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All brothers and sisters

A man imprisoned for his faith is left to die in the snow of Siberia, but is miraculously kept alive. A Christian family escapes after rioters destroy their home … Mike Burrows shares some astounding stories from Christians around the world.

When Mike Burrows was staying in a safe house for persecuted Christians in Malaysia, he met a fellow Christian who had escaped from Pakistan. They had an immediate connection, since both have three children, all exactly the same age—10, eight and six. ‘

He had to escape from Pakistan because he was a Christian and his brother tried to kill him. His family beat him. When he went out, he came home and found his wife had been badly beaten because of his faith in Jesus Christ,’ explains Mike, the relationships manager for Open Doors, an organisation that supports the persecuted church.

‘So the best thing he could do was to leave, and his family do not know where he is.’ It was one of those God-ordained meetings—two fathers, with children the same age. ‘Yet what it means for me to walk by faith in New Zealand, and for him to walk by faith, it’s such a contrast,’ says Mike.

Open Doors describes two types of persecution: in countries where being a Christian can literally be a death sentence, there is ‘smash persecution’. But in many more countries, there is a far more subtle way of making Christianity unbearable, called ‘squeeze persecution’.

Squeezing out Christ

For example, most of us would consider Malaysia far friendlier to Christians than Pakistan. ‘But there is a saying, “To be Malay is to be Muslim,” ’ explains Mike. Although there are churches in Malaysia, it is illegal for a Malay national to become a Christian. ‘One of our guides was Malay and he became a Christian. He’s married with a daughter, and if the authorities find out, by law they can relocate his daughter into a Muslim family, break him and his wife up, and re-educate them back into Islam.’

In addition, Christians that dare to try and make contact with a church are often turned away, because the church fears the authorities. ‘So not only are these Christians being persecuted by their family and the government, but also by the church,’ adds Mike.

Christians in countries where they are ‘squeezed out’ have life-changing decisions to make every day: Do they go to the mosque and pray to Jesus instead, or do they stay away? Do they declare they are Christians on official forms—knowing this means they will not get promotions, will be isolated, and will not be able to rent or buy a house?

The most dangerous place to be Christian

Open Doors was established 60 year ago when its founder —known only as Brother Andrew—felt called to smuggle Bibles behind the iron curtain into Poland. From that one act, an international movement was born that exists to serve the persecuted church in over 65 countries. It offers practical help to Christians with safe houses, advocacy, trauma counselling and Christian material, as well as meeting practical needs.

Open Doors also leads short-term trips into persecuted countries to smuggle in Christian material, meet secret believers, and—in countries where the doors are really closed—do prayer walks. ‘We hear stories of Christians in those countries who know when a team has come into that country to pray. We can’t meet them, but they feel it.’

The most dangerous place to be a Christian right now is North Korea, where there is extreme persecution—Open Doors knows there are around 70,000 Christians in labour camps there. Other countries where persecution is extreme are Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Iran. ‘The beautiful thing is that persecution cannot stop the church,’ reflects Mike.

Our brothers and sisters

Mike insists Open Doors is not simply the ‘Western church’ helping the persecuted church; the blessing is really ours. ‘I’ve discovered that the Kingdom of God works through relationships, so Open Doors provides that bridge between us and them, through getting their stories out,’ explains Mike. ‘As someone’s testimony is released to the world, it multiplies the effect of that testimony. So it’s a beautiful way we can honour them and honour what God is doing in a place.’

He continues, ‘Our brothers and sisters are living and dying for their faith in Jesus every day, so there is a need to walk with them. But when we pray for them, financially support them or do trips, we become bigger people as well. It expands our discipleship and spiritual walk.’

One astounding story paints a picture of the true body of Christ crossing all boundaries. Alexander had been in a Siberian prison for years because of his faith in God. In the midst of deathly winter, the guards decided to kill him. They smashed open the window of his cell one night so the freezing air and snow would come in, and he would freeze to death.

Alexander felt his body shutting down. He knew he was dying and he cried out to God.

In a completely different country, God woke a woman and said, ‘Pray for Alexander.’ She immediately called friends from her church and they prayed through the night for this unknown man.

Just as Alexander knew he was going to die, he felt a warm embrace, as if coming from inside him. The warmth stayed through the night. In the morning, the guards came in with a physician and were horrified to find him alive. Alexander overheard them talking heatedly in the corridor. ‘This is totally impossible,’ the physician said. ‘His body temperature is exactly the same as ours. He should be dead, but he’s alive.’

Alexander stayed in prison for another six months. Open Doors heard his story and asked Christians around the world to pray for Alexander. The woman who had been praying read the story in a newsletter and realised, ‘This is the Alexander we’ve been praying for over the last six months.’ So they kept praying, and the rest of the world prayed. Alexander was released from prison, without any explanation.

Optimal persecution

The persecuted church offers us a huge challenge—and an opportunity. ‘Chinese pastors would say there’s an optimal level of persecution for church growth,’ explains Mike, ruefully. ‘If you have too little, the church becomes less bold in sharing Jesus Christ. Too much, and many people are killed.’

Often, pastors in secret churches in China consider their biblical training as twofold: firstly, they study in seminary. Secondly, they expect to spend two to three years in prison before they are fully prepared to lead a church.

Mike insists that the message from the persecuted church is not that we should feel guilty, but that in having the spiritual veil lifted from our eyes, we, too, can be empowered once again. ‘Jesus said to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. The message of the persecuted church to the Western church is, “Don’t give up in your freedom, what we haven’t given up in our persecution”—that is, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.’

by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 14 January 2017, pp6-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.