Supporting persecuted Christians

mar-elianHow can we support persecuted Christians? There is so much horror in the news that it is often very easy to feel overwhelmed by it. But, there are groups that are helping, there are things that we can do and are called to do.

As a church we support the charity Open Doors, who seek to provide practical and spiritual help for persecuted Christians (and other groups). This sermon was preached on 20th November.

How can we support persecuted Christians? Reading: 1 Peter 3:8-18

Today is the International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians. It’s a day to focus on our brothers and sisters around the world who are being persecuted, who are being attacked, who are being killed because they are Christians.

Like quite a lot of the New Testament, Peter’s letter was written to Christians who knew what it was to be persecuted. To be excluded from society, to be prevented from doing things, hearing hateful things said about you in the street, graffiti scrawled about you, people not helping you or doing business with you, people trying to humiliate you, being locked up for what you believe, being killed for what you believe.

The Christians who Peter first wrote his letter to knew what it was like to experience persecution. We don’t. We’re not a minority without power who is having things taken away from us because of what we believe.

But there are, unfortunately, plenty of Christians who do know what it is like to be persecuted. As a church, one of the charities that we support is Open Doors. As many of you know, Open Doors supports persecuted Christians by giving them Bibles and Christian materials, by training and life skills, and through prayer and speaking on their behalf. So that, they say, persecuted Christians “know they are not forgotten and can stand strong to serve their communities. So that they can give life.” Open Doors also seeks to encourage the church here to serve persecuted Christians and to learn from them what it means to be disciples of Jesus. And that’s really important. We can help them, but they will help us as well.

As part of speaking for persecuted Christians, each year Open Doors produces a world watch list, identifying the 50 top countries where persecution of Christians occurs. At the moment, the nine countries where Open Doors classifies the level of persecution as extreme are:
North Korea, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.
There are a further 15 countries where the level of persecution is classed as very high.

These are the places where followers of Christ must keep their beliefs hidden and where living the gospel means facing beatings, imprisonment, discrimination and abuse. And, over the last few years, persecution is becoming more intense. Not least, that persecution is rising in the Middle East, with the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq. So, Open Doors is focusing on the Middle East at this time. They’ve produced a video about the conflict and the persecution that we’re going to watch now. <link to YouTube video>

We’re going to be praying for our Syrian brothers and sisters later in the service. We already give as a church, but if you do want to give, there are envelopes with details on. We’re also being encouraged to sign the global petition that Open Doors are organising, that will be presented to the new United Nations Secretary General in June 2017. He is Antonio Guterres, the former Prime Minister of Portugal. Please pray for him. This is what the petition says:

We call upon our government and the United Nations to ensure that Christians and other minorities enjoy:
1. The right to equal citizenship
2. Dignified living conditions
3. A prominent role in reconciling and rebuilding society.

That’s some of the things that we can do. The things that Open Doors is asking us to do. Give. Pray. Sign the petition. But there’s more.

One is, to recognise that the situation is very complicated. There aren’t any easy answers. At least some of the Christians in Syria support President Assad. By no means all, but some. That’s not very surprising. He gives protection and status to minorities, as did Saddam in Iraq. That protection and status comes at a terrible cost, but doesn’t come with the fear that you might be entirely wiped off the map. But, it does mean that Christians can be seen as supporters of a regime that is responsible for war crimes, atrocities, violence and oppression.

Not that we’re in anything like a situation to criticise. We absolutely need to recognise our guilt, our country’s guilt, in much of the persecution. This year marks the 100th anniversary of something that hasn’t been much commemorated in this country. It was a secret agreement between Britain and France on how they were going to divide up the Middle East between them after the war. It’s called the Sykes-Picot agreement and amongst other things led to the countries of the Middle East as we see them. Which hasn’t been a huge success. Which has caused untold suffering.

Or to give two other examples. It was our and other European countries messing up Africa that have led to many of the problems there, including persecution. Elsewhere, the blasphemy laws under which many Christians and other minorities in Pakistan are persecuted, the blasphemy laws there are based on the blasphemy laws of the British Empire. They’ve been expanded, but the basis is the ones that we created.

And we’re still causing problems. It is entirely probable that one of the factors causing the war in Syria is drought, which led to the collapse of farming, the movement of people into the cities, and the rise of the tensions that led to extremism and the fighting. It’s being argued about, but it’s quite likely. What’s beyond doubt is that the rise of Boko Haram, the group which abducted several hundred schoolgirls last year and is persecuting Christians among others, the rise of Boko Haram was caused in part by a massive lake drying up, which was the main source of food and work.

Both of those are symptoms of climate change. Which we are causing by our actions, and lack of action. If we want to support our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ then we can help by preventing the conditions that lead to persecution. So, including by supporting efforts to stop climate change and by supporting the international aid that our country gives.

And another thing that we can do.  How we treat minorities in this country has an impact.

In two ways. If people feel marginalised, excluded, like they’re second class, like they’re hated or like they’re obviously a terrorist, then one of the ways that they can push back against that is becoming that which people think they already are. Someone who spreads terror. An extremist. Obviously most people don’t do that. Obviously it’s not an excuse. But, the more people feel excluded, the easier it is to find a welcome amongst violent extremists.

And also, it’s a lot easier for Open Doors and other organisations to call for countries to treat minorities well, if they can show that the countries where they are based practise what they preach. How we treat minorities in this country has an impact on how minorities are treated in other countries.

So, let us do what we’re called to do. Be eager to do good. Bless people. Particularly those who are different from us, those we’re scared of, those we don’t like or don’t understand.

That is what the Christians in Syria are doing. It’s what we’re called to do. And as we do so, we act as ambassadors of Christ, we spread the values of heaven, as Pastor Edward said. Actually, we do more than that. As we work as ambassadors of Christ, God himself brings heaven to earth through us. The kingdom of God, heaven, comes a bit closer through our actions.

That’s what Peter calls us to do. That’s what the Christians in Syria and elsewhere are urging us to do. Let us seek peace and pursue it. Let us be a blessing to our neighbours, to the parish of Hartshorne, to our Christian brothers and sisters across the world. Amen.

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