On October 31, 2010 the day before All Saints Day, worshippers arrived at their church in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad to remember the Christian saints and martyrs of the past. Few if any would have imagined that within minutes two of their pastors and several dozen other friends would be added to the souls under the heavenly altar crying out for justice.
The believer's attending Our Lady of Salvation Church that morning are Assyrian Christians, part of the Middle East's oldest continuous Christian community. Assyrian Christians credit the arrival of the Gospel to the preaching of the apostles Thomas, Thaddeus, and Bartholomew in the first century. Before the Iraq War began, they made up about five percent of Iraq's population. Since the war, they account for forty percent of the refugees who have fled the country, cutting the number remaining in Iraq by half.
Soon after worship began, there was a burst of gunfire outside the church. Suddenly gunmen burst in. "You are all infidels," they yelled, "We are here to avenge the burning of the Qur'ans [in the United States] and the jailing of Muslim women in Egypt."
According to the UK guardian, they then murdered the pastor before spraying the church and its icons with bullets. Congregants were lined up. "We will go to paradise if we kill you and you will go to hell," said the gunmen as they shot, killing young people first.
By the end of it fifty-nine were dead including one unborn child and another seventy-eight wounded in what was the worst attack on Christians since the Iraq War began in 2003.
This horrific story is a fitting reminder of why Sunday, November 13, 2011 is the international day of prayer for the persecuted church.
That the Church is persecuted should come as no surprise. Jesus foretold that it would happen. "If the world hates you," he said, "keep in mind that it hated me first. …in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God" (John 15:18).
That persecution began soon after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost when Deacon Stephen became the first to die for his faith. "On that day," we read, "a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem…." (Acts 8:1b)
Not many years later Emperor Nero executed the apostles Peter and Paul and, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, made killing Christians "a matter of sport." More persecutions followed under the emperors decius (249-251), diocletian (284-305), and julian the apostate (355-363). Rivers of blood flowed, but not nearly the torrent of blood we saw in the twentieth century and are beginning to see in the twenty-first.
Largely as a result of totalitarianism in Russia, Germany, China, and elsewhere, more Christians died for their faith during the twentieth century than in all of the previous nineteen centuries combined. As George Weigel writes concerning Christians killed by the Communists and the Nazis:
"Because Christian faith affirmed the truth about the inalienable dignity of the human person, anyone who hated that truth hated, implicitly, the Christian faith. Modern totalitarianism was an implicit form of odium fidei [hatred of the faith], because it reduced persons to things."
Today in North Korea, Vietnam, Burma, and China, the totalitarian beat goes on. North Korea, for example, is itself a sort of giant concentration camp, denying basic human rights to all but a select few of its citizens. The state arrests any suspected dissidents along with their families and sends to real concentration camps. Religious people considered the most dangerous sort and, according to former prisoners in the camps, the cruelest treatment is reserved for Christians.
If the state demands our highest loyalty, it will brook no rival and persecution is inevitable.
Besides secular totalitarianism, religious totalitarianism results in persecution. We often hear that every religion in the world preaches some version of the golden rule: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12). Would that they would all follow that Rule—at least a little bit.
According to the united states commission on international religious freedom's 2010 report to the president and Congress:
The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.
Serious religious freedom concerns persist in Pakistan, where religiously discriminatory legislation has fostered an atmosphere of intolerance.
Systematic, egregious, and ongoing religious freedom violations continue in Saudi Arabia. …the Saudi government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government's own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam, and interferes with private religious practice of both Muslims and non-Muslim expatriate workers.
The government of Sudan commits egregious and systematic violations of freedom of religion or belief in those areas under its control. Christians, Muslims who do not follow the government's extreme interpretation of Islam, and those who follow traditional African religions are particularly targeted.
Because the suffering is overwhelming, the prayer needs are overwhelming. A single Sunday set aside for those prayers is only a way of reminding us to pray for the persecuted Church every day.
And note, we don't pray for persecuted "churches." There is, as the Nicene Creed puts it, "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" in which all Christians believe and to which all Christians belong. Because Jesus one, we pray in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in distress. This is not some metaphorical solidarity, but the true spiritual solidarity that marks the "communion of saints," which is the unity of all Christians—living and dead.
And so under the heavenly altar, the martyrs cry out. Before the altar at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, the persecuted and suffering cry out. In every church and before every altar, let us cry out for rescue, redemption, and justice for the persecuted Church—and for her persecutors.
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothersshould be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
Jim Tonkowich is a Senior Fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy. He holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. More of his work can be found at jimtonkowich.com.