Last month an American soldier coming home from Afghanistan was seated next to me on a flight. He saw my "One With Them" rubber barbed-wire wristband that I was wearing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who share our faith, but not our freedom. I explained that the wristband is being worn by thousands in support of persecuted Christians around the world.
The soldier nodded as I spoke. He'd seen for himself during his tours of duty in Afghanistan that the country allowed no room for him to practice any faith but Islam. After the U.S. invasion, Afghan authorities added to the nation's flag the Islamic creed: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger."
The U.S. State Department reports that in March 2010 Afghanistan's lone church structure was razed by the property owner. Today no public churches remain in Afghanistan. In the decade since the U.S. invasion more than 1,700 American military personnel have died in this South Asian country. U.S. taxpayers have funded some $440 billion to establish the new Afghanistan. Yet, "the [Afghan] courts consider all citizens to be Muslims by default," the State Department report said. "Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and is punishable by death under some interpretations of Islamic law in the country." Afghanistan's media law prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam, the report said.
This marked decline in religious freedom in Afghanistan, which the State Department reported, concurs with the Open Doors World Watch List (WWL), an annual ranking of 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. In 2004, Afghanistan was 13th on the WWL. This year the country ranked third based on persecution levels in 2010.
Imagine how that American soldier felt putting his life on the line in Afghanistan to free its people when religious freedom, the most basic of freedoms, was not extended to him. In recent weeks the new "Arab Spring" governments of Libya and Tunisia have each announced that their constitutions will be compliant with Shariah, or Islamic law, although Libya later softened that announcement. I've heard Western political analysts downplay these leaders' statements that Shariah would be the basis of laws as just a way to consolidate Islamic power bases. I don't think the legal systems of Saudi Arabia and Iran represent the heart and soul of what Americans want to see happen in these popular North African democratic revolutions.
Meanwhile, ongoing attacks against Christians in Egypt have led to their steady exodus from the nation where St. Mark planted a church around the year 43 A.D. Many fear Syria's government will likewise topple. Lebanese Christians remain fearful of the future. Sudanese leaders have declared their intent to fashion Sudan's laws in compliance with Islam as well.
We can't hold democracy itself as a goal. A prime case in point is Gaza, where in a fair 2006 election voters brought the radical Islamic group Hamas to power. Like Gaza, these Muslim-majority nations have no history of democratic institutions or a moderate civil society sector. Their only organized structures represent extreme views.
Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Saddam Hussein of Iraq each were horrible human rights violators, but ironically enough, offered a measure of protection to Christians. In contrast, nations under Shariah will look more like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where leaving Islam for any other religion is a punishable offense. Brother Andrew, the founder of Open Doors, says the resulting mass migration risks creating a regional museum devoid of Christians. Churches, great cathedrals, Christian hospitals and other institutions vital to these societies for generations, even centuries, will be empty. Losing the vibrant Christian community and its rich heritage would be a huge tragedy for each of these countries.
The hope is found in Jesus Christ who is using these situations to build His church. Sometimes the church becomes most effective when forced underground. Examples from ancient Rome to modern China demonstrate the church grows most dramatically when forced to abandon the external supports of culture. I see that happening across the Middle East and South Asia. Circumstances will get more difficult before they improve, but the church finds more power underground than above ground.
We must join in prayer that the Holy Spirit would empower the suffering church to stand strong. May God's people never respond in revenge and anger. Pray for a spirit of forgiveness and recognition of the divine sovereignty of God when the church is attacked. Pray that the world awakens to the fact that Christians are under great pressure in these places.
And while a very slim margin of opportunity remains, we must pray for the formation of these new governments in Muslim-majority countries. A true form of democracy may still be adopted -- governments which allow Christians to live and worship freely. Pray that the Holy Spirit will move and these new democracies will protect religious freedom.
Dr. Carl Moeller is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, the American arm of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians in restricted countries since 1955. The Open Doors USA website is www.OpenDoorsUSA.org.
Publication date: November 29, 2011