This Easter season, we saw the slaughter of Christians throughout the Middle East, with radical Islamists celebrating the massacres.
It is a fresh and grim reminder that in many parts of the world, believers often risk their very lives to love and follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
Such relentless and brutal persecution of the Body of Christ is why this month in our nation’s capital, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association will convene a global conference on what I believe is the critical issue facing the world today.
From May 10 to 13, more than 600 men and women from 130 countries and territories from across the globe will gather for the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. More than 120 of the expected attendees have been imprisoned and tortured for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
My prayer is for God to use this event to spotlight the thousands and thousands of Christians around the world who are suffering deeply — simply because they have received Christ as their Saviour and seek to follow Him, whatever the cost. We are meeting in Washington, D.C., because I want national and world leaders to see firsthand what is happening to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Never before in history has it been more dangerous to be a Christian.
The Center for the Global Study of Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that 900,000 Christians died because of the Name of Jesus between 2005 and 2015. That’s 90,000 people each year, or one person every six minutes.
We need to speak with one voice to countries where Christians are being persecuted, as we stand up for our brothers and sisters in the faith.
I’ve made about 60 trips to? the Middle East, where of course there is great persecution, and I’ve just returned from visiting northern Iraq this past Easter. I’ve seen communities attacked simply because they were Christian. ISIS has deliberately targeted Christians in village after village, killing thousands and forcing tens of thousands to flee for their lives.
One Christian leader in Iraq still carries a bullet in his leg after he was attacked in church and shot by hostile Muslims.
“They were armed with a Kalashnikov [assault rifle], and they took me,” he told us. “They told me to cover my eyes, and if I opened them, they would put a bullet in my head.”
They took this leader to a room where he fell asleep, then awoke to blood pouring out of his nose, which they had broken.
“I heard one of them say, ‘Bring me the hammer!’” he said. “I felt something hit me in my face and realized that one of my teeth was in my mouth. They said not to worry, because I had many teeth, and they had all night to torture me.
“They used to put a pistol to my head and, every time, I heard it go ‘click, click, click.’ It’s better to finish it, because the suffering itself means you are dying every minute.”
Sami Dagher, my good friend from Lebanon, will speak at the Summit. Sami has boldly proclaimed Christ for many decades and has witnessed much persecution against those committed to sharing the Good News of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.? Sami recalls getting a phone call one morning about a medical clinic he helped run in the Mediterranean coastal town of Sidon. The caller informed him that a nurse had been shot.
“I was devastated,” Sami said. He thought, “Here’s another person dying for the sake of Christ.”
Sami and his family have been threatened and accosted for helping impoverished Lebanese families in Jesus’ Name. They provide food, blankets and medical care where Hezbollah has a large presence.
Late one night, Sami came home and found his wife and children crying.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
His son told him that a man had come to the door, put a gun in his chest, and said, “Tell your dad if he goes to help them again, you will be dead.”
The verse that kept coming to Sami’s mind was the one where Jesus said that if your enemy is hungry or thirsty, you should give him bread or drink. So the next morning, he went down and helped the people in need.
“That night the gunman came to the door,” he said. “I answered it, and my wife came quickly between me and the gunman. I pushed her out of the way and said, ‘Shoot, you coward.’
“The Holy Spirit must have rebuked this man because he put his head down and walked away.
“I looked to my wife and children and said, ‘God is real.’ The joy in ?our hearts was overwhelming, not because we were safe, but because we knew: God is with us.”
Enduring such intimidation is a way of life for followers of Christ in scores of countries around the globe. Throughout Africa and the Asian subcontinent, Islamic and Hindu extremists persecute Christians in a variety of ways, including social ostracism, economic deprivation and thinly veiled threats that can quickly turn into unmitigated violence.
My father often made it a point to visit with believers who lived under the persecution of communist regimes. He frequently arranged personal meetings with Christians who had suffered intensely under the heavy hand of atheistic totalitarianism.
One of his most memorable meetings was with Pastor Wang Mingdao, one of China’s best-known church leaders who had been given a life sentence during the height of the Cultural Revolution.
When my father visited Pastor Wang Mingdao, he was living in a modest third-floor apartment along an obscure street. He was old and thin and had fallen asleep sitting on a metal chair, his head on his folded arms that rested on a plain kitchen table.
When he awoke, my father asked him if he had a word from the Lord for us. He was quiet for some time and then said, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). They were able to talk for about 30 minutes, and virtually all of their conversation was centered on the Bible and spiritual issues.
The Bible is clear that all who desire to live godly in Christ will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). All of the apostles endured great suffering, and tradition tells us that all except John were eventually martyred for their love and obedience to their Saviour. Christ Himself suffered at the hands of sinful men, and we as His servants should expect no less.
It is well documented that such persecution — severe as it may be — can never stop the progress of the Gospel. It will be preached to all nations, and then the Saviour will come again for His own and bring wrath and judgment upon those who oppose Him.
Until then, we want to respond — not in hate — but in the love of Christ. We’re to do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us (Luke 6:27-28).
Pray that this World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians will indeed draw attention to the plight of those who need our help. Pray for those who will attend, that they will leave strengthened in the faith and encouraged to continue to run with perseverance — long with all of us — the hard race that is set before them.