Muslim emotions against the West seem to be rubbed permanently raw. In the rolling protests sparked in part by an ugly video put together by a Coptic Christian in the United States, many followers of Islam are seeking revenge. Businesses have been torched, flags burned, and bystanders (including some nearby Christians) murdered by the angry mobs representing the “religion of peace.”
"Our demand is that whoever has blasphemed against our holy Prophet should be handed over to us,” said Islamabad protester Mohammed Tariq Khan, “so we can cut him up into tiny pieces in front of the entire nation."
Contrast this approach with the protests surrounding the latest annual visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York City and the United Nations. Ahmadinejad, of course, has denied the Holocaust and threatened Israel with annihilation, saying that the Jewish state will be “eliminated.” The country he represents, Iran, is a state sponsor of terrorism, is widely believed to be seeking to develop nuclear weapons, and systematically persecutes religious minorities, including Christians. Yet the outrage against the leaders of Iran, though unmistakable, has been confined to its proper channels in the West.
An Israeli legal group representing a New Yorker wounded in a suicide bombing filed a motion that the posh hotel where Ahmadinejad stayed turn over any money from Iran to go toward the plaintiff’s so far unpaid $12 million judgment. It lost. Another victim, who survived a 1997 suicide bombing, is also trying to collect damages from Iran. “We haven't been able to collect anything,” he said. “So as far as I'm concerned, it's a matter of justice.”
Certainly Christians in the Islamic Republic have seen little justice in recent years. According to the State Department’s 2011 report on religious liberty (the latest available), “The government severely restricted overall religious freedom and reports of government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs continued.” Among the Christians suffering persecution:
• At least 300 arrests of Christians were reported during the year.
• Three Christian men, Pastor Farhad Sabokrouh, Davood (David) Ali-Jani, and Naser Zamen-Dezfuli, remained in detention after their arrests on December 23. According to media reports, security officials attacked Pastor Sabokrouh’s Assembly of God church in Ahvaz during the weekly prayer service. Security forces arrested all church members present, including children.
• In June 2010 six members of a house church in Shiraz — Pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani, Mehdi Furutan, Mohammad Beliad, Parviz Khalaj, Nazly Beliad, and Amin Afsharmanesh — were arrested. They were released on bail in February. In March they were found guilty of “crimes against national security.”
• There were numerous incidents during the year of Muslim converts to Christianity facing harassment, arrest, and sentencing. Many arrests took place during police raids on religious gatherings, during which religious property also was confiscated.
• Following his October 2009 arrest, Youcef Nadarkhani, a pastor of a house church in Gilan, received a death sentence for apostasy. His case was appealed and later reports indicated that officials had offered to release him if he recanted his Christian faith and made a statement about the Prophet Muhammad.
In the case of Nadarkhani, this month, just before Ahmadinejad’s UN visit, authorities convicted him on a lesser charge of Muslim evangelism and released him for time served.
Observers such as Os Guinness note that these nations will not get over their societies’ dysfunctions and instabilities until they allow religious freedom. “Without coming to grips with freedom of conscience,” Guinness writes, “Islam cannot modernize peacefully.”
So it is easy to rail against the abuses that Christians (and others) face in the Muslim world and to demand justice. Muslim-led governments indeed ought to allow religious liberty. It is a matter of simple fairness in a global community where reprehensible figures such as Ahmadinejad are allowed to travel and speak freely while citizens in their own countries cannot.
And yet from a spiritual standpoint, church history and Scripture teach that God can and does use such oppression for the advancement of his kingdom. While the old saying, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” is a gross oversimplification, at times persecution has been a key factor in strengthening, purifying, and spreading the church.
In Acts 8, persecution drove the fledgling church from the familiar surroundings of Jerusalem and into surrounding regions of Judea and into Samaria, which set the stage for thrilling numerical growth (8:1-25). In our own day, just as one example, persecution has sparked impressive growth in communist-run Cuba in recent decades.
That certainly seems to be the case in Iran. According to Operation World, the noted daily prayer guide, disillusionment with Islam, which received a jolt when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, continues both growing and spreading in the nation of 75 million people.
“Massive numbers have recently been coming to Jesus,” Operation World reports. “From only 500 Muslim-background believers in 1979, conservative estimates now suggest over 100,000 MBBs in Iran, a number rapidly increasing. Some, more optimistic, place this number as high as a million. Never since the 7th century has the church in Persia grown so fast as post-1979, and the most recent years are the most fruitful. In a country able to apply the death sentence for apostasy, this underground church multiplication is a remarkable move of the Holy Spirit. Signs and wonders, dreams and visions seem to abound.”
It is no wonder, then, that suffering often leads to glory. As the Apostle Paul said, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
So while Christians are morally and spiritually obligated to speak out for freedom of speech and religious liberty in the Muslim world — which often seeks to curtail our rights to both right here — we need to trust that the Lord will build his kingdom regardless, for his strength is made perfect in weakness.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: September 25, 2012