November’s Holy Week: A Modest Proposal for the Persecuted
From All Saints’ Day to the International Day of Prayer, let’s honor beleaguered believers by following three rules in advocating for religious freedom for all.
Two observances this week—All Saints' Day on November 1 and the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP) on November 7—represent a new kind of holy week. Together they provide an opportunity to remember our Christian brothers and sisters suffering for their faith overseas.
Followers of Christ living abroad face extreme circumstances in many places, as well as slow-rolling repression grinding the faithful down. These days provide an opportunity to pause in remembrance, to commit to advocating for their rights, and to honor their sacrifice by helping others persecuted for their different beliefs. (In the sidebar below, I offer three rules to follow.)
Christians are under regular physical assault. An alarming trend is terrorist violence targeting Christians, which—based on my diplomatic work over two decades—I believe represents the biggest challenge to the church globally.
Groups like the Taliban, ISIS, and Al Qaeda all have Christian blood on their hands. In ungoverned or under-governed countries, churches thrive but terrorists can also strike with impunity. Motives vary—including animosity towards Christianity, jealously of resources, pure criminality, or all of the above—but regardless, fear hangs over entire communities.
For instance, Boko Haram’s violence in Nigeria against Christians stands out due to its severity and the size of the Christian population it victimizes. Boko Haram has burned churches, murdered pastors, and destroyed towns. In addition, Christian girls in Nigeria face physical and spiritual rape when kidnapped, forcibly converted, and married, such as Leah Sharibu.
Of course, governments also still persecute. Communist China is the largest persecutor of Christians in the world. Space for freedom of worship and practice is rapidly disappearing, replaced by a forced ideology to Chairman Xi Jinping and enforced by police and bulldozers. Flushed with resources, the communist regime wants to crush the 70 million-strong Chinese church.
Elsewhere, North Korea assaults any independent practice of Christianity. In Burma (Myanmar), the military has escalated its war against ethnic and religious minorities who are predominantly Christian. Iran actively persecutes evangelicals, and Algeria’s new campaign against convert churches tarnishes a once bright spot in the Middle East. Conversion to Christianity is generally illegal across the Arab world, marking individuals for purely following their conscience.
And Christians are not alone. In almost every context, when Christian saints face persecution, others are also victimized for their beliefs, religious practices, or membership in a faith community.
Sometimes the persecution of others surpasses what Christians experience. For example, China’s war on religion also targets Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims with a genocidal vengeance. Perhaps unexpected, Muslims take the brunt of government repression worldwide. In addition to Muslim persecution, other groups feeling the impact of persecution include Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, and atheists.
These days of remembrance provide an opportunity to reflect on those suffering from our community and from others. While the Bible doesn’t use the phrase “human rights,” we find global concepts of dignity and justice interwoven throughout. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17 ESV). Galatians 6:9-10 proclaims a responsibility to help everyone: “Let us not become weary in doing good…. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
Christ put it plainly in the context of “the least of these” in Matthew 25. Here, Jesus challenges his followers (and us today) to help the stranger: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” He concludes by saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” We find a similar theme in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. The hero helps his neighbor, despite differences of faith and nationality, with Jesus concluding his followers should “go and do likewise.”
Who are “the least of these” for religious freedom? Who is our neighbor? Any person facing torture, beatings, jailing, and even death on account of their beliefs. To truly care for our global neighbors, to love them as we love our own, we should speak up for them as well as for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Heroic love of neighbor calls for Christians to fight for human rights and to assist the suffering, both our own and others.
The international environment for religious freedom is dismal. We must begin this work now. Restoring respect for religious freedom will take decades, if not generations. To borrow from Eugene Peterson, success will require a long obedience in the same direction. What the late Congressman John Lewis wrote about fighting for civil rights in America certainly applies to advocating for international religious freedom: “Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”
While most cannot travel to the front lines, all can be steadfast in prayer, consistent in petitioning our elected leaders to act, and supportive of organizations working to advance religious freedom for all. In addition, resources are available to educate believers on the facts, to guide them in prayer, and to help them advocate effectively with policymakers. Great examples include Open Doors, Stefanus Alliance, CSW, and others.
Many churches’ observance of Holy Week leading up to Easter is a daily reminder of the sacrifice Jesus made for all humanity. To mark this proposed new holy week between All Saints’ Day and IDOP, let’s remember the modern saints suffering physical violence for the simplest of reasons: their Christian faith.
And during this week, while remembering how our brothers and sisters need our help, we can prayer for our global neighbors from other religious traditions who also beckon for assistance. The church can have no better testimony of God’s love than advocating for religious freedom for all.
Knox Thames served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities for both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is currently writing a book on 21st century strategies to combat religious persecution. You can follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.