This post is by Dr. Bill Bouknight, associate director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.
Sunday, Nov. 14, is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
This post first appeared in a slightly different form on the Confessing Movement website. Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.
More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in the previous 19 centuries combined. As the persecution of Christians continues — and increases — the persecution-related death toll in the 21st century may even exceed the martyrdoms of the 20th .
Consider the following: Two young Iranian women, Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, were arrested last year and spent several months in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison on charges of “apostasy” (leaving Islam). Before being acquitted earlier this year, there also faces charges of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.”
The women “faced repeated interrogations, weeks in solitary confinement, and unhealthy prison conditions,” according to a statement released by Iranian-focused Elam Ministries. “Both became seriously sick during their imprisonment and did not receive the treatment they needed which greatly increased their suffering.”
In August, 2009, a judge pressured them to recant their faith and return to Islam. They refused, saying, “We love Jesus. We will not deny our faith.”
Before the charges were finally dropped and the two women were freed, they had spent 259 days in prison. (Some in the Iranian parliament had wanted to add a mandatory death penalty for “apostates” to the country’s penal code, but that proposal apparently was withdrawn last June.)
In April, 2010, in the Egyptian coastal city of Marsa Matrouh, an enraged mob of 3,000 Muslims gathered after Friday prayers. Their imam had exhorted them to cleanse the city of its infidel Christians, known in Eqypt as Copts. The toll was heavy: 18 homes, 23 shops, and 16 cars were destroyed, while the Coptic Christians barricaded themselves inside their church.
More than a dozen similar attacks have occurred across Egypt. On January 6 of this year, a drive-by shooter fired at random into Christians leaving a Coptic Christmas service. Seven were killed and 26 seriously wounded.
Christians in the West Bank and the Palestinian territories are leaving the area because of widespread persecution by Muslims. Christians represented about 80 percent of Bethlehem’s population 60 years ago. Now their numbers are down to 20 percent.
Often we are reminded that the majority of Muslims are non-violent, peace-loving people. The problem is that the extremists intimidate the majority into silence.
In Egypt, for example, the majority of Muslims certainly do not hate Christians but their fear of the extremists causes them to tolerate the intolerable. Al-Azhar, the world’s preeminent Sunni Islamic institution, has published a pamphlet declaring the Bible a corrupted document and Christianity a pagan religion. Al-Azhar’s textbook for its high school students states that if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim, he is not subject to capital punishment since the superior cannot be punished for killing the inferior.
Though Egypt’s Christian Copts constitute 12 percent of the population, they are excluded from the intelligence and security services because they are deemed to be security risks.
The Copts are treated a “dhimmis” — the age-old inferior status of Christian and Jewish minorities in Muslim lands.
One is reminded of the plight of Jews in Germany prior to World War II. The majority of Germans did not persecute Jews. But the Nazis intimidated the majority into silence and complicity.
Most German pastors were afraid to disagree with the Nazis. However, some 800 courageous clergy, led by Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, dared to defy the Nazis. They were sent to concentration camps.
The danger of tolerating evil was spelled out by Niemoller in a 1946 address to the Confessing Church in Frankfurt:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me —
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
American mainline churches have been remarkably silent about the persecuted church. Some leaders are afraid to state publicly that Islamic extremists are the primary persecutors for fear of antagonizing mainstream, peaceful Muslims. Some liberals believe that it is politically incorrect to criticize any religious group (except evangelical Christians).
The time for timidity has passed. The plight of persecuted Christians must move to the top of everyone’s agenda, including the United Methodist Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, and the General Conference.
We must pray daily for these front-line citizens of the Kingdom, and we must demand that the governments of the world take all necessary steps to stop the persecution of any and all persons because of their faith.
William R. Bouknight retired from the pastorate in 2007 after more than 40 years of serving United Methodist churches in South Carolina and Tennessee. He became an associate director of the Confessing Movement in August 2008.
Dr. Bouknight is the author of The Authoritative Word: Preaching Truth in a Skeptical Age (Abingdon, 2001), and If Disciples Grew Like Kudzu (Bristol House, 2007). He was educated at Duke University, the University of Edinburgh, and Yale Divinity School.