On Sunday, November 13, 2011, churches throughout the world will recognize the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, a day designated to remember Christians who are suffering for their faith. For persecuted Christians, 2011 was a year marked with significant changes: for some, increased freedom, and for others, increased dangers.
Faith McDonnell, Director of the Religious Liberty Program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), says that one of the most significant developments in 2011 was the birth of the new nation of South Sudan. “There has been the elation over the birth of the Republic of South Sudan, after decades of oppression and genocide,” she says. “In the new country of South Sudan, Christians are finally free. Religious freedom is one of the blessings of the separation from Sudan, along with the blessing of no longer being considered a second-class citizen in your own country -- because of both race and religion.”
The Beginning of a Nation
For author Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at The Hudson Institute, the beginning of the new nation marked both tremendous hope for southern Sudanese but greater risks for those in the north. “The good news [this year] was independence of South Sudan, which will give those longsuffering people a chance to build a free country,” he says. “However, the government of Sudan is now trying to create the north as an Islamic State, which will cause further persecution to Christians, and others, there.”
Indeed, while Christians in South Sudan are finally free, the estimated one million Christians in northern Sudan seem to be facing increased opposition. Compass Direct News reports that radical Islamists attacked a group of Christians as they were attempting to rebuild their church building on October 24, 2011. Members of the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) congregation were attacked by a mob shouting, “We do not want any presence of churches in our area,” as they hurled stones at the church members.
McDonnell says, “Both Southerners who live in the north, and northern Sudanese Christians, are facing new levels of persecution.” She reports that Sudanese president Omer al-Bashir “has said that now that the South ‘is gone’ there is no need for any religion but Islam in Sudan.” The threat of Shariah (Islamic) law in Sudan -- at least in the northern regions -- still exists.
Persecution on the Rise in the Middle East
For Christians throughout the Middle East, the most significant development this year was the advent of the Arab Spring. The event is forefront in McDonnell’s mind when she thinks about the plight of minority Christians in the Middle East. “What a disaster it has been for Christians,” she says. “Particularly in Egypt, where many Copts and other Christians were just as excited about the ouster of Mubarak as the Muslim Egyptians were, it is a horrendous disappointment, crushing, to see not only that the Christian Egyptians will not have freedom, but that their situation has deteriorated.”
Attacks on Christians in Egypt continue, with the most recent massacre involving the deaths of 25 Christians who were protesting the burning of a church.
“IRD is working with Coptic Americans to expose the truth about the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist threats to Egypt,” McDonnell says, “and to encourage the passage of legislation in Congress for a special envoy to the Middle East minority groups like Copts and Iraqi Christians.”
Paul Marshall says that danger for minority Christians throughout the Middle East is on the rise. “Almost everywhere there is an increase of radical forms of Islam,” he says, triggering “increased persecution.” His recent book, Silenced, addresses the threat of blasphemy laws growing throughout the Middle East and spreading into the West. “Coming on top of the flight of almost half of Iraq's Christians, [the Arab Spring marks] a dire time for the Middle Eastern church,” he says.
Joe Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, agrees. “It's my great fear that the Arab Spring will actually develop into the Arab Winter for Christians in the Middle East,” he says.
A Wake-Up Call to the Church
In the midst of threats to the church throughout the Middle East and Africa, Marshall notes that the “Western church seems to be going back to sleep.”
McDonnell hopes that American Christians can begin to look past their own circumstances to see the harsh realities faced by persecuted Christians throughout the world. “I’m concerned that the U.S. and world economic situation is impacting how much people care about the persecuted church and related human rights issues,” she says. “There is so much self-focus.”
What can Christians do to help suffering believers? McDonnell urges readers to take practical action on Sudan. “Consider joining Act for Sudan, help to promote our open letter to President Obama, asking for stronger U.S. response to protect the people [of Sudan] to support the resistance to the Islamist extremist government of Sudan,” she says.
Joseph Grieboski says that taking action is vital, and “first of all, pray.” He says that it is “fundamentally necessary and important to pray for those who face persecution and discrimination, to pray for those who work on their behalf, and to pray for government and religion leaders so that their hearts and minds are opened to freedom.”
Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at Breakpoint.org, where she covers topics related to human rights, religious freedom, women’s issues, and refugee resettlement. For more articles, visit her website atkristinbutler.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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