Hassan opened several letters and his eyes filled with tears as he caught the gist of the messages. "People were praying for us?" Hassan asked. "Thousands were praying all over the world," Andrew answered. "That explains it. There were times when I felt I couldn't go on anymore, and then I would feel a power beyond me as though there were others who were taking my suffering and carrying it for me." Andrew was moved by these words. "Hassan, that is exactly what happens. The scriptures say that when one part of the body suffers, all suffer. We are called to share in one another's suffering. When it is more than you can bear, there are others who, prompted by the Holy Spirit, pray for you and somehow remove some of that burden from you."
In that passage from Secret Believers, written by Brother Andrew and Al Janssen, Hassan represents a composite of thousands of Christians in numerous countries persecuted and imprisoned for no other reason than their faith in Jesus Christ.
For half a century the Dutch Christian called Brother Andrew has been ministering to persecuted Christians -- in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, China, and now the Middle East. I met Brother Andrew in Bethlehem, where he asked me to pray for him as he headed to Gaza. At a time when many Christians seem to view Muslims as the ultimate enemy, Brother Andrew sees them as God-seekers who need the love of Jesus manifested through his followers who extend the hand of friendship. He reveals his own sincere love for Muslims -- even extremists -- as he visits them, hears their anguish, and respectfully presents the living Christ to them.
A pastor I met in Egypt reflected the influence of Brother Andrew when I asked him what he viewed as the biggest obstacles to peace in the Middle East. "The rise of Muslim extremists," he said, "and the failure of Christians to love." Knowing that a spirit of division and hostility did not honor God, that pastor initiated a weekly all-night prayer meeting for the soul of his country. For more than six years, hundreds of Christians in his city prayed for better relationships with Muslims and for the opportunity to show them the love of Christ.
As the January 25 revolution unfolded in Cairo, many of these praying Christians found their way to Tahrir Square, thanking God for the spirit of solidarity with which Christians and Muslims joined hands on behalf of their country. Days later, in the aftermath of the revolution, those same praying Christians invited Muslims who had lost loved ones during the revolution to their church service, so they could honor them for their sacrifice. YouTube videos show veiled Muslim women seated in church pews with their new Christian friends.
Sadly, news from Egypt in the following weeks carried reports of renewed sectarian violence. As I write, Egyptian Christians are grieving the burning of two churches in a poor neighborhood of Cairo called Imbaba. According to a friend in Cairo, rumors about a Muslim woman held against her will in one of the churches sparked the burnings and violence in which seven Christians and five Muslims died, and hundreds were injured.
According to my friend in Cairo, the Egyptian masses responded to the Imbaba tragedy with shock and sadness. "Once again," he wrote, "there were proactive demonstrations of religious solidarity and unity, which in my experience here is the true heart of the majority of the Egyptian people. It was moving to see veiled women with the cross painted on their niqab (face veil) parading throughout the streets saying, 'We are all one hand -- Muslim and Christian.'" Later, Muslims joined in helping to restore the icons in the burned churches.
Under the Mubarak regime mosques could be built without constraint, but it was very difficult for Christians to get permission to build new churches or even restore current buildings. But the transitional government has promised that within 30 days it would "equalize" the law regarding building houses of worship. In a related move, the prime minister's council announced it will reopen all 48 churches closed for "security reasons" under Mubarak. Within one week, a decree was issued to open 16 of the churches.
Just a week after the tragic church burning, St. John's church in Cairo hosted an interfaith event, the Caravan Festival of the Arts. Using the arts to build bridges, the festival centered around a visual art exhibition of approximately 50 premier Muslim and Christian artists who produced work on the theme of "My Neighbor," based on injunctions found in the gospels and the Quran. Thousands attended the festival, including delegations of Muslim imams. "It was most encouraging," wrote my friend, "to see over half of the church filled with Muslims discussing and celebrating what we have in common."
“Yes, there are tensions,” he continued. “But every day there is more and more encouraging news.”
Still, Christians in Egypt and elsewhere know that the collapse of an oppressive regime is not always good news for religious freedom. The situation for Christians in Iraq has deteriorated considerably since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In the anti-Western atmosphere in Iraq, Christians are seen as collaborators with Westerners. As Western military presence dwindles, extremists take advantage of the situation to terrorize Christians and force them out of the country. Last October, gunmen stormed Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad during Sunday Mass, killing 51 worshipers. In December, a series of bombings targeted homes of Christians, killing at least three and wounding more than a dozen. This past Easter, an explosive detonated near Sacred Heart Church in Baghdad, and a firefight broke out in front of another church. Thankfully, no one was killed in those attacks, but fear runs high and Christians continue to leave the country. Under Saddam Hussein there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Today there is less than half that number.
In Pakistan, Christians make up less than 5 percent of the population of 187 million, and they are clustered in poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities where militant extremism is sharply increasing. In March, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian cabinet minister in the Pakistani government, was shot dead, two months after the assassination of another liberal politician. Both men had called publicly for changes to the blasphemy law, which mandates the death penalty for those guilty of speaking against the prophet Muhammad.
A controversial Algerian law introduced in 2006 requires all churches to register with the government, but when church leaders attempt to comply they receive no response. Recently, Algerian officials decreed the closure of seven churches. As of this writing, Algerian Christians are requesting prayer that the law will be repealed or the procedures necessary for compliance will be put in place.
In China, the threat created by revolutions sweeping the Middle East led to increased government oppression of unregistered "house churches." An Easter crackdown on the Shouwang Church in Beijing left 1,000 worshipers without a place to meet and their leaders imprisoned or under house arrest. Despite such hardships, the 80 million Christians in China continue to see their influence grow, particularly among the young and educated.
The World Watch List ranks 50 countries where persecution of Christians is worst. The top violators on the list are North Korea and Iran. Third is Afghanistan, a country of 28 million people, where there are very few Christians.
A deeply religious and reflexively volatile country, Afghanistan has long been highly reactive to perceived insults against Islam. In 2005, a one-paragraph item in Newsweek that suggested guards at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Quran down the toilet set off three days of riots that left 17 people dead. In 2006, 200 people, including nine Afghans, were killed in response to a Danish cartoon lampooning the prophet Muhammad. In June 2010, the deputy secretary of parliament called for the execution of Christian converts after the baptism of Afghan Christians was shown on TV. In August of that year, 10 Christian aid workers were killed by the Taliban.
More recently, thousands of protesters overran the United Nations compound in Mazar-i-Sharif after three angry mullahs urged them to avenge the Quran burning that was overseen by Florida pastor Terry Jones. Unable to find Americans on whom to vent their anger, the mob turned instead on the next-best symbol of "Western intrusion" and killed 12 people, including seven international U.N. workers and five Afghans.
As I have read articles and perused websites on persecuted Christians, such as www.opendoorsusa.org, I have been grieved by the plight of the oppressed; impressed by their strength and perseverance; humbled by their obedience to Jesus' command to love our neighbors and our enemies; and challenged to lighten their burden by praying for them and advocating on their behalf. I’ve also seen more clearly how what we, as Americans, do has implications for our brothers and sisters throughout the world. Whether it's in foreign policy or individual actions, when we make offensive mistakes, Christians in Afghanistan, India, China, or Egypt will probably pay.
Perhaps most important, I've learned how critical religious freedom is -- for people of all faiths -- and that we as Christians should be the most ardent defenders of the freedom of all persons to choose their faith, or no faith at all, without coercion.
Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, an NGO that promotes religious freedom throughout the world, says, "We believe that the freedom to choose, to change, to share, or to reject faith is the foremost gift from a gift-giving God. We believe that we become more in God's likeness the more we work for those made in his image -- no matter what they believe ... Put differently, I can't love God unless I love my neighbor, and that love begins with the opportunity for him/her to believe something different than I do."
In 2008, Rick Love, president of Peace Catalyst International, gathered evangelical leaders from around the world to discuss the increasing alienation between Muslims and Christians. They concluded that they needed to defend the right of both Christians and Muslims to express their faith respectfully. "Thus," they wrote, "we stand against all forms of religious persecution toward Muslims, Christians, or anyone else. God desires all people to make faith choices based on conscience and conviction rather than any form of coercion or violence (2 Corinthians 4:2)."
In a Christian-majority country, we Christians take religious freedom for granted. But what about our Muslim neighbors? When the local mosque is refused a building permit for a Muslim community center or worship space, do we rejoice that the "enemy" has been defeated, or do we try to put ourselves in the place of the sincere Muslim believer? My answer to that question is undoubtedly impacted by the fact that one of the gentlest, wisest, most peace-loving men I know is a Muslim businessman currently involved in a mosque-building debate in a suburb not far from where I live. I’ve come to believe that as a Christian I should be as diligent in fighting for his religious freedom as I am for my Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world.
Lynne Hybels, a Sojourners contributing editor and co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, is author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World.