Suffering for Christ - Global Persecution of Christians

Imagine being stoned to death because of your faith in Christ. Yesterday we celebrated the memory of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr who suffered such a death.

How about the 14,000 infants (according to the Synaxarion of the Church) killed by King Herod’s soldiers following the birth of Christ? We remember those tragic killings of the holy infants tomorrow.

And today, we remember the martyrdom of 20,000 Christians who were burned alive in the year 303 under the edict of the Roman Emperor Dioclecian.

Every day in our Church calendar, we remember many different saints, including countless martyrs – those who have died because they were Christian and would not deny their faith. Sometimes when one reads the lives of these saints, we may skeptically doubt the authenticity of the accounts – especially the horrendous methods of killing people simply because they wouldn’t deny their faith in Christ. And yet do we realize how regular such martyrdoms continue today!

From the time of Christ’s birth until today, it is estimated that 70 million Christians have been killed for their faith, 42 million of which have been Orthodox Christians! And this killing of people for their faith hasn’t stopped in modern times. In fact, the vast majority of these deaths have occurred in the past 100 years! It is estimated that each year over the past decade there continue to be between 10,000-100,000 Christian martyrs. Even if we take the lowest claim of 10,000 martyrs per year, that is still an astounding high number of Christians dying each year in the 21st century simply because they are Christians!

Some of these martyrdoms make the news –the beheadings and crucifixions by ISIS in Syria or Iraq, bombing of a church in Pakistan, Boko Haram’s atrocities in Nigeria, the killing of a missionary in some far away land, the ongoing plight of Christians in Palestine and the Holy Lands – but too often we hear nothing about other horrendous events in numerous countries around the world. The very existence of too many Christians in their ancient homelands is threatened, and yet this is not just a problem in the Middle East.

Of the 2.3 billion worldwide Christians (33% of the world’s population), more than TWO THIRDS of all Christians – almost 1.5 billion Christians - live in dangerous places, where they are at risk of persecution and even martyrdom because of their faith! According to the Pew Research Center, Christians are the most oppressed religious group worldwide, with persecution against them reported in 110 countries!

Although we come from our comfortable and safe environment in the United States, we need to understand that it is not easy, or safe, to be a Christian throughout the world! We who live in a free society, where we don’t worry about dying for our faith, need to become more aware of what is happening around the world, and need to stand up for our suffering brothers and sisters around the globe.

In many ways, the challenges and dangers of being a Christian is the history of our faith. Jesus Christ Himself was persecuted, tortured and killed at the age of 33. All the apostles ended their lives in martyrdom. For the first 300 years of Christianity, followers of Jesus Christ never knew whether there would arise some persecution that would threaten their lives because of their faith.

This is why St. Paul, who suffered greatly for the sake of the Gospel, told Christians in Philippi, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil 1:29). The Apostle Paul wrote these words when he himself languished in a prison cell, and the Philippians were facing persecution. And yet, throughout this epistle, St. Paul doesn’t focus on the suffering, but on the joy of faithfully following Christ! “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!... For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 4:4; 3:20)

In each century since the early Church, there have been Christians who have endured the hatred and persecution of others. This is why St. Ignatius of Antioch, another of the earliest martyrs of the Church, who himself was taken to the coliseum of Rome and thrown to the lions, noted that “Christianity shows its greatness when it is hated by the world.”

Why, because we are called not to respond to hatred with hatred, but with love. We don’t seek revenge but forgiveness. We don’t despise and persecute our enemies, but are challenged to have no enemies – but to love all people! St. Paul reminds us, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly” (1 Cor 4:12-13).

As we still bask in the season of Christmas, we continue to celebrate the Good News of Great JOY which Christ’s birth brought into the world. Yet let us never forget that the coming of Jesus threatened the powers of this world, and thus, in the midst of such Good News of Great Joy, we see the darkness and evil of King Herod killing innocent children in order to destroy the baby Jesus. Such darkness and evil have continued to threaten those who follow the Christ Child. Yet we have faith and we know that in the end, darkness will not prevail. Jesus is the ultimate victor and conqueror of darkness, evil, and death itself! So we live with deep and unshakeable hope!

Let me conclude with returning to the suffering Christians around the world, and suggesting three ways in which we can support and help persecuted Christians of today:

  1. First we must PRAY. Each and every day, we should remember those who are suffering for their faith, and ask our Lord to have mercy upon them and protect them. We believe that prayer can change the world, and we need to pray unceasingly for those suffering.
  2. Second, we need to STAY INFORMED, and LET OTHERS KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING. Ignorance, and thus silence and apathy, are unacceptable as Christians! We must speak up, especially as Christians who live in freedom, and let the world know that we stand beside our suffering brothers and sisters. And this means educating and informing our family, friends, and church members, as well as our congressional leaders.
  3. Finally, we should SUPPORT those humanitarian organizations that are on the front lines reaching out and helping persecuted and displaced Christians. Let us make financial donations to such organizations as the International Orthodox Christian Charities (www.iocc.org) and other such groups that are helping the victims of religious persecution.

These may seem like small ways to help, but they are a small offering we lift up to God, trusting in His blessing to multiply and increase them. Let us show solidarity and love with the many suffering brothers and sisters in Christ worldwide. Remember St. Ignatius’ words, “Christianity shows its greatness when it is hated by the world.”

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