesus warned his followers of inevitable persecution many times in the New Testament, such as in John 15:18: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” Thankfully, in much of the Western World including America, Christians are free to practice without religious persecution. However, religious persecution, of any type, is not a thing of the past in the entire world, and as the Lenten season begins, it is important to recognize the need to pray and help other people of faith who suffer.
The Lenten season is a period of 40 days within the Christian calendar where Christians remember the time leading up to Jesus’s passion and resurrection. This season is also marked by increased prayer, repentance, and reflection. One Catholic Church leader, the Archbishop of Detroit calls for believers to pray for not only the persecuted Christians of the Middle East, but all peoples.
On February 17, 2015, the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. In the video released by ISIS, the Christians are seen declaring their faith and praying to Jesus moments before their death. Following their death, the Coptic Pope in Alexandria declared the 21 Christians to be martyrs and honored in a way similar to Catholic saints. Since their martyrdom, Christian leaders across the world have decried the attacks and instructed Christians to band together.
Christian persecution is not a new phenomenon, however. In November 2014, Aid to the Church in Need released a report about religious persecution. Of the 196 countries studied, 55 had seen religious freedom deteriorated in recent months. This report asserts that Christians remain the most persecuted religious group across the world. Muslim countries were also found to have the most serious violations of religious freedoms. Faith and church leaders have condemned recent attacks on religious freedom in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq where as many as 2 million refugees are living in Turkey.
The Middle East isn’t the only location of Christian persecution today: China has also been noted for its continued persecution of Christianity. The Chinese government has been noted for its open persecution of Christians. Crosses have been forcibly removed from churches, more than 100 churches have been demolished, services have been disrupted, and church members have been detained. Some church pastors now face twelve years in prison. In response to this increased persecution, Bob Fu, a former tortured Christian, started the China Aid foundation. China Aid seeks to advance religious freedom in China by exposing abuses and being a voice for the persecuted.
In America, where we are blessed with the greatest freedom in the world, it is easy to overlook those suffering in other areas of the world. While religious persecution may seem like a thing of the past, it is still very real for many people of the world. One report found that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. In recent weeks 21 Christians were martyred for their faith. It is important for not only people of faith, but all freedom loving Americans, to support those persecuted for their beliefs and work to end their suffering.