Leah's family received a letter ordering the “Christian dogs” to leave their Baghdad home within 24 hours, or their house would be blown up.
This was no idle threat. Christians all around them had received similar warnings. Families who defied the terrorists’ demands faced the possible consequences – their children were kidnapped and usually killed; the mothers and older sons and daughters abused and the fathers murdered.
The 9-year-old Iraqi girl had to choose her most cherished possessions to pack into a suitcase for a perilous journey north. Though their transit would be fraught with Islamist checkpoints, Leah was insistent on taking a contraband item that could get the entire family killed ... she clutched her children's Bible.
"It’s the only thing I really want to take with me!” said Leah, which is not her real name. “I’d rather take this than my dollies!”
Children are the most vulnerable part of the suffering church. They are highly susceptible to the impact of being persecuted for their faith. In lands where Christians are oppressed minorities, the youngest, weakest members of society are at particular risk because no one in power will advocate for them.
Some are killed. Others are orphaned; their parents martyred. Some are separated from their parents when their father or mother is imprisoned, or are refugees forced to flee due to violence or oppression. Harassment and discrimination are routine. Typically they are rejected by society or even family, denied education, employment and healthcare. And some just disappear – forcibly married out of the faith, sold into sex slavery or bonded labor or conscripted as child soldiers.
At times their parents are forced to choose between staying faithful to Christ or protecting their children. Should they raise their children as Christians or keep them physically safe?
The situation of children caught in the crosshairs of persecution is rampant across many restricted countries. Christian children in Colombia are subject to extreme violence when their parents are killed or abused by drug lords or guerrillas. In Pakistan, children are sometimes forced to make bricks for slave wages. In Indonesia, they're often ostracized from society, inundated by death threats that force them into hiding. The danger is even more pronounced for those who leave Islam to embrace faith in Christ. Unraveling the trauma inflicted on their lives can take years of intensive counseling.
In North Korea, which has long maintained the top position on the Open Doors World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians, the danger has prompted many Christian parents to delay sharing the gospel with their sons and daughters until they're older and responsible enough to understand the potentially lethal implications of their family's belief. That's because schools demand that children rat out their parents and use trickery to catch those who refuse.
A first-grade teacher may show a child’s class a picture of a Bible. "Do you have this kind of book in your home?"
“Yes,” an innocent child may declare. “My family has that book.”
The teacher then may alert North Korean authorities about the subversive "anti-statist" Christian family. Police might swoop in to send the parents and child to a labor camp.
Christian children have clear, practical needs as a result of persecution they suffer. By meeting the specific needs of children, Open Doors offers them sustainable help and hope.
In addition to providing children's Bibles and Sunday school materials, in Pakistan for example, Open Doors supports literacy training for children and young adults. Through this program, tens of thousands learn to read and are thus able to secure better jobs. In Indonesia, Open Doors provides shelter for women and children in danger through its safe house program. Believers participating in this program are strengthened in the faith through prayer and counseling and also are taught livelihood skills that empower them to launch micro-enterprises.
Leah, the little Iraqi girl whose family was forced to flee their Baghdad home, was desperate to keep her most prized possession. She accepted her father's conditions. "You can pack your Bible," he told his daughter, "but you must keep praying that God will protect us during our journey.”
So Leah prayed as the family headed for northern Iraq. Thankfully, they encountered no terrorists. With Leah’s Bible hidden in a suitcase, the family arrived in the safe area where other threatened Iraqi Christians had relocated.
Through an Open Doors-sponsored team, Leah's family's new church home offers refugees professional, Bible-based counseling to help them come to terms with the traumas they have experienced. There are even special children’s sessions for kids like Leah. In these sessions she processes the horrors she has experienced. Her father received an Open Doors loan to start a business, which has thrived.
By helping to strengthen these precious children, Open Doors is helping ensure the persecuted church remains strong and faithful through the grace of our Lord Jesus.
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 living in restricted countries since 1955.