Lee Proudlove writes: Deborah Samuel, a Christian teenager in Sokoto state in north western Nigeria, was brutally killed last week. Following a discussion on WhatsApp, Deborah was accused of blasphemy; she was dragged into the midst of a mob, stoned, and then her body was set on fire. The Guardian, reporting Deborah’s death, commented that in Nigeria ‘incidents such as this are very rare’. Sadly that is not the case: of the 5,898 Christians who were killed for their faith in 2021, 4,650 of those were in Nigeria. Worldwide 360 million Christians suffer persecution and discrimination because of their faith.
Persecution takes many forms, from insults and discrimination through to abuse and violence. We can think of it in terms of ‘squeeze’ and ‘smash’.
The squeeze is the stifling restrictions many Christians face in their daily life. Some will be refused a job because they are a believer; others will have the hope of further education denied to their children because they follow Christ. In China church attendance is rigorously monitored and, in some regions, surveillance cameras are now in all state-approved religious venues. Where China leads others follow: Malaysia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are increasingly squeezing the life of the church.
Whereas the squeeze of persecution is often insidious, the smash is clear to see. Churches bombed, children abducted, young women forced into marriage, pastors and those they lead kidnapped and killed.
After being in ordained ministry for 20 years. including 14 as a parish priest in Nottingham, I’ve stepped away to work for Open Doors. For those not familiar with us we are a Christian charity serving the persecuted church around the world. The Open Doors World Watch List is a comprehensive account of persecution in the 50 countries where it is hardest to follow Jesus. Both the squeeze and the smash are described so that we can pray for our brothers and sisters knowledgeably and be informed to best advocate on their behalf. This year, for the first time, Afghanistan tops the list. To be discovered with a Bible in Afghanistan is to receive a death sentence. If followers of Jesus are discovered, they have to flee the country or be killed. The capture of Kabul by the Taliban has emboldened jihadist groups around the world: Islamic militancy is growing in sub-Saharan Africa, northern Nigeria, Mozambique and Cameroon among other countries—attacks on Christians in these areas are growing in frequency and intensity.
Why should this matter to us as Christians in the UK?
China is a long way away and few of us will ever visit Afghanistan. What does this have to do with us? We might sympathise with the situation of our brothers and sisters facing persecution and yet feel there is little that we can do to help. We may feel that we would like to support the church where it is being squeezed and smashed but feel that our resources as individuals and churches are already stretched too thin. As a former church leader, I know well the ever-increasing and competing demands upon our time and our attention in the local church—why focus on the persecuted church overseas?
These are a few reasons why the persecuted church matters to the church in the UK that I’ve been reflecting upon since changing role.
Firstly, it’s our brothers and sisters who are suffering.
For some of us, the language of ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ in church rolls off the tongue; for others, it can feels uncomfortable. But the truth is, any and all who belong to Christ are members of the same family. We share a familial relationship not just a fraternal one, and this matters. When a believer in Eritrea is arrested, it is a member of our family who is wrongly imprisoned. When Pastor Koh was abducted in Malaysia, it was our sister Susanna who was left alone and grieving. And when churches in parts of India were excluded from Covid protections, it was our family who were suffering. We have a familial responsibility for our persecuted brothers and sisters given to us by Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
Secondly, to persecute the church is to persecute the Lord of the church
We follow Christ crucified, risen and glorified. He entrusted his message and mission to his disciples, and promised them and us who walk in their steps that he would be with us to the very end of the age. Not only is Christ with us in the sense that he is ‘for us’, he is with us in the sense that he is ‘close to us’ and ‘identifies with us’—to the extent that judgement will fall on those who reject Christ through rejecting his followers (Matthew 25:41-46) (see Ian’s exploration of this passage here). This close identification of Christ with the church, and particularly the church that suffers, is seen in the Scriptures in the martyrdom of Stephen and the conversion of his persecutor-in-chief Saul. Stephen is given a vision of Christ that sustains him at the hour of his death (Acts 7:56), and it is to Jesus that he commits his spirit.
When Saul the arch-persecutor of the church is confronted on the road to Damascus, Jesus addresses him with the words:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:4-6).
The meaning is clear but is often lost when we think about the persecuted church today. To persecute the church is to persecute Christ, and attack on the church is an attack on the Lord of the church. We cannot, or should not, be unmoved by that.
Thirdly, the persecuted church reminds us of the cost of discipleship
I once asked someone who has experience of ministering alongside the persecuted church for many years how the church in the West is viewed by them. He thought for a moment before replying: “I think our faith must seem shallow to them.” It is hard to escape the same conclusion. Jesus frequently referred to the cost of discipleship, and there are a plethora of courses, books and conferences on the topic at the moment. We know that to follow Jesus means that we must ‘take up our cross’, and yet there is little confidence or consensus as to what that looks like.
In the UK, we still live in the shadow of Christendom; in England, the Church of England is still the established church, and for many being a Christian is synonymous with being ‘a good person’. In this context the persecuted church is both an example and a provocation to us. For them there can be no cosy accommodation with the culture at large. To be a Christian is to identify as a citizen of heaven, to be adopted into another family, to follow another king, and the cost of doing that can be incredibly high. The story of the persecuted church is the story of Christians meeting together despite the risk of imprisonment. Of Christians sharing their faith knowing that they could be charged with blasphemy. It is the story of believers being baptised, knowing their families could disown them.
These stories are stories we need to hear to challenge our often comfortable and convenient discipleship.
Finally, the persecuted church matters to us because they are a gift to us.
One of the challenges of local church leadership ministry over the last couple of years has been the challenge of sustaining and resourcing others when our own emotional, physical and spiritual resources are under great strain. Church leaders are feeling frayed. A recent survey by Barna revealed that the number of Christian pastors in the US who are seriously considering leaving the ministry is 42%, up from 29% just a year ago. There is little reason to think that the figures for the UK will be much different.
Church leaders and those they shepherd are in serious need of hope and encouragement – and I’ve found both of these in the stories of the persecuted church.
Stories of resilience like that of Pastor Andrew. In 2021, at least 4,650 Christians in Nigeria were murdered because of their faith. Boko Haram and Fulani militants frequently attack Christian villages. One of those villages attacked last year was Pastor Andrew’s. Boko Haram attacked at night, and the villagers fled to the hills and watched the militants go house to house looting what they could, setting fire to what they could not carry off. Several members of Pastor Andrew’s church were killed. He said “The persecution was so much that I never imagined we would come together again to worship in the church… we lost everything.”
Pastor Andrew and his church may have lost everything materially, but they held onto Christ and one another. Pastor Andrew has rebuilt his church, worship has been restored, and he has now moved on to another village in the region to pioneer a new church and lead them in their witness to Christ in the midst of their enemies.
We need stories of hope like that of Dhea. Dhea is a young woman in a country in South East Asia—I can’t share the country, or Dhea’s real name, for security reasons. She grew up in a devout Muslim family and by the age of 12 had memorised the Quran entirely. Her suffering began when she was raped by a well-respected man in her community. Despite being the victim, Dhea was convicted by an Islamic court and sentenced to 100 lashes and imprisonment. Whilst in prison, Dhea contracted malaria and was transferred to a hospital. There she met someone whom she later discovered was a Christian. He arranged for a Bible to be smuggled to her in prison. Initially fearful of being found with this, Dhea began to read it and encountered Christ.
For the next nine months, I read the book every day (says Dhea). I read things I had never heard before—about a God who was loving and forgiving. I read about the life of the Lord Jesus. All the things I read were new and, although there was nobody to explain anything to me, the Spirit was there and I understood that the Lord Jesus is my Saviour, my God.
When Dhea was released from prison she returned to her family, and now lives in a nearby country where she witnesses to the hope she has found in Christ through a ministry of hospitality, “Most of the visitors are strangers. I open my house for them and provide free food. They all know that I am a follower of Jesus.”
We need to learn from the persecuted church, they are a gift to us, and their stories are especially resonant at this time when many in church life are feeling fatigued and weary.
The death of Deborah Samuel reminds us again of the importance of freedom of religion, and this is a topic that will increasingly be discussed in the public square in the coming months. On 5–6 July, Britain will host the Freedom of Religion and Belief Ministerial. It’s a global summit of government ministers, advisors and others from 33 countries who will be addressing the need for all people to be free to follow their faith without the fear of the squeeze or smash of persecution. Open Doors and others will be advocating on behalf of the 1 in 7 Christians worldwide who suffer persecution.
To learn more about the persecuted church, to discover stories to encourage you and resources to help you pray, visit the Open Doors website, where you’ll also find more information on the work of Open Doors, the forthcoming Ministerial conference, and how churches can invite a speaker to visit.
Previously a vicar in Nottingham, Lee Proudlove is now a Church Relations Manager for Open Doors.