Throughout this year we have been reflecting on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). For people in Jesus’ day, these words would have been a stark challenge and reminder of the cost that is involved in being a true follower of Jesus. The sight of people carrying their crosses to the place of execution would be an all too familiar sight, and many of Jesus’ early followers, would themselves face persecution, imprisonment and even death for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.
Did you know that more Christians died for their faith in the 20th Century that in the previous 19 centuries combined? And today it is estimated that one in ten Christians lives with discrimination, violence or some other form of persecution for their faith..
It is not just a problem that affects Christians in other parts of the world. Even here in Britain there is concern that Christians are increasingly facing religious discrimination. In September the European Court of Human Rights heard the cases of four British people who claim they lost their jobs as a result of discrimination against their Christian beliefs.
Shirley Chaplain, a nurse with 30 years experience, and Nadia Eweida, who worked at a check in desk for British Airways at Heathrow airport, both lost their jobs over their refusal to remove a cross worn around the neck.
Lillian Ladele, a registrar in Islington, lost her job after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on religious grounds, despite the fact that Islington Council had said she did not have to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, as other staff were available to do them. They changed their minds however after complaints that, by refusing to register civil partnerships, Lillian Ladele was acting contrary to the council's equality policies.
And Gary McFarlane was dismissed from his work as a councillor for Relate after he expressed concerns about providing sex therapy for gay couples.
Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury in April said that the outward expression of traditional conservative Christian values had in effect been banned under a new "secular conformity of belief and conduct". He argued that there is a "drive to remove Judeo-Christian values from the public square" and that UK courts had "consistently applied equality law to discriminate against Christians". "In a country where Christians can be sacked for manifesting their faith, are vilified by state bodies, are in fear of reprisal or even arrest for expressing their views on sexual ethics, something is very wrong.”
Whether you agree with what Lord Carey says, or not, will be a matter for debate. But for many Christians around the world, the difficulties they face are even greater, with persecution and violence a real and ever present danger. Across huge swathes of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the basic rights of our brothers and sisters are cruelly violated, and those who attack them are rarely held to account.
Only last week, as we gathered to worship here at St Martin’s, a vehicle packed with explosives was driven into St Rita's church in the city of Kaduna in northern Nigeria, killing 8 people, including children and injuring over 100.
Tragically this is not an isolated event. In an article published in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, it stated that Christians are increasingly suffering for their faith, and yet their plight is being ignored. For example, in Egypt, 600,000 Coptic Christians, more than the entire population of Manchester, have emigrated since the 1980s because of harassment and oppression.
Here in Britain, we quite rightly recognise the importance of religious freedom. Yet there is scarcely a single country from Morocco to Pakistan in which Christians are fully free to worship without restriction. Muslims who convert to Christianity or other faiths, in most of these societies face harsh penalties. There is a real risk that the Churches will all but vanish from their biblical heartlands in the Middle East.
One of the impacts of the Arab Spring is that it has made life for Christians living in the Middle East even more difficult and uncertain. For example Syria was considered a safe country for Christians, but with the civil war that has now all changed. Christians in Syria enjoyed considerable freedoms under President Assad’s regime, and are therefore assumed to be supporters of his government. As a result Christians have targeted by the opposition forces, and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes.
But despite this, people are still coming to faith in Christ, and there are Christians who are courageously sharing their faith.
The problems faced by Christians are not by any means restricted to the Muslim world. For example in India, between August and October of 2008, Hindu hardliners in the eastern state of Orissa murdered at least 90 people, displaced 50,000, and attacked 170 churches and chapels. And Christians have faced discrimination and persecution in Communist countries such as Cuba, China and in particular North Korea.
But where the church is under persecution, we also hear incredible stories of faith and courage. Like that of Ahmed, who continues to tell others about Jesus and to plant new churches.
God has not forgotten his people, and he calls other Christians to remember them in their chains. Paul writes that ‘If one part [of the church] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.’ (1 Corinthians 12:26). And the writer of Hebrews says ‘Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.’ (Hebrews 13:3) In other words we need to stand up and support our brothers and sisters in Christ who are facing persecution and oppression.
Jesus came to proclaim true freedom, and he calls us to proclaim freedom for his captive people. This is the message of our reading from Isaiah, which Jesus quoted in the synagogue in Nazareth ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.’ (Isaiah 61:1)
We can do this in three ways.
1 Pray daily for our Christian brothers & sisters who are facing persecution – use the prayer diaries that Barnabus Fund and other organisations produce
2 Give financial support. Many of these Christians suffer extreme poverty, and rely upon the support other Christians can give them.
This is how a snapshot of some of the projects The Barnabus Fund is currently involved in.
In Sierra Leone they are training Christian pastors in farming and animal rearing, and giving them two goats, seeds and farming tools, so they can support themselves, and serve the desperately poor rural Muslim communities in which they live. They are also buying the pastors a bike so they can reach the remote communities.
In Kenya they are paying for a young man to undertake training in radio production and programming and Arabic, to reach Muslims via the radio.
In the Holy Land, they are giving financial support to eight Christian families who are dealing with difficult circumstances of various kinds.
In Burma they are caring for over 30 Christian orphans living inside a camp for Internally Displaced Persons.
In Pakistan they gave seeds and fertilizer to 32 Christian families, who lost all they had in the devastating floods that stuck the country in 2010. Because of this gift these families have been able to reap an abundant harvest, and pay off their debts. One of the farmers said “I felt free because I was under no debt anymore. It was the first time in a long time that I could sleep without worrying about anything.”
In Sri Lanka they have built homes for 25 Christian families, who lost everything in the destructive civil war, which came to an end in 2009. These homes are making an enormous difference to their lives. One of the receipts of said “We have been blessed with this house. We are opening the house for prayer meetings and hope this house will be a blessing to others.”
Barnabus Fund also provides money to build churches, schools, and ensure people have access to medical care. They can only do this because of the support and generosity that they receive churches and individuals here in the West.
We are to stand with those who are oppressed. In the book of Proverbs it says “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9) We need to fight for the rights of our fellow Christians, which we can do by supporting campaigns run by organisations like The Barnabus Fund, Open Doors, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. We can write to our MPs, so that pressure is brought to bear on those countries who do not uphold the rights of Christians.
Because we are Christ’s disciples, He calls us to share in His work of proclaiming freedom. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus ends His reading from Isaiah by announcing that He has been sent to declare the year of the Lord’s favour. This is the time that God has appointed to bring deliverance and freedom, through Christ and those who follow Him. Jesus’ message requires a response from us: to join Him in proclaiming freedom for His enslaved people throughout the world. Jesus reminds us that whatever we do for one of the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for God.