“My sheep listen to my voice, they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
John 10 27
No one will snatch them out of my hand.
Yet today, there are many countries where the authorities are trying to do just that. To snatch Christians away from Jesus Christ, by persecuting them or even killing them. Just how bad is this persecution? Well, as you know, following the outcry over Asia Bibi, the Christian woman cleared of blasphemy in Pakistan late last year, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt commissioned the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen, to carry out an independent review on the persecution of Christians worldwide.
Bishop Mounstephen was a good choice, because he used to head up the Church Mission Society, and in that role has worked with persecuted Christians in many countries.
Well, you’ll remember that on 3rd May, only about 10 days ago, the bishop published his interim report, and the findings made our national headlines. The report found that ‘religious persecution is a global phenomenon that is growing in scale and intensity’ and that there is ‘widespread evidence showing that Christians are by far the most widely persecuted religion’. Acts of violence ‘are on the rise, with an increase in the severity of anti-Christian persecution.’
As of 2019, 245 million Christians worldwide suffer high levels of persecution or worse. This is up 30 million up on 2018. That’s one in ten Christians globally. In Asia the statistics are even more shocking, with one in three Christians at risk of severe persecution. As for the persecution in the Middle East and Africa, it has reached such a ‘vast scale’ that it is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN. Christians in Palestine now represent less than 1.5% of the population, while in Iraq they have fallen from 1.5 million to less than 120,000 in just 16 years.
The main impact of such genocidal acts is exodus. Christianity now faces being wiped-out in parts of the Middle East. In fact, ‘The eradication of Christians and other minorities on pain of the sword or other violent means is… the specific and stated objective of extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, North-East Nigeria and the Philippines.’ These groups want to stamp out all evidence of Christianity. They remove crosses, tear down or bomb churches (think of the attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday), abduct and kill the clergy.
But it is not just extremist groups. It is governments. In many countries to be a Christian is to risk arrest, imprisonment, and torture – for no other reason than that you believe in Jesus. For the report warns of an increasing threat from ‘aggressive nationalism in countries such as China, as well as from Islamist militia groups.’ For example, in India, ‘there is a growing narrative that to be Indian is to be Hindu.’
The report then analysed persecution around the world.
Christians in the Middle East and Africa use to be 20 per cent of the population – 100 years ago. Today, they are less than 4 per cent. In South East Asia, such as India and Nepal, militant nationalists are demanding anti-conversion laws. In other words, to make it illegal to even become a Christian. In sub-Saharan Africa, such as Nigeria there are the militant Islamists Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen. Their specific aim is to eliminate all Christianity and thus pave the way for the total Islamisation of the country.
And so in Nigeria alone, hundreds of Christians are being killed every single month. During 2018, far more Christians in Nigeria were killed in violence than anywhere else in the world. What about East Asia? Well, North Korea has been the most dangerous country in the world for Christians for the past 18 years. Here Christians face arrest, interrogation, severe torture, imprisonment and often execution. Over in China, the Government is currently demolishing church buildings and tearing down crosses. In Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma), again the growing influence of Islamic militancy… is driving persecution of Christians in the region. In Central Asia? The report says that ‘the situation for Christians is bleak, as authorities have further enforced a widespread crackdown on churches.
All in all, Bishop Mounstephen has said: “Through my previous experience… I was aware of the terrible reality of persecution. But to be honest in preparing this report, I’ve been truly shocked by the severity, scale and scope of the problem.”
For of course the New Testament was always clear that to be a Christian is to face persecution.
Matthew 5 11: Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,
Mark 8 35: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Luke 21 12-15: But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me.
John 15 18: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
Romans 8 35: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
2 Corinthians 4 8-10: We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
2 Timothy 3 12: In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
1 Peter 3 14: But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.
1 Peter 4 12: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
So going back to our Bible readings this morning, it is not often that you can pick up a national news story and link it directly with the Bible, but when you compare the Mounstephen interim report with our reading this morning from Revelation, the similarities are striking:
Revelation reads: ‘there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from? I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’