Below is a letter by Virginia Congressman, Frank Wolf, from earlier this year. In his letter, Wolf calls upon Christian leaders to speak out about the increasingly global persecution of Christians. It is even more relevant now than the day it was published:
Christians worldwide just celebrated the birth of Jesus. For those of us living in the West, this was a festive season marked by worship services, gift-giving and time with family and friends. But for our brethren in the Middle East, fear of persecution and outright violence or even death cast a long dark shadow over the Christmas holiday.
While most striking in the Middle East, given the ancient roots of Christianity in that part of the world, the challenges facing those believers are by no means isolated, nor are they anything “new under the sun.”
Ecclesiastes 4:1 says, “I saw the tears of the oppressed, and they have no comforter; power was on the side of the oppressor.” As you well know, oppression has marked the church since its birth. Consider the chilling words of Roman historian Tacitus regarding the early church:
“Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed…”
Every day, around the world, men and women of faith are imprisoned, beaten, detained, tortured and even killed. The book of Hebrews enjoins us to “remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Do we suffer with our brethren? Have we in the West ceased to be salt and light?
Consider that on our watch a historic exodus of Christians from the Middle East is underway—an exodus fueled by persecution.
German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, faced with the tyranny and horror of Nazism, famously said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
And that is precisely what many in the church did, or failed to do, as Hitler unleashed his murderous plans. I recently encountered this haunting account by a German Christian in the book When a Nation Forgets God:
“I lived in Germany during the Nazi Holocaust. I considered myself a Christian. We heard stories of what was happening to the Jews, but we tried to distance ourselves from it, because, what could anyone do to stop it?
A railroad track ran behind our small church and each Sunday morning we could hear the whistle in the distance and then the wheels coming over the tracks. We became disturbed when we heard the cries coming from the train as it passed by. We realized that it was carrying Jews like cattle in the cars!
Week after week the whistle would blow. We dreaded to hear the sound of those wheels because we knew that we would hear the cries of the Jews en route to a death camp. Their screams tormented us.
We knew the time the train was coming and when we heard the whistle blow we began singing hymns. By the time the train came past our church we were singing at the top of our voices. If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more.
Years have passed and no one talks about it anymore. But I still hear that train whistle in my sleep. God forgive me; forgive all of us who called ourselves Christians and yet did nothing to intervene.”
The parallels are imperfect but the sentiments are the same. Has our comfort led to complacency? Can the church in the West be galvanized to act?
A phrase not often heard outside the majority Muslim world is “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.” The “Saturday people” are of course the Jews. Their once vibrant communities in countries throughout the region are now decimated. In 1948 there were roughly 150,000 Jews in Iraq; today less than 10 remain. In Egypt, there were once as many as 80,000 Jews; now less than 100 remain.
It appears a similar fate awaits the ancient Christian community in these same lands. Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from as many as 1.4 million in 2003 to between 500,000 and 700,000 today. Churches have been targeted, believers kidnapped for ransom and families threatened with violence if they stay. In October 2010, Islamist extremists laid siege on Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad killing over 50 hostages and police and wounding dozens more.
In Egypt with the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood, Coptic Christians, numbering roughly 8 to 10 million, are leaving in droves. Ironically, some 2,000 years ago, the Holy Family sought refuge in this same land from the murderous aims of King Herod.
In the midst of devastating bloodshed in Syria, the Christian population is particularly vulnerable. A recent ABC News story reported, “They [Christians] are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.”
Over the span of a few decades, the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, was virtually emptied of Jews. The same thing will happen to the Christian community if the current trajectory holds true. And yet, the silence of many in the West is deafening. Such stories receive scant attention in the mainstream media, and perhaps more strikingly, are rarely spoken of from our pulpits.
A recent study on Christian persecution released by the British-based think tank Civitas explained the media’s seeming ambivalence this way: “Parts of the media have been influenced by the logical error that equates criticism of Muslims with racism, and therefore as wrong by definition. This has further distracted attention away from the hounding of Christians, helping to cement the surprisingly widespread idea that Christianity is a ‘Western’ faith.”
And yet, we in the church ought to know better. The Middle East is the very cradle of Christendom. Consider Iraq: with the exception of Israel, the Bible contains more references to the cities, regions and nations of ancient Iraq than any other country. The patriarch Abraham came from a city in Iraq called Ur. Isaac’s bride, Rebekah, came from northwest Iraq. Jacob spent 20 years in Iraq and his sons (the 12 tribes of Israel) were born in northwest Iraq. A remarkable spiritual revival as told in the book of Jonah occurred in Nineveh. The events of the book of Esther took place in Iraq as did the account of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Furthermore, many of Iraq’s Christians still speak Aramaic the language of Jesus.
So how do we account for the Church’s indifference? Is it political correctness? Lack of awareness? What tragedy must befall this community before we are propelled to act?
The persecution plaguing the Middle East is no exception. Christians are targeted throughout the world in countries like China, Vietnam and Pakistan. According to the Civitas study, “More Christians are imprisoned in China than in any other country in the world.” If the faith community in the West isn’t engaged, are we surprised when government leaders turn a blind eye to matters of religious freedom?
Consider the following: bipartisan legislation to create a special envoy position at the State Department charged with advocating on behalf of religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives more than a year and half ago. But it remained stalled in the Senate as a result of State Department opposition and the refusal of the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and presumptive secretary of state, John Kerry, to even hold a hearing on the legislation.
I have had the privilege of meeting individuals who boldly follow Jesus despite unbelievably hostile circumstances. Shabbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s federal minister for minority affairs, and the only Christian Member of the cabinet and an outspoken critic of his country’s blasphemy laws, was one such man. On March 2, 2011 he was murdered, his car riddled with bullets, leaving his mother’s house for work. In a video filmed shortly before his assassination (accessible on my Web site at http://wolf.house.gov/bhattivideo), Bhatti appears to sense that the path he has chosen will come with a price.
When asked about the threats against his life, he said, without malice or fear, “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of [the] cross. And I am following the cross. And I am ready to die for a cause.” And so he did.
The book of Proverbs tells us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves…” Bhatti can no longer speak. The Chinese bishop under house arrest cannot speak. The North Korean believer enslaved in the gulag can’t speak. The Iraqi nun fearing for her life cannot speak.
Will we be their voice? Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Are we not their friends?
The Church globally is under assault. Our response must not be to simply sing more loudly thereby drowning out the cries for help from our brothers and sisters. Rather we must speak out, advocate and act on their behalf.
From my perspective the Church in the West, specifically in America, is failing in this regard. Can you, as a leader in the Church, help? Are you pained by these accounts of persecution? Do you have ideas about how best to respond? Will you use your sphere of influence to raise the profile of this issue—be it through a sermon, writing or media interview? I welcome your thoughts and invite your engagement in this monumental task.
Next week, when Congress reconvenes, I intend to reintroduce the special envoy legislation and press for passage in both houses of Congress. I don’t pretend to think that a special envoy will single-handedly solve the problem, but it certainly can’t hurt to have a high-level person within the State Department bureaucracy who is exclusively focused on the protection and preservation of these ancient communities. Furthermore, to do nothing is simply not an option.
We in the West must speak out on behalf of the persecuted church around the world.
Frank R. Wolf
Member of Congress
P.S. I know you are busy and have so many competing priorities but your involvement could really make a difference in the lives of believers around the world.