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I'm trying to consolidate all the Open Doors postings I've been doing into this group.  I will be moving the discussion featuring Prayer Alerts and Stories of Persecution to this thread.  With each entry, I'll provide the link to the actual page on the Open Doors site, as well as the text of the alert.  Please join me in praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world!  

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. -- Hebrews 12:3

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Nov. 20: Iranian House Church Leaders Find Healing

DEEPLY WOUNDED IN IRANIAN PRISON–HOUSE CHURCH LEADERS FIND HEALING

[Pictured above: Iranian ex-prisoner Wahid now pastors a church of 200 in Turkey.]

In Iran’s infamous prison systems, convicted Iranian Christians are jailed and treated as “prisoners of conscience.” Iranian ex-prisoners report being forced to endure intense physical and emotional torture, as they’re pressured to renounce their faith. While many ex-prisoners testify about God’s presence in jail, they also must cope with horrendous memories of prison that keep chasing them long after they’ve been released. Recognizing that, Open Doors partners with local ministry partners and churches to offer trauma care training for Christian ex-prisoners.

Earlier this year, more than 30 Iranian ex-prisoners jailed for their faith recently participated in a training in Turkey–many of whom were house church leaders in Iran and are not leading ministries in Turkey. Below, Wahid, Saman* and Mojtaba—all former house church leaders now living as refugees in Turkey—share their stories and how God has used this ex-prisoner training to impact them both personally and in their current ministries.

“I CRIED A LOT, BUT I WAS ALSO COMFORTED A LOT.”

A former Iranian house church leader and ex-prisoner for his faith, Wahid now pastors a church of 200 in Turkey. For him, the training allowed him to be transparent with believers who understood firsthand what he has gone through.

“In the training, I met people who went through the same experience as me,” he says. “We understood each other, and we learned from each other. I cried a lot, but I was also comforted a lot.

“As a former Iranian prisoner, I have often felt alone and thought nobody cared about me. This training proved me wrong. You showed me I’m not alone. In daily life, I find it difficult to talk about my time in prison, it’s a horrible story. And, as a leader, it’s a big temptation to pretend you are stronger than you actually are. To heal from my experience is a painful process. Some wounds are healed; others not yet. But, with the experiences and teaching at the training event, I have become stronger as a leader. It was a joy for me to be part of the training.”


Mojtaba: “The training has been a good start to my healing process.”

“SHARING REMINDED ME WHAT GOD TAUGHT ME IN PRISON, ‘BE SILENT, I WILL BE CLOSE TO YOU.’”

Former house church leader Mojtaba is now counseling fellow Persian-speaking believers in Turkey, which initially triggered difficult memories. The trauma care training helped him understand what he needed to do to stay physically and spiritually healthy and able to counsel others.

“In the training, I learned how to create a safe space for myself. The training has been a good start to my healing process. Day by day, my wounds are healed more. After my imprisonment, the stress of the memories caused me to suffer from dizziness. After a while, this disappeared, but it came back when I started counseling fellow believers here in Turkey, a task that included lots of emotions.

“In the training, I learned how to create a safe space for myself. While I am counseling people, [I sometimes get caught up in] their problems. Now, I have learned to keep a certain distance. In the long run, this will mean I can do more for them. Creating this safe space has helped me stay healthy in the last few months while I have continued counseling, and during which time there was also conflict in my church. Despite the many emotions, I stayed physically and mentally healthy. I don’t get dizzy anymore.

“Sharing about my prison time also reminded me about the lesson God taught me there: ‘Be silent, I will be close to you.’ I try to apply that lesson to my life again. I don’t want to speak up anymore just to receive recognition from other people. I don’t want others to see me as an important person because I spend time in prison for my faith. I am no more than any other Christian: I need God just as all of us do. And I need Him now too. So I try to focus on Him first.”


Saman: “You can’t imagine how much it means to me to know that I am not alone in this.”

 “MAYBE GOD IS TEACHING ME SOMETHING HERE” …

In Iran, Saman* was also a house church leader—before he was arrested and imprisoned. Now he is living in Turkey but dreams of one day going back to his home country to serve the Lord there.

“It’s a difficult choice,” he says. “I’m still talking with God about my future. It is in His hands. It is difficult to be a refugee here in Turkey, but I hear from friends in the West that life is so rushed there that believers hardly have time to pray and worship on a daily basis. I don’t want that for myself either. Maybe God is teaching me something here that I can use when I go back to Iran.”

The trauma care he has received has offered “long-lasting refreshment,” he says.

“I am still in contact with some of the pastors I met in the training; they help me to continue learning. My friends say I have become stronger since I attended the training. I try to apply what I learned. Every day, I learn something new.”

For Saman, knowing that the global Body of Christ is praying for him and knows his story has strengthened him.

“I was encouraged by the invitation to attend this training. And I am encouraged that you visit us, that my story is shared, and that people pray for me. You can’t imagine how much it means to me to know that I am not alone in this.”

*For security reasons, Saman’s name has been changed. 

Nov. 20: Persecuted Believers Can Teach Us Gratitude

4 THINGS PERSECUTED BELIEVERS CAN TEACH US ABOUT GRATITUDE

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods, for His steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to the LORD of lords, for His steadfast love endures forever…

(Psalm 136: 1-26)

This week as you prepare to give thanks with family and friends, we want to say thank you for partnering with Open Doors and for letting God use you to bless and strengthen the persecuted Church around the world for His glory.

At Open Doors, we continue to hear from believers who are taking the gospel to others, strengthened by knowing that they are not alone … that Christ followers like you are praying with them and equipping them to share the Jesus they have found. These believers have learned the importance of living grateful lives.

LESSONS IN GRATITUDE

Saman from Iran, Noor from Iraq, Seojun from North Korea and Racheal from Nigeria, among many other believers, can teach us what gratitude truly looks like–and why it’s so important in our lives as we mature in Christ.

THANKFULNESS PUTS OUR HEARTS IN THE NECESSARY PLACE TO CONTINUE TO RECOGNIZE GOD IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR DIFFICULTIES AND ADVERSITY.

In the midst of threats on their lives and despite the memories of dark prison cells, our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ understand that God has commanded His people to be grateful for a reason. As the martyred German pastor and evangelist Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”

Former Iranian house church leader Saman (now ministering in Turkey) recently participated in trauma counseling for ex-prisoners where he confronted dark memories and deep wounds: “I am encouraged and thank God that you visit us, that my story is shared, and that people pray for me. You can’t imagine how much it means to me to know that I am not alone in this.”

THANKFULNESS DEFEATS DISCONTENT.

Gratitude and contentment go hand in hand. Throughout Scripture (at least 100 verses of thanksgiving), we repeatedly see that God calls us to praise and thankfulness, knowing that we are sinners. We are prone to discontent and envy. As the Canadian-American theologian Harry Ironside said, “We would worry less if we praised more. Thanksgiving is the enemy of discontent and dissatisfaction.”

Iraqi Christian Noor was among the thousands of Christians who fled Qaraqosh when ISIS invaded. Last year, Noor returned with her family and is reworking to rebuild her life and her community. She understands the power of being thankful even when life is unjust: “We are thankful for every Christian in the world for thinking about us. And we are grateful that you are helping us, also with your prayers. So, thank you.”

THANKSGIVING IS NOT A ONCE-A-YEAR CELEBRATION.

Rather, giving thanks is a daily practice—one of the most distinctive marks of our faith. North Korean Christian Seojun (now a pastor in South Korea) knows that well. He met Jesus in an Open Doors safe house in China. “I am so thankful … It is not easy to carry on,” he says. “But I am trying my best to work for His kingdom. I am trying to remember all your prayers and effort and I am trying to live as God’s faithful servant.”

THANKFULNESS PLACES GOD OVER OUR LIVES AND IN THE CENTER OF OUR HEARTS.

In the 17th century, preacher and author John Bunyan (best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress) wrote, “A sensible thanksgiving for mercies received is a mighty prayer in the Spirit of God. It prevails with Him unspeakably.” As  image bearers of God, we give Him glory, following Jesus’ call to abide in Him. Gratitude gives God His due and control over our lives. It acknowledges that He is the giver of all good gifts.

Nigerian believer Racheal John was one of 34 Christian women rescued from Boko Haram militants. She endured seven months captive in Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest: “I wish my eyes could see the people who sent this support to me. I don’t know what to say. One thing I will never forget about this gift is that I have brothers and sisters who care for me and who prayed for my rescue.”

This Thanksgiving as you celebrate and reflect, please also remember our persecuted family—our brothers and sisters who are living lives of gratitude in dark situations. We pray that you and your family will experience anew the Author of our thankfulness and His love that endures forever. 

*representatives names and photos used for security

Nov. 30: One Prayer Saved this Pastor in India

ONE PRAYER SAVED THIS PASTOR IN INDIA FROM THE LION’S DEN

Open Doors partners helped him pay the fine and visited him to encourage and pray for him. In this write-up, Biswas shares with an Open Doors partner about the persecution he suffered, and how thankful he is to Open Doors’ partners for the prayers and support.

COMMITMENT TO CHRIST—NO MATTER THE COST


India ranks #11 on the 2018 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it’s most dangerous to follow Jesus.

As the two Open Doors partners, Manit and Saurabh, approach his house, Biswas folds his hands to greet them and leads them inside. As everybody enters the small living room, there seems to be an uneasy silence in the house. The recent incident that happened to Biswas has instilled fear in the hearts of family members.

Biswas’ wife, her head covered with a red scarf, brings in some tea; she smiles as she enters the room. Biswas sits on one of the chairs with the guests.

“I am so grateful that Open Doors, through its partners, is helping pastors like me. I can never thank you all enough,” Biswas shares.

“I had been so desperate as no one was helping me, and then God sent you.” His eyes show the depth of his gratefulness.

Biswas says the homes of non-Christian families surround his house, and that many families live in peace with him. There are however some families who oppose his work as a pastor.

Manit asks Biswas if he has been able to continue with his ministry. “Church services are going on, but I am more careful while doing house visits. I will always serve Christ no matter what it costs. Even if everyone opposes me I will stand for him,” Biswas says.

PERSECUTION FROM EXTREMISTS


Inside Biswas’ home in northern India.

As Biswas hands over a cup of tea to Saurabh he opens up, “That day when the incident took place, someone came to my door and said some men from the temple are calling you. I went without really thinking much about it. What happened next was a shock to me.

“When I got there I saw ten men waiting for me. I knew that all of them were Hindu extremists from my city. They pointed a revolver at my head, and then, without any warning, they started kicking and punching me. They kept shouting abuse, blaming me for tricking people and luring them to change their religion to Christianity.”

He stops here and looks down as if he is trying to recollect something painful, “I suddenly heard one of them say loudly ‘We killed your mentor one year ago, now it’s your turn.’”

He has tears in his eyes as he goes on, “This reminded me quickly at that time about one of the senior pastors in my area who had been murdered one year ago by unknown assailants; he had been the one who had also led me to Christ. They were referring to him as my mentor. I knew now that these men were the ones who had killed him, and they were acknowledging it with boldness. I was shivering with fear.”

He continues, “And then I asked God, ‘Is it my turn after all because I am sharing your Gospel, will they kill me too?’

“In my mental and physical agony, I realized I could also pray for deliverance. I then prayed in my heart, ‘God who saved Daniel in the den of the lions, save me.’”

Biswas wipes away his tears, “It was a miracle. Just after I had said the prayer in my heart, one of the attackers told the others to stop and said let’s just make him pay a huge fine. The God who saved Daniel from the lion’s den saved me from being killed that day.”

Finally, they let Biswas go in exchange for a hefty fine worth eight months’ of his salary, which he was supposed to provide them the very next day. He arranged the money from a local money lender immediately on a very high interest rate as he had no savings. This incident put him and his family into a financial crisis.

RELIEF FROM FINANCIAL HARDSHIP


One Day Persecution Preparedness Seminar where people from the remote villages from persecuted background participated.

Open Doors, through its partners, were told about the difficult financial situation Biswas was going through and helped him both financially—and to manage his family expenses.

“I am so grateful. I will never forget what Open Doors has done for me through its partners. Please convey my thankfulness to all those who have supported me.”

After spending some more time with the couple, Saurabh shares from Psalm 55:22. As both of them pray for Pastor Biswas and his wife, they kneel on the floor. There are some tears of gratefulness and some tears of pain.

When both partners leave, Biswas and his wife are smiling, their eyes, however, are still moist, but they do look brighter.

“Keep praying for us,” his wife shares. “We need more strength. We know we are being monitored and our lives are constantly under threat. But we want to continue with our ministry; however, we are worried about our children.”

Since the number of new believers in the church Biswas pastors continues to rise, many extremists have come to know who he is. Church leaders like Biswas are often targeted with physical violence by Hindu extremists. These leaders need special prayers for protection and also encouragement. Open Doors’ partners in India continue to provide presence ministry along with practical aid to such Christian leaders who are serving God in challenging circumstances.

5 Countries Where Christmas is a Crime

Slowly, the five friends make their way to the women’s outhouse they use each day. They look back. No one has followed them. In the stench of the room, they gather in a corner. Saying little, always in muttered whispers, they stand quietly. One woman softly sings. Another leads a short prayer.

Year after year, this is what Christmas looks like for these believers in a North Korean labor camp. Counting the cost, they risk their lives to come together to pray and sing, reflecting on the coming of their Savior—both 2,000 years ago and one future day they all hope comes very soon.

Share your Christmas prayer for persecuted believers and read the prayers of other Christians praying with you on our new Prayer Wall.

For millions of believers like these, the celebration of our Savior entering the world must be a risk-laden secret Christmas. They know that there is a war on Christmas—and what that war really looks like.

While we see Christmas trees on every corner, persecuted believers might not ever see a single Christmas decoration. If they do, it’s only in a secret celebration because in several countries, Christmas is illegal and banned outright. Any Christmas celebration carries with it the potential for fines, arrest and imprisonment.

RISKING DEATH IN NORTH KOREA

In North Korea, Christianity is illegal—believers must celebrate Christmas in complete secrecy in the woods with a handful of Christians; in homes with candles and in whispers; or in the outhouses of prisons and labor camps.

“Incredibly, many North Korean Christians risk everything to gather on Christmas Day and remember the hope the first Nativity brought to the world,” an Open Doors spokesman says. “A meeting is usually just two people on a park bench muttering prayers and praise quietly. 

“For some, it is too dangerous to even speak, so they simply gather together for a few minutes of encouragement. If a whole family comes to faith, they can organize a type of Christmas celebration. But even then, they must keep it secret from the neighbors.”

Last year, North Korean leader Kim Jung Un banned Christmas and instead told people to celebrate his grandmother, Kim Jong-suk, who was born on Christmas Eve in 1919. The first wife of the country’s founding leader Kim Il Sung is known to North Koreans as “the Sacred Mother of the Revolution.”

North Korean refugee John Choi gives us some insight into what North Korea looks like in December: “’Christmas? What is that?’” he says. “That’s what the average North Korean would say if you were able to ask them about Christmas. Everyone in North Korea knows the birthdays of the three Kims (the leaders of North Korea since its beginnings)—but they do not know who Jesus Christ is or that Christmas is Jesus Christ’s birthday.

“Christmas has long been a non-event for North Korean people—except for underground Christians. The regime works hard to ensure information about religious holidays does not enter the country, and its citizens remain unaware people are celebrating and belting out Christmas hymns across the world.”

CELEBRATING SECRETLY IN SAUDIA ARABIA

In Saudi Arabia, churches, crosses and Christian meetings of any kind are illegal throughout the country. There are no churches and even the wearing of any kind of religious symbol is forbidden. A Christmas tree or lights outside are unthinkable. For Christian households, Christmas must be celebrated in secret.

And for any Christian converts in a Muslim family (converting is illegal and punishable by death, imprisonment or lashes), they are often forced to hide their faith, acting like a Muslim who doesn’t celebrate Christmas—celebrating Jesus only silently in their hearts.

While the country’s laws “permit” Christians to celebrate privately, gatherings are still targeted by officials. In December 2012, Arab media reported that Saudi Arabia’s police force—the Mutaween—raided a private home, arresting more than 40 guests for “plotting to celebrate” Christmas.

Three years later in December 2015, rumors of increasing secret Christmas parties prompted state media to reinforce that celebrating Christmas was forbidden, suggesting that for Muslims even to greet non-Muslims with a Christmas message was basically “endorsing their faith.”

However, insiders and experts claim there is an increasing number of secret Christians in Saudi Arabia–and that a growing number of Saudi residents celebrate Dec. 25.

“The number of Christian converts from Islam and other religions is increasing, along with their boldness in sharing their new faith,” says Open Doors CEO David Curry. “But they have to be careful. A lot of persecution can come from family or society, rather than the government.”

DEFYING CHRISTMAS BANS IN SOMALIA

In Somalia, Christmas was banned in 2015—six years after the country adopted Sharia (Islamic law). Every year, there is an announcement reminding citizens that the celebration of Christmas is illegal.

In 2015, the government “warned” Somalians against the celebration of Christmas, saying it is only for Christians.

“This is a matter of faith. The Christmas holiday and its drum beatings have nothing to do with Islam,”  Sheikh Mohamed Kheyrow, director of Somalia’s ministry of religion, said on state radio. He added that the ministry had sent letters to the police, national security intelligence and officials in the capital city of Mogadishu, instructing them to “prevent Christmas celebrations.”

The same year, Mogadishu mayor’s told Reuters: “Christmas will not be celebrated in Somalia for two reasons; all Somalis are Muslims, and there is no Christian community here. The other reason is for security. Christmas is for Christians. Not for Muslims.”

For Somalians, the 2015 ban smacks of the turbulent time in 2011 when Islamic militants al-Shabab controlled Mogadishu. One of the extremist group’s edicts was to ban Christmas celebrations.

NO TREE TRIMMING IN TAJIKISTAN

In Muslim-majority Tajikistan, no one publicly celebrates Christmas because it has been outlawed. A decree in 2015 by the education ministry in the former Soviet republic banned public displays of Christmas, particularly in schools and universities. That includes fireworks, festive meals and gift giving, as well as “the installation of a Christmas tree either living or artificial.”

Since 2013, Tajikistan has progressively pared down Christmas celebrations leading up to this latest law. In 2014, the country banned Russia’s version of Father Christmas. The law comes more from the restrictive government that has also limited the free exercise of Islam than Muslim society.

STAYING FOCUSED ON JESUS IN MUSLIM-MAJORITY BRUNEI

In Brunei, an oil-rich country on the island of Borneo in southeast Asia, anyone caught illegally celebrating Christmas could face up to five years in prison and a $20,000 fine; owning a Bible in the small Muslim-majority country will get you nine years. Even something as simple as wearing a Santa hat will put you in jail. Unlike Tajikistan, the ban on Christmas comes directly from the strict Islamic regime.

In 2015, Brunei’s Ministry of Religious Affairs released a statement saying, “These enforcement measures are … intended to control the act of celebrating Christmas excessively and openly, which could damage the aqidah (beliefs) of the Muslim community.”

The statement also said that any public celebrations could “affect” the “Islamic faith” of Muslims in Brunei.

The country’s population of 420,000 is 67 percent Muslim, 13 percent Buddhist and 10 percent Christian. Non-Muslims can privately celebrate Christmas in their homes but must first alert the authorities. Still, that caveat sends Christians a subtle message the government is watching.

“I’ve recently stripped all Christian decorations from my office walls to avoid suspicion from the authorities,” James, a church leader in Brunei, said after the decree was issued. “I’m not fearful, I’m being cautious.”

In this pro-Muslim and anti-Christian country, Bruneian Christians were not shocked by the move. They have been used to holding celebrations in the shadows.

“It (the directive) has not made much difference in our worship at the church and private celebrations at home, it is already something that has been practiced over the years,” a Bruneian Christian told The Straits Times. The major difference, he said, is the noticeable lack of commercial Christmas decorations compared to previous years.

“It does take away some of the atmosphere … but we Christians stay focused on the joy that comes from God rather than external factors.”

PRAYING WITH SECRET CHRISTMAS WORSHIPERS

Despite the risks, persecuted believers continue to make the bold and defiant decision to worship their Savior and celebrate His coming into the world. As the Body of Christ, we can stand with our brothers and sisters that will have a much different celebration this month and on December 25 than our own.

  • Pray with believers in North Korea as they secretly gather in candlelit homes, in the woods, on park benches and in prison outhouses. God, we ask You to protect our isolated brothers and sisters and bless them for their resolve to worship you.
  • Pray with believers in Saudi Arabia in Muslim families who must hide their faith and celebrate Jesus’ birth secretly and silently in their hearts.
  • Pray with Christians in Tajikistan and Brunei and their clandestine celebrations. Protect them from police raids and extremist groups that target Christans during Christmastime.
  • Pray with Christians in Somalia who each day live knowing that they are not accepted and their very existence is ignored and denied by their government. Ask God to protect them and give them meaningful times together this December.
  • Pray with imprisoned Christians and their families–that they would be strengthened and comforted—sensing that the global of Body of Christ is lifting them up.

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