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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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Feb. 25: FOR 16 SYRIAN BELIEVERS, BAPTISM IS A RADICAL CHOICE

Three years ago, the church in Syria was all but dead, never to come back. The vicious civil war and invasion by ISIS militants threatened the very existence of Christianity. But our partners on the ground in this country of 20 million people say the story has changed and continues to transform. God is resurrecting the church in Syria, responding to the prayers and cries of His people around the world—and demonstrating His compassion and power to revive and restore.

During the war, churches have grown, and many Muslims have met Christ here in this Middle Eastern country, once a major stronghold for Islamic State. To help Christians, especially new believers, deepen their faith, Open Doors regularly organizes retreats for Syrian churches. A recent retreat in the Lebanese mountains included a baptism opportunity in a swimming pool where some 16 men and women offered a powerful picture of the transformation and resolve it takes to follow Jesus in the 11th most dangerous country to be a Christian.

“Glory to Jesus!” She shouts, raising her arms high. Water drips from the sleeves of her white dress as she walks through the green water of the swimming pool.

Tens of people gather around the pool, clapping their hands and shouting for joy along with her. She is the first new believer baptized on a sunny Sunday morning in Lebanon; 15 others are in line behind her, waiting to be immersed.

REVIVAL BEGINNINGS IN SYRIA


Syrian Pastor David sees the start of a revival among the Druze and Kurds in Syria.

Sixteen baptisms in one morning in the Middle East is a very special moment for this young Syrian church of members who come from the Middle Eastern Druze religion (a religious minority in the Middle East combining beliefs from Judaism, Christianity andIslam).

“Of course, God works everywhere and among all people, but I see the start of a revival amongst the Druze and the Kurds in Syria,” says David*, pastor of the church.

Revival in Syria is not unlike revival anywhere else in the world. It means new converts, new churches, new leadership and the baptizing of new believers.

“In my city, we now have four churches of mainly new believers,” Pastor David says. His congregation of 60 is the smallest church of the four. Also, elsewhere in Syria, former Druze and former Muslims are turning to Christ in significant numbers.

A COSTLY DECISION IN SYRIA


Celebrating new life in Christ, each new believer emerges to the sound of loud applause.

One after another, the men and women walk down the pool stairs to be baptized. The pastor shortly prays and then baptizes them, gently pushing them backward under the water. Each believer emerges to the sound of loud applause and a warm embrace as they step out of the pool.

With all 16 baptisms finished, the group erupts in worship:

“I have decided to follow Jesus/I have decided to follow Jesus/ I have decided to follow Jesus/ No turning back, no turning back.”

The song is familiar to Christians around the world. But in Syria, the words take on new meaning. In this Middle Eastern country, their decision to follow Jesus comes with great costs. If or when their conversion is discovered, these new believers could lose their family, friends, their job, even their life.

Following Jesus will turn their lives upside down. 

“The world behind me, the cross before me/The world behind me, the cross before me/The world behind me, the cross before me/No turning back, no turning back.”

Believers in Syria know that becoming a Christian means leaving their old life, their old world, and their old religion behind them. And before them is a cross–a symbol of persecution.

FIRST STEP FOR NEW BELIEVERS IN SYRIA


Not unlike any newly baptized believer, baptism for these converts in Syria is just the start. They will need the support of the Body of Christ, both local and global. Pastor David believes the war has been a catalyst for transformation.

“Hundreds have been saved during the war; before, there were only some hidden and secret believers. God worked in His special way during this war.”

Through your prayers and support, Open Doors offers new believers like these discipleship and leadership training. We are also working with local churches in Syria to establish Centers of Hope, equipping and empowering local churches to offer aid and services like trauma counseling to their communities.

Recently, Pastor David’s church opened a Center of Hope in their community.  

*representative name used for security

Mar. 04: China Promises Financial Rewards for Reporting Christians

Chinese authorities are now taking steps in rural areas of China to intensify the ongoing crackdown on Christian gatherings often known as house churches. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is reportedly resorting to offering monetary rewards to anyone who spies on a neighbor or even family member and reports a group of believers to authorities.

MONEY REWARDS FOR ANYONE TIPPING OFF AUTHORITIES IN RURAL CHINA



In documents obtained by Bitter Winter magazine, monetary incentives are spelled out based on the specific report and its impact. For example, a document issued by a subdistrict in Nanyang city in China’s Henan province states that anyone who discovers and reports a group will receive a reward of 200 to 1,000 RMB (about $30 to $150).

Reporting someone for making or spreading images earns a reward of $75 to to $300. And if the report has significant impact, the reward is $750 to $1,500. Turning in a believer from The Church of Almighty God (the largest Chinese new religious movement) brings $15 to $300.

REPORTING BOXES, HOTLINES AND WEBSITES


A reporting box recently installed at the entrance to the village committee of Chenzhuang village reads: “Box for reporting private (meeting) venues and missionary activities.” 
Photo: Bitter Winter

To make it easy to tip off authorities and report believers, China has set up reporting boxes in villages, phone lines and websites. A village officer revealed that when a caller reports a gathering, the caller’s location will be recorded right away and the meeting venue’s address can be quickly determined,

The number to the free tip hotline is printed on iron reporting boxes that read “Box for reporting private (meeting) venues and missionary activities.”

A reporting box was recently installed at the entrance to the village committee of Chenzhuang village in the Mangzhongqiao township (several villages constitute a township) in China’s Henan province (where the country’s underground church movement started).

One local villager noted that the the township government has issued a reporting box to each village. “Authorities are waging a crackdown against religious belief,” the villager said, and “people in the village are prohibited from believing in God.”

Some regions have also developed platforms for reporting on neighbors online or by writing letters.

The impact of these new practices has already been felt. Bitter magazine reported that one local believer said that by setting up reporting boxes, authorities have restricted religious events, gatherings, and evangelism, and “have placed believers in danger of being arrested at any time.”

Recently, a secret Three-Self church meeting in Dapan village in Henan was discovered and shut down, surprising believers who were meeting in a basement in a residential building. The venue’s furnishings were cleared out.

‘DIFFICULT TO CONTINUE GATHERING’ IN CHINA


Informing on each other became a prevalent practice during China’s Cultural Revolution under Mao. The CCP set up reporting boxes and rewarded people who reported or exposed others. With the implementation of these tools today, China has returned to mobilizing the masses to fight each other—a practice used during an era when outright persecution forced believers to go underground to meet and worship together.

One local retired CCP member disagrees with incentives, saying that he fears they make it easy for people to develop hatred for each other.

The former official’s fears align with what local villagers are sharing about the current situation: “Everyone is participating in monitoring and reporting others,” the villager said, increasing the risk of arrest and imprisonment for more believers.

“It’s impossible for us to defend against effectively. I’m afraid that it will be difficult to continue holding gatherings.”

PRAYING WITH THE CHURCH IN CHINA


Recently, one of Open Doors’ indigenous ministry partners who works to equip church leaders in China offered this insight: “Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions about what China needs. Pray for wisdom for the leaders. Pray with us.” She shared specific prayer needs for church leaders and churches in China:

  • Fortitude. Pray with Chinese Christians and church leaders for the fortitude to withstand increasing pressure and violent acts of persecution.
  • Empowerment. Pray that God would empower His church in China to reach the next generation.
  • Wisdom. Pray that leaders in China’s churches would have the wisdom to know how to handle the pressure they are coming under.
  • Workers for the harvest. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send workers to plant and nurture seeds that will ultimately bring forth an abundance of Kingdom fruit.
  • Protection. Pray that God will protect the rights and abilities of His people in China to worship Him.
  • Supernatural intervention in the hearts of leaders. Pray that Xi Jinping and other Party officials will hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and put their trust in Jesus.
  • Courage for believers. Pray that given the choice between religious displays and poverty rations, believers will have wisdom and courage.

Mar. 02: PRAY FOR 22-YEAR-OLD CHRISTIAN STUDENT SENTENCED TO PRISON...

The alleged “crime” took place on October 24, 2018, when Agung, a student at the University of North Sumatra in Medan, made an Instagram post. In it, he allegedly mocked a picture of three Muslim youths burning a flag belonging to a banned militant group.

The next day, hundreds of Muslims surrounded his house in protest, and he was arrested for blasphemy.

During the trial, prosecutors told judges that Agung’s actions could have undermined the country’s interreligious relations.

However, the deputy director of the Indonesia-based Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace told ucan that the prison sentence resulted from “pressure from radical Muslim groups.”

“It was because of pressure from radical Muslim groups,” he said, referring to the August 2018 case of a Buddhist woman, also from Medan, who was jailed for 18 months for complaining about the noise from a local mosque’s loudspeaker during the call to prayer.He stressed that the blasphemy law discriminates against non-Muslims.

Throughout the world, blasphemy laws are “used” by Muslims to avenge petty arguments and seize property.

Since 1968, more than 150 people have been imprisoned under the blasphemy law in Indonesia, including former Jakarta Christian governor, widely known as Ahok. He was released from jail last month after serving nearly two years for blasphemy. His trial was marked by mass protests by hardline Islamic groups, illustrating the growing religious intolerance in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation and No. 30 on the 2019 World Watch List. 

Mar. 11: TWO MORE PASTORS MURDERED IN COLOMBIA

TWO MORE PASTORS MURDERED IN COLOMBIA–PRAY WITH TRAUMATIZED FAMILIES AND CHURCHES

The most recent attack came on February 15 when Pastor Tomas Francisco Estrada* was murdered ( circumstances are unknown) in the rural area of Buenaventura, a coastal seaport city in western Colombia. For 11 years, the pastor served in ministry. The impact of his death has critically affected his family. When she learned her husband had been killed, Pastor Estrada’s wife, Luisa Montes*,  suffered a nervous breakdown. The now single parent of their two children, Luisa is in critical health.

Six days before Pastor Estrada was killed, another leader, Pastor Leider Molina*, was hit by five gunshots during the evening of February 9. He was leaving the church just after preaching a service. His murder took place in the municipality of Caucasia in the country’s northwestern region.

In that same area six months before, Pastor Hector Galarza was killed in September 2018 in the small town of El Cedro* on the way to preach when he was approached by two men and shot in front of his family. His wife, Mercedes*, was also critically traumatized. Scared for their lives, the family fled to a nearby town to take refuge. The tiny house they now live in is in a depressed neighborhood. There, hidden from those who murdered her husband, Mercedes struggles to rebuild her home. She cries often. She also has nervous attacks. So do her grandchildren who run to hide whenever they hear a loud noise.

A THREAT TO CRIMINAL GROUPS

In Colombia, church leaders often play a dual role as de facto community leaders, especially in small rural communities. This recognition often makes these leaders and their families a target of paramilitary forces, guerrillas and criminal groups wanting to control the region.

Pastors Galarza, Estrada and Molina were all known for their commitment to preach the Word of God and actively work for the betterment of their communities. They refused to succumb to the threats of criminal groups, not only ignoring them but also actively opposing them. They advocated for justice processes and the restoration of community rights from the paramilitary and organized crime groups.

The preaching and courageous action of pastors like Pastor Estrada, Molina and Galarza have dissuaded many young people in the country from joining criminal groups. Many youth have even renounced armed conflict and illegal operations. Today, it’s estimated that some 14,000 children are enlisted in criminal arms groups in Colombia. These leaders and those like them were targeted to counter the growing number of people going to church and their opposition to armed groups.

And in places where the Christian church maintains a strong influence, residents are less inclined to be part of criminal operations. By preaching the Word of God, the Christian church establishes a direct opposition to the purposes of the armed groups. For this reason, these men were seen as a threat. They died advocating for and defending the people of God–taking seriously Jesus’ call to make disciples. 

ALMOST 1,000 KILLINGS IN LAST THREE YEARS

The violent deaths of Pastors Galarza, Molina and now Estrada reflect the arduous situation the Christian church in Colombia is facing. The church in Colombia is under attack with reports of murders, threats and attacks on social and church leaders continuing to escalate.

Between 2016 and 2019, the country has seen 566 murders of church and social leaders, according to reports by non-governmental organization Indepaz. In 2019 alone, the murders of reportedly 19 social leaders in different parts of the country have struck fear in the regions. The church must preach the message of Christ in the midst of crossfire where the war in Colombia seems to have taken a new breath and is now escalating.

Our Open Doors team reports that the repeated crimes of pastors murdered in Colombia and the continued threat of conflict in the area have left the Christian church terrified. Some believers have fled with their families; others are staying, waiting for the government to intervene.

PRAYING WITH THE CHURCH IN COLOMBIA

  • Please pray with the family and church of Pastor Molina (he had no wife or children) and the widows and children of Pastors Estrada and Galarza.
  • Pray with the church in the Caucasia and Buenaventura areas and throughout Colombia as they face this ongoing violence. Pray for protection and boldness as they continue to stay in the area and be a light in increasing darkness.
  • Pray with church leaders in Colombia as they lead the church to follow Jesus and His ways despite the threat of losing their lives. Pray for economic and pastoral support for families affected by the murders and attacks against religious leaders.
  • Pray specifically for youth throughout Colombia to stand strong against these criminal groups’ recruitment ploys. Pray that God would give these young people discerning eyes and a bold spirit to resist.
  • Pray with parents who must send their children away from home to protect them. Ask God to bring them peace and comfort.
  • Pray with Open Doors’ children’s centers in Colombia that minister to young people who have been rescued from paramilitary and criminal groups or children of Christians leaders whose families are often targeted.

 Representative names and photos used for security reasons

Mar. 16: 6 Christians Killed, 470 Flee in Congo Attack

According to field sources, the attackers–part of the Allied Democratic Forces–pretended to be security agents when they arrived in the village. By the time they reached the village center, some youths became suspicious and raised the alarm. Militia then fired indiscriminately at villagers. The ADF was created in 1995 by Ugandan Muslim rebels to oppose the government after they were forced out of Uganda by the army.

A nurse in the Nyankunde hospital in Beni told Open Doors by phone that the attackers then proceeded toward the house of the village head. When they shot dead the guard dogs, the gunfire sent people running. Two villagers attempting to flee were killed.

According to Pastor Gilbert Kambale, who runs a civil society organization in Beni, 470 Congo families fled seven miles to Beni following the incident. Most sought refuge with various host families and in schools in the Beu Commune of Beni city. The Congo village of Kalau has a largely Christian population, dotted with adherents to African Traditional Religion (ATR).

In the last five years, hundreds of civilians have died in the Beni area of the Congo alone. ADF militants are thought to have killed at least 700 civilians and more than 20 UN peacekeepers.

The attack will likely be followed by more violence. A local community leader in Kalau who asked for anonymity because he fears for his safety told Open Doors: “We have heard the rebels saying they worked for long in the domains of kidnapping and killings, but now they want to move to the stage of occupying the territory. They want to occupy the area they claim as theirs.”

The area in the Congo is also under attack of disease with the North Kivu province in the eighth month of an Ebola outbreak. In recent weeks, armed attacks against Ebola treatment centers have increased with one clinic burned down. 

Please pray boldly with us for our Christian brothers and sisters in Central Africa. They live under attack on multiple fronts. Pray for the Lord’s comfort to all those who have lost loved ones in the attack and for strength for those displaced from their homes. Ask God to intervene in their trials.

Mar. 13: PRAY WITH JAILED PASTOR FALSELY ACCUSED BY LOCAL IMAM

Pastor Elahi has been falsely accused of rape–a charge prompted by the local imam, Jamirul Islam, who is also believed to have bribed police–yet another persecution act in a string of violence the imam has committed against Elahi and his family.

A WARNING TO ALL CHRISTIANS IN THE VILLAGE

For years, Islam has schemed against the pastor. Islam once destroyed the building where Pastor Elahi’s house church met. He has also attempted to stop members from gathering.

This latest ploy is Islam’s attempt to teach Elahi a lesson and to pass on a warning to other local believers: If you don’t return to your previous Muslim faith, you will also face similar consequences.

At the time of the adultery, Elahi was attending a pastoral training in the capital city of Dhaka. But that isn’t stopping local police and village leaders from asking for an exorbitant sum of money to settle the case–a sum too much for Elahi’s and family and church to pay. This is the kind of persecution Christian converts in places like Bangladesh and India often face. To compel them to return to Islam or Hinduism, Christian converts are often falsely accused of crimes and hurled into a legal abyss that brings shame and financial adversity.

Currently, Pastor Elahi is applying for bail and preparing for his upcoming trial. He and his family are depressed and frustrated. Please pray with us for him and our other brothers and sisters in Bangladesh, specifically in Gobindopur Village:

Father, we thank you for making us aware of Pastor Elahi and this injustice against him and his family. We pray for hope, comfort and provision for him and his family. We ask You to erase their anxiety and fear and strengthen them in their faith. And God, we pray boldly with believers in Elahi’s church and village, that they could stand strong in their faith in the pastor’s absence and in the face of persecution from village leaders and pressure from family and friends to renounce their faith and go back to lives of comfort. God, we pray that you would give them supernatural peace and strength as they live for You. 

Mar 24: FIGHTING THE GATES OF HELL

FIGHTING THE GATES OF HELL: THE HOPE FOR CHRISTIANS IN IRAQ

The night ISIS came, Jandark was reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

She was praying over and over again through the familiar words. It was dark, and she could only see two or three other lit homes in her part of Qaraqosh, her home town. The rest of the buildings were dark, left empty by the other Christians in Iraq who had fled the threat of ISIS.

The prayer must have taken on a new meaning for Jandark as she prayed. As she pleaded for God’s Kingdom, she knew that her city was at the mercy of radicals who wanted to murder God’s people. As she asked God for His will to be done, she knew she couldn’t control the destruction of her city—and her home.

An hour later, she was on a bus, headed away from Qaraqosh. She left the doors unlocked, so ISIS wouldn’t break them down. She took with her a few family pictures, and left behind a cross on the wall. The cross represented her only hope that ISIS might spare her home.

“’Jesus, why is this happening to us? Can you save us?’” she remembers asking. “I left the cross inside […] to save the house.”

A NUMB NORMALCY

As Jandark left, her daughter Joumana was nearing the end of her own journey. She’d left Qaraqosh several hours earlier with her aunt, after the explosions she heard let her know ISIS was getting closer. She left her mother and home, hoping they would follow soon. She didn’t know what she was going toward.

As she rode through the dark desert of northern Iraq, Joumana couldn’t know that the next time she’d see her mother, it would be in a church in the nearby city of Akre, filled to the breaking point with Christians in Iraq who were fleeing ISIS.

“For the first three months when we were displaced, we stayed at the church,” Joumana says now. “I lost my ability to feel. I don’t remember how we existed or what we ate or how the time passed; we were in shock for three months. I felt nothing.”

Perhaps what seems most shocking is how normal it all felt to Jandark.

“It happened to the whole [community]. It wasn’t just to me,” she remembers. “It happened to all of us. It was normal.” When an entire community suffers the same trauma, it feels ordinary to go through the unthinkable.

A PAINFUL RETURN FOR CHRISTIANS IN IRAQ


Jandark shares about feeling violated after they returned to their home and saw what ISIS militants had done to it.

Joumana and Jandark were soon able to move out of the church into a house. Joumana got a job as an elementary school teacher—a far cry from her career as an organic chemist, but a job nonetheless. They also got help from Open Doors partners in the region.

“We are very thankful, because they helped us in Akre in providing food and heating oil,” Joumana says. “They [also helped us] in rent [on] the house in Akra.”

That helped them bide their time for two years until the news finally came: Iraqi forces had retaken Qaraqosh from ISIS. And it was safe to return home. Slowly, Christians in Iraq began to come back.

When Joumana and Jandark arrived back home, they saw what ISIS had done—a small taste of the brutal chaos inflicted on their city and the entire region.

“How can I express my feelings?” Jandark wonders. “We lost [our] privacy. I took a step to the back and did not touch anything on the first day; I just stood for a half-hour to look at my house.

“I didn’t do anything; I just [thought about] how we lost our privacy.”

When she did bring herself to start going through her home, it was painful.

“Kitchen furniture was in our living room and it was filled with rats—deplorable conditions,” she says, visibly disgusted by the memory. “Our clothes were dumped [into another room], they took all our electronics. There was even a hammer here—they were trying to break [through] the ceiling.”

“When I returned, I saw a damaged house, clothes and dirt,” Joumana says. “We spent a week in the home [before] we were able to organize and clean. We [had to] clean the house, burned old clothes, paint the walls, fix the broken windows, fix broken taps and [make] some house [repairs].”

As for the cross Jandark had left as a symbol of God’s protection over their house? It was still there, but broken into four pieces.

“When I came back, I saw the cross was broken into four parts,” she says. “I put the four parts back together, and it’s still in my house.”

RADICAL LOVE


Joumana has returned to her job as an organic chemist and hopes to go on to earn her doctorate.

Joumana and Jandark are finishing repairs to their home, with the help of Open Doors’ partners. “When we returned to Qaraqosh, they supported us [by] painting the walls and some basic reconstruction,” Joumana says.

And now, one year later, the family has slowly rebuilt. Alongside their still-recovering city of Qaraqosh, they are standing strong for Jesus in the Middle East. Families have returned home, churches are being resurrected, and kids are going to back to school. But Christians in Iraq tell us there is still much work to be done.

She has returned to her job as an organic chemist and hopes to go on to earn her doctorate. Jandark attends church so much that Joumana gently teases her. The mother and daughter remain deeply connected and close to one another.

Following Jesus has also meant that for Christians in Iraq, rebuilding is coupled with forgiveness—even for the people who destroyed their home.

“’Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you [Matthew 5:44],’” Jandark says when asked what she would say to ISIS.

“The most beautiful thing in Christianity is humanity,” Joumana adds. “I do not deal with a person as if he is [only] a Muslim or is my enemy—I deal with them as a human being regardless of who they are.” 

“We grew up with this,” Jandark says. “Jesus taught us to never hate someone. Because we are Christians, [we live] life [as] optimistic people. We live the life of peace and love. Jesus is love.”

STRUCK DOWN BUT NOT DESTROYED

The entire city of Qaraqosh has lived through the shared trauma of being chased out by ISIS. The terrorist group may have wanted to destroy Christianity in Iraq, but the power of the Holy Spirit has been unleashed as Christians return and reclaim the faith of their parents, grandparents and beyond. Christianity has been part of the fabric of this region of Iraq since the time of Christ—and it’s clear ISIS has failed spectacularly in trying to stamp it out.

Jandark’s cross is a fitting symbol of her family—and for Christians in Iraq. The cross was left as a symbol that God is in Iraq, and can’t be chased out. Over the last several years, Christians in Iraq have lived out 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” Jandark’s cross was struck down—ISIS may have thought it was destroyed, but she knew it could be put back together.

Like Jandark’s cross, the people of Qaraqosh have been broken—but God is restoring them, piece by piece.

“Who built the Church? It is Jesus. The gates of hell will not overcome it,” Jandark says.

Even ISIS—in their brutal actions, surely an earthly glimpse of the gates of hell—couldn’t destroy the church in Iraq.

Mar. 25: A Vital Awakening

A VITAL AWAKENING–ARIZONA CHURCH LEADS A VISION FOR THE PERSECUTED CHURCH

Arizona church answers the biblical call to strengthen the worldwide church

I realized that as the Church, we have an obligation to our Christian brothers and sisters—and not just the ones we can see face-to-face.”

For Charles Wise, a lay leader in St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Tucson, Arizona, this realization has led him on a journey to awaken others in his church and denomination to the need and opportunity to support the 245-plus million global Christians who are living and sharing the gospel in countries where they’re persecuted for following Jesus.

As a result, Wise initiated and leads the Worldwide Christian Support Task Force at the multi-ethnic church of more than 1,000 members.

BEGINNINGS OF A LONG-TERM VISION

Charles Wise leads St. Mark’s UMC’s Worldwide Christian Support Task Force.

Wise, who spent 42 years as a college professor, first awakened to the Church’s need to get involved in Christian persecution through news headlines.

“I saw various reports in major media about acts of persecution, but I never heard anything about this in church,” he tells Open Doors, a worldwide community of Christians committed to supporting persecuted believers in more than 60 countries. “I started asking various ministers about this. The usual reaction was, ‘That’s important, but we don’t focus on that.’

 “I thought that was anomalous given the admonition of Paul and others in the Bible for Christians to support each other. A basic principle of Christians is that we’re engaged with Christians around the world.”

When he moved from the Midwest to Arizona and began looking for a local congregation, Wise, whose background also includes international work, knew one of the major factors in his decision. The church he would be part of would have a willingness to engage with the stories of persecuted Christians.

“I made up my mind I was going to talk with the leadership to see if they had an interest. I wanted to know if there was room for something like this in their missions focus.”

St. Mark’s UMC Rev. Sharon Ragland has championed the vision to come alongside persecuted believers.

A conversation with Rev. Sharon Ragland quickly gave Wise his answer. Yes, there was room—but he would be the one who would need to lead it. Reverend Ragland also readily agreed to serve on the Task Force and has been a critical leader in it since the beginning. Lay leaders Maryann Nuckolls and Morgan Hunter have led key initiatives of the Task Force.

STRENGTHENING THE WORLDWIDE CHURCH

Since 2014, St. Mark’s UMC has educated their congregation about what’s happening in countries where Christians are persecuted.

“The reaction is always shock—people don’t know about this,” Wise says. “When you tell them the specifics of what’s happening to Christians today, they’re blown away.”

More importantly, the church focuses on the role the Body of Christ plays in strengthening the Church (Rev. 3:2). To date, members from various ministry groups at St. Mark’s UMC, including prayer and missions, serve on the Task Force that continues to make strides in its mission to strengthen the Church worldwide so that these followers of Jesus can, in turn, make disciples where they are.

The Task Force started as the Worldwide Christian Persecution Task Force but after realizing the need to focus on the positive and highlight the support element (versus persecution), the name was changed.

“We sense there’s a reaction you get when you consistently communicate difficult stories,” he explains. “So we don’t want to constantly talk about how people are being killed or tortured.”

To that end, St. Mark’s UMC consistently looks for stories of how persecuted Christians have achieved resilience in the face of adversity, as well as how they have been supported.

“We want to articulate this in a way that resonates with people,” he explains, adding that the Task Force’s mission statement and objectives align with this approach:

  • Continually updating the congregation and the surrounding community about where and how persecution of Christians is occurring;
  • Involving and assisting members of the congregation in supporting Christians who are under pressure by communicating encouragement to them;
  • Providing mission support to persecuted Christians who are in need as a result of practicing their faith;
  • Advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians to governments and international organizations.

MOBILIZING FOR AWARENESS AND ENGAGEMENT

St. Mark’s UMC Task Force worked with the church’s Missions Committee to donate half of the  Thanksgiving offering to supporting women in Egypt last year.

To communicate the stories and the Kingdom-building opportunity the congregation has to be the Church, the Task Force leads numerous initiatives, focusing on six countries on Open Doors’ annual World Watch List: Egypt, Myanmar, India, Syria, Mexico and Nigeria.

The Task Force created the Christian Support Prayer Chain that church members can join to receive emails with specific prayer alerts. The ministry also regularly contributes articles to the church’s newsletter and periodically offers updates during worship services. Often, the congregation specifically prays for persecuted believers.

Other special initiatives have included annual participation in Open Doors’ International Day of Prayer (IDOP), including a focused worship service, sign-ups for Open Doors’ email prayer alerts and information tables. This January, the church took an even deeper dive, offering Open Doors’ four-week small group Bible study called The Ripple Effect.

And Wise leads the Task Force to mobilize financial support for persecuted Christians. Last year, the Task Force worked with the church’s Missions Committee to donate half of the  Thanksgiving offering to supporting women in Egypt. This year, the Missions Committee has allocated funds from the mssions budget to support Open Doors’ training for Christians in Egypt.

EXPANDING THE VISION


St. Mark’s UMC’s Task Forces focuses on the many Good News stories of the persecuted church, such as the day when 16 Syrian believers made the radical choice to leave their old beliefs and follow Jesus into baptism.

Wise’s vision for seeing the Church come alongside persecuted Christians continues to expand beyond his local congregation to United Methodist churches in his region and in the United Methodist Church worldwide.

At the denomination’s last Southwest Conference, the Task Force presented a proposal to amend the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles, stating that “the United Methodist Church stands against persecution of Christians and stands with persecuted believers worldwide.” The Southwest Conference adopted the amendment; and it will be presented to the international General Conference when it convenes in two years.

“I think it’s anomalous that we have a major American Christian denomination with no formal statement about this worldwide plague of Christian persecution and support for persecuted Christians,” Wise asserts.

He hopes to see other UMC churches addressing persecution and supporting Christians in their individual contexts. He knows that some church leaders will want to be a part, while others will dismiss it, saying their agenda is too full. But he also knows his role and trusts God to work in the hearts of pastors and churches.

“I figure we’ve done our part if we tell them about it,” Wise says, adding that they’re starting with church leaders in the Tucson area in an Open Doors Pastors/Leaders Intelligence Briefing on March 11. They have invited church leaders from the city and surrounding area to join the conversation as they hear directly from persecuted Christians.

5 TIPS FOR STARTING YOUR OWN SUPPORT FORCE

For lay leaders and pastors who may want to follow St. Mark’s UMC’s lead, Wise offers specific pointers for both education and engagement:

  • If you’re a pastor, educate yourself about modern-day persecution and the need to strengthen Christians worldwide. Pick two to four countries of interest and start following them. You can search the Open Doors website for these countries and also set up Google Alerts for the countries as well as an alert using the keyword “Christian persecution.” You’ll quickly start to get a big-picture view of what’s happening. 
  • Include Christian persecution in any prayer updates or regular prayer during worship. Wise went to the church’s Associate Pastor Stuart Salvatierra and asked him to include persecuted Christians in his pastoral prayer each weekend. “I just said, ‘Can you say that we want to pray for our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted in other countries around the world?’” Now often, St. Mark’s congregation is reminded to pray.
  • Look for smaller things you can regularly infuse into your church’s worship service. “A pastor will only preach one to two times a year on persecution,” Wise says, “but we can bring it to people’s minds on a regular basis.”
  • Preach about it. If a pastor really wants to engage the church, one of the best ways is through their words, teaching about it during worship and including stories and information.
  • Make sure the church understands the opportunity they have to bring hope and restoration through both prayer and support—to come alongside these believers who are making disciples and building the Kingdom. Says Wise: “We essentially want to say to the members of our congregation, ‘This is a Good News story, and you can be part of it.’”

On March 11, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church will host a Pastors/Leaders Intelligence Briefing where church leaders will hear direct reports from persecuted Christians. If you’re interested in joining the conversation or hosting a gathering at your church, please contact Andrew Richards at AndrewR@opendoorsusa.org.

Mar. 28: Fourth Large House Church in China Shut Down, Banned

Another large house church in China has been raided. Shouwang Church in Beijing—one of the largest in the city—makes the fourth major underground congregation shut down by the Communist government since September 2018.

The church, which draws more than 1,000 attendees, has been formally banned. On Saturday, March 23, at around 1:50 p.m., more than 20 police officers and other Chinese government officials reportedly raided a Bible school class at  Shouwang Church.

Locks were switched out to prevent church members from returning. An unspecified number of branches across the city have been shuttered, ChinaAid’s Brynne Lawrence told Open Doors USA.

Shouwang Church members refused to sign a document pledging to never attend the church again, and leaders said the house church will continue to worship by adjusting meeting times and locations.

Church leaders issued a statement to its members, saying it does not accept the authorities’ decision to ban their church and that it will continue to operate “while adjusting its meeting venues and methods.”

A RENEWED EFFORT TO QUASH SHOUWANG CHURCH


Members of Shouwang Church after police halted Bible classses

The church had been charged with violating the country’s Regulations of Religious Affairs and Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations by operating without government registration.

Christianity Today reported that throughout Shouwang Church’s 26-year history, Shouwang members have refused to come under Communist authority and persevered despite persecution, with their “underground” services forced outside when evicted from their buildings in 2009 and with their founding pastor Jin Tianming under house arrest since 2011.

Lawrence noted that Pastor Tianming’s situation has recently worsened. “Before, he was allowed to do things like go to the downstairs portion of his apartment complex,” she said,  “but now, he cannot leave at all.” 

This recent raid represents a “renewed effort to quash Shouwang Church,” Lawerence said.

STANDING IN UNITY WITH SHOUWANG CHURCH


Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church remains under arrest and detained since the December 2018 raid.

The raid on Shouwang Church echoes recent incidents focused on large underground churches in China such as Early Rain Covenant Church in Sichuan, Zion Church in Beijing and Rongguli Church in Guangzhou. Members of Early Rain, who have maintained visibility and a public voice since the December 2018 raid on their church, issued a statement of solidarity with Shouwang.

“When we heard that Shouwang Church is being persecuted again, […] and other churches facing various pressure from the government, we kneeled down to pray to give thanks and praises to our God, because we are delighted that the bride of Christ is closely following her husband.”

Early Rain’s pastor Wang Yi remains detained with a dozen church leaders. He and others were extremely vocal about their opinion on China’s new religious regulations implemented in February of this year. The rules restrict proselytizing and charitable work, crack down on religious education for minors, limit the collection of donations, and forbid posting some faith-based content online. They also require churches to register with the government, which empowers officials to censor sermons, choose or reject pastors, and otherwise interfere with worship. The government has also begun installing facial-recognition technology in many registered churches.

In a letter Wang wrote anticipating his arrest, Pastor Wang observed: “the persecution of the Lord’s Church and all Chinese who believe in Jesus Christ is the most evil and terrible sin of Chinese society. This is not only a crime against Christians, but also a crime against all non-Christians. Because the government violently and cruelly threatened them and prevented them from coming to Jesus, there is nothing more sinful than this.”

Yet earlier this month, leaders of state-run churches shared more vocal support for the government’s “sinicization” plan, to infuse sectors of society with more cultural and party alignment. “[We] must recognize that Chinese churches are surnamed ‘China’, not ‘the West,’” the head of the state-run Protestant body said. “The actions by anti-China forces that attempt to affect our social stability or even subvert the regime of our country are doomed to fail.”

PRAYING WITH THE CHURCH IN CHINA


Photo: Early Rain Covenant Church

God has given the global Body of Christ the privilege and responsibility to get on our knees and join in fervent prayer around the church in China. The situation in China is likely to continue to escalate as the Chinese Communist Party increases its power and focus on Chinese nationalism, says Open Doors CEO David Curry.

“There will be even more pressure on the Body of Christ in China,” Curry said. ”The government is trying to force out unregistered churches. Those churches that are registered, they approve sermons, these kinds of things, slowly turning up the heat and making it a ‘Chinese’ church, not a church of Jesus.” 

The church in China needs our prayers and encouragement to stand strong. Conversely, we can also learn from these stalwart Christians who are now risking their lives to stand up for the gospel.

A few months ago, one of Open Doors’ indigenous ministry partners who works to equip church leaders in China offered this insight: “The situation on the ground [in China] is always changing. Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions about what China needs. Pray for wisdom for the leaders. Pray with us.” She shared specific prayer needs for church leaders and churches in China:

  • Fortitude. Pray with Chinese Christians and church leaders for the fortitude to withstand increasing pressure and violent acts of persecution.
  • Empowerment. Pray that God would empower His church in China to reach the next generation.
  • Wisdom. Pray that leaders in China’s churches would have the wisdom to know how to handle the pressure they are coming under.
  • Workers for the harvest. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send workers to plant and nurture seeds that will ultimately bring forth an abundance of Kingdom fruit.

Apr. 02: Syrian Pastor Makes Dangerous Choice

AS BOMBS EXPLODE, SYRIAN PASTOR MAKES DANGEROUS CHOICE TO BRING HOPE

Father Abdallah, 47, and his wife, Aghna, remember the long days of pouring out prayers and searching for answers. Signs of war were all around, and the couple faced a life-changing choice.

They could stay in Aleppo where war was beginning to break out on all sides—or leave their church and community and move their family to safety. They had only been at the church two years, after joining the congregation in 2009.

Together, he and Aghna prayerfully made the dangerous decision to stay in Aleppo and at Alliance Church, resolved that their mission was to do the best they could to minister to their congregation of 600 members.

THE DOORS STAYED OPEN

Father Abdallah stayed in Aleppo to serve his congregation and community.

To the outside world, it seemed as though church activity, or even a Christian presence, was altogether absent in Syria during the years of heavy fighting.

“I remember the rumors about our church closing down during the start of the crisis,” says the dad of two children, Camelia, 13, and Joseph, 11.

But Alliance Church—much like other churches across Syria—has been busy working behind the scenes to serve the congregation and community. Several have become Centers of Hope.

“We were open the whole time,” Father Abdallah says, adding that through Open Doors’ relief and support, the church was not only able to keep their doors open but also become a Center of Hope. “And we’re still being helped today.”

There were tough times during those years, he says, remembering the chaos and panic that gripped him when, at one point, heavy fighting surrounded the church. And he shares how a heavy sadness still lingers over not knowing what happened to three kidnapped church members who were taken by rebels because of their faith.

CENTERS OF HOPE

In Alliance Church, a Center of Hope, Christians gather for Bible study and discipleship classes.

In ways we could never imagine, God has worked through the courage and love of Pastor Abdallah and Aghna, as well as other church leaders like them who also stayed, to bring much-needed signs of hope for those around them. Seeing their pastor and his family continue to serve and do their work in the church encouraged many church members and gave them the courage and determination to stay, too.

And you have been part of that work.

“Time and time again, my church talks about how thankful they are for all the help,” he says.

He recalls watching a mother of three struggle as she care for her children in the absence of her husband. He was recruited into the army despite his previous mandatory service.

Father Abdallah explains: In Syria, men are forced to join the army. Many, however, escape to other countries or remain hidden at home, suffering from depression and a lack of purpose or drive. The situation forces women to work in jobs they aren’t used to doing while they bear the brunt of raising the children.

One day, this mother came up to him, saying, “Don’t think that the little help you’re giving us does nothing. Please thank those who are helping out. It makes a difference.” 

“What may appear to be small can have such a big impact on others…” Father Abdallah says, smiling.

In several areas of a country torn apart by war and conflict, school and university tuitions are being covered. A football program to get isolated children out in the open again has started. And spiritual and psychological follow up are just some of the projects that Alliance Church is offering through its Center of Hope. Even Kurdish believers from a Muslim background are being supported in their ministry in one of Aleppo’s refugee camps. 

The impact is palpable in Alliance Church. Congregation members are elated over a new clinic, an addition as part of the church’s Center of Hope, and will serve a community lacking quality medical care. Currently, they are recruiting well-qualified doctors. Father Abdallah sees the clinic as a long-term project that will continue to be an ongoing and substantial benefit to his community.

“Our church feels like they’re constantly thought about, that they aren’t forgotten,” he says.

The crisis in Syria is still not over. Millions of Syrians are living as refugees in neighboring countries, and millions are displaced in their own country. We hope you’ll pray and stand with these believers and churches as they reach out to be salt and light to those around them.

Apr. 03: A Passion for the Word

April 3, 2019 by Al Janssen in 


“Al, what did God say to you this morning in His Word?”

Those were the words Brother Andrew asked me on my first day of work for Open Doors in January 2002. As I reported to Brother Andrew’s office in the Netherlands to start my new journey, he didn’t ask me if I had a good trip or if I wanted some coffee. His first words were about God’s Word and its impact on my life.

Fortunately I had read the Bible that morning, a passage in Acts 21 about the uproar in Jerusalem that led to the Apostle Paul’s arrest.

“Paul tried to defend himself to the crowd by telling his testimony of meeting Christ on the road to Damascus,” I said. Brother Andrew nodded his head and encouraged me to continue. “Paul admits he persecuted Christians. In my journal, I wrote that you might say he was a terrorist.”

That brought a smile to Andrew. “So God can transform a terrorist and make him an evangelist!” In coming months, I would learn more about how Brother Andrew believed in the power of the Gospel to transform even the most hardened Islamic extremists.

My Day One experience demonstrates how the Scriptures are Brother Andrew’s passion and why he risked his life to smuggle Bibles to Christians who were deprived of access to Bibles by authoritarian governments. Over the years as we traveled the world together and worked on six book projects, we began each day by discussing what we heard God saying to us through the Bible. Sometimes our conversation lasted five minutes, sometimes more than an hour. When the moment was right, one of us started praying—we never stopped to ask what to pray about—we just prayed. We prayed out of what we heard God saying to us in Scripture. We prayed for the work He had assigned to us that day. Most of all, we prayed for His beloved Bride, the Church of Jesus Christ, particularly the part of the Body suffering persecution.

It is that experience with my Dutch friend and mentor that inspires this blog. Drawing from our many conversations, notebooks in which he jotted thoughts and sermon outlines, and hundreds of recorded sermons, I want to capture the prophetic messages of Brother Andrew. I use the word “prophetic” carefully. I do not mean that Brother Andrew foretold the future—though he did have some amazing insights into the direction our world was headed, particularly concerning Communism and Islam. But Brother Andrew was prophetic in the mold of Old Testament prophets.

Eugene Peterson, who created The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible that Brother Andrew loves, explains this well: “A prophet is obsessed with God, and a prophet is immersed in the now … The work of the prophet is to call people to live well, to live rightly—to be human. But it is more than a call to say something, it is a call to live out the message. The prophet must be what he or she says.”[1]

Over the years, I observed Brother Andrew live a prophet’s life. When we met with leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas, he would remind me that we might be the only Bible they ever read. Together, we prayed that they would see Jesus in us.

There is sadness as I write these words. My friend is now 90-plus years old. We no longer spend hours reading, debating, and writing about the Scriptures. As I work on some new books for him, I must rely on my journals, his 40 notebooks, 800 digitized sermons, and recordings and transcripts of our conversations. However, the spirit of his message has penetrated my soul. That’s why I undertake this blog and plan to collect his messages into two or more books.

Through these words, I hope you and many readers will catch some of Brother Andrew’s spirit and love for God’s Word.


[1] Peterson, Eugene H., Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at its Best, © 1983 and 2009, IVP Books.

Mar. 03: Pastor Raymond Koh Abducted by Police, Inquiry Confirms

“The direct and circumstantial evidence in Pastor Raymond Koh’s case proves, on a balance of probabilities, that he was abducted by State agents namely, the Special Branch, Bukit Aman, Kuala Lumpur,” said Dato’ Mah Weng Kai, chairman of the panel that investigated Koh’s disappearance.

On February 13, 2017, Pastor Koh was kidnapped in broad daylight. A video capturing the abduction shows black SUVs and motorcycles acting with military precision. He has not been seen or heard from since that day.

The findings echo the information the Kohs received In May 2018 when a whistleblower came forward and implicated “very senior police officers” in the kidnappings of Koh and rights activist Amri Che Mat. Shortly afterward, the informant backpedaled and withdrew his claim.

The chairman pointed out the following similarities of the two cases:

  • Pastor Koh and Amri Che Mat were targeted by religious authorities and the police on allegations that they were involved in matters against Islam in Malaysia.
  • There was direct surveillance on their activities before they disappeared.
  • Their disappearances bore uncanny similarities–how their cars were boxed in by three four-wheel drive vehicles and the people involved wore black clothing.
  • The presence of a gold Toyota Vios in both cases. In Amri’s case, a witness testified that he saw it parked near Amri’s house three days before his disappearance. In Raymond’s case, another witness testified that the car was at the scene of the kidnapping.

SUSANNA KOH: ‘WE WANT TO SEE THE TRUTH’

Responding to this conclusion, Pastor Koh’s wife, Susanna, said she would give the Special Branch six months to provide her with information about the whereabouts of her husband. If nothing is done, she said, she will consider legal action.

“This is the beginning of our fight for religious freedom and human rights,” she told press after the inquiry. Malaysia is 56 percent Muslim and less than 10 percent Christian. The country (No. 42 on the World Watch List) prohibits conversion from Islam to other religions.

“We want to see the people involved be investigated and brought to justice. It is a process, it will take time,”

At the end of the proceedings, Susanna, remarked, “We are glad that the decision has been made that they have been victims of enforced disappearances … We want to see the truth revealed. Until today, we just [didn’t] know why they were taken.[Malaysia is a moderate country, there should be the rule of law. There should be freedom of religion to practice one’s faith.”

Esther Koh, Raymond’s daughter, further added, “We were very affected. It has never been the same without him. Having to deal with the police has been stressful for all of us. Not knowing what happened, it is [an] ambiguous loss and causes mental stress.”

Open Doors is advocating, along with Susanna, for an “independent and impartial investigation” into allegations of police involvement.

“…  Only if the investigation is performed externally from the Royal Malaysian Police—with the investigator being given full authority to access all information and people—will the investigation provide assurances for the Malaysian citizens that the government takes corruption and unlawful acts seriously.”

Malaysia’s new government, elected in May last year, faces the challenge of balancing Malay Islamic predominance with ethnic and religious minorities, said Thomas Muller, research analyst with Open Doors’ World Watch Research unit.

PRAYING WITH THE KOHS

  • Please pray for God to lead Susanna and her family in what to do next. Also, pray for His leading and direction for the Kohs’ lawyers and all who are directly involved in the case. 
  • Pray for the families who continue to grieve. Through tears, Susanna recounted her experiences and feelings during the proceedings. 
  • Pray that the Malaysian government takes positive steps on the recommendations made by SUHAKAM for freedom of religion as a human right, to enable all Malays to practice their faith without fear of persecution.

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