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Carrying the Burden of the Persecuted Church

Katherine Britton | Crosswalk.com News & Culture Editor | Monday, November 8, 2010

Carrying the Burden of the Persecuted Church

"Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should." - Ephesians 6:19-20 

One week ago, a jittery America was floundering in 24/7 coverage of the midterm elections, with many Christians among those wondering if Harry Reid would get the boot. Many of us spent time praying for "God's will to be done" before we went to the polls, and many churches said a prayer for our nation's future that Sunday. After two years of political change, Tea Party sympathizers and Obama apologists alike dithered over their fate.

The same day we went to the polls, Iraqi Christians in Baghdad buried about 50 fellow believers. All of them were victims of a terrorist group that denies Christians the right to exist. 

Christians in America can luxuriate in questions of political representation, but believers in Iraq aren't worried about their taxes. Fifty-eight people - most of them believers - died on October 31, caught between Al Qaeda-linked militants who stormed a cathedral during mass and the Iraqi forces who broke into the church to "save" them. Another 75 people suffered bullet or grenade wounds. The number of Christians in Iraq has been decimated by emigration and targeted violence since 2003, but the Sunday attack was the single deadliest on record.

But on Monday, the church massacre was overwhelmed with last-minute election news in American media. We were glued to the news for how many seats Republicans won, not for what happened to Christians in Iraq.

Many of us are waking up to social justice issues and activism. We can be encouraged to see Christians advocating an end to human trafficking or going beyond the tithe to aid earthquake victims in Haiti. But these issues often allow us to be active by proxy.

Aiding the persecuted church, however, is profoundly different than advocating social justice issues. Organizations such as Open Doors and government commissions like the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have their place in petitioning governments and smuggling encouragement. Even so, persecution watchdogs say oppressed Christians most often request help of a different kind - they want the prayers of other Christians. They want our prayers.  

The Baghdad church bombing is just one example of how quickly we take an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to our fellow believers' struggles. Perhaps that's where our efforts get derailed - we skip over the dozens of introductions the apostles give to their "brothers" in the faith and get right to the instruction, missing the deep connection between us. After all, one of the great Christian mysteries lies in the doctrine of adoption, in which God declares every believer to be his beloved child. That means the familial relationship isn't just vertical between us and God - it extends to our brothers and sisters in Christ. This isn't some loosey-goosey connection between all living things, but a deep spiritual bond that personally connects us to that grieving Christian mother in Iraq. This is our sister, whom we've often forgotten. We shouldn't be able to forget about family so easily.

Believers in America and most Western countries know very little of the fires of persecution, unlike our brothers and sisters in places like Iraq. But our lack of experience doesn't have to be a lack of empathy. In Galatians 6:2, Paul tells the church to "carry each other's burdens" to keep each other from stumbling. Maybe we need to take Paul's words more literally. I think those of us who don't endure life-threatening persecution can still partner with the persecuted church in this way. If we pray for believers we've never met, like those in Baghdad, chances are we'll never know the impact those prayers have. And yet we can enter into their suffering in a small way when we pray for them.

James tells us that "the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective," indicating that God uses prayers offered through Christ in ways we can't imagine. And when we don't know how to pray for other believers? God takes care of that hesitation as well in Romans 8:26 - "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." These mysterious promises ought to thrill American believers as we consider what God can do when we pray for our brothers and sisters. We can carry their burden in some way. The question is, are we committed to doing so?  

This Sunday we have the chance to multiply our prayers with Christians around the world with the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. You can find out how to pray for Christians in particular countries, and the unique challenges the face in different parts of the globe. Crosswalk.com provides daily features and summaries of religion and persecution news on our Religion Today page.