For several years my wife and I attended a little church in Virginia called St. Peter's. Every Sunday during the "Prayers of the People" we would pray for persecuted Christians throughout the world, and each week, two different countries would be named. Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Nigeria . . .far off places that seem so foreign and remote from everyday life in America.
I sometimes wonder how seriously we took those prayers. I don't doubt that our intentions were sincere; I simply recognize that for most Americans the kind of persecution suffered by Christians around the world is utterly inconceivable. As citizens of the freest society mankind has ever known, it is almost impossible for us to truly empathize with the plight of those who live in daily fear of harassment, imprisonment, and even torture or execution for their religious beliefs.
The recent kidnappings in Nigeria by the Islamic militant group Boka Haram has cast the issue of religious persecution – of Christians in particular – into the spotlight, and begs the question: Why have American Christians been so silent on the subject of religious persecution of their spiritual brethren around the world? It is a question many leaders within the American Christian community are asking, and there appears to be universal consensus that continued silence and inaction on this issue is unacceptable.
American Christians are quick to complain about the state of religious freedom in America. For several years, American jurisprudence and her political culture have been trending in a troubling direction when it comes to the status afforded religious expression and conscience. The Affordable Care Act's infamous contraception mandate is the best example of this, though there are countless others. Hardly a week passes without a new story detailing an absurd case of religious censorship. College campuses are notorious offenders, as are misguided, PC-obsessed school boards and town councils. The ACLU makes no secret of its goal to dethrone Christianity from its traditional position as the foundation of America's moral, ethical, and religious heritage.
For all this, there can be no disputing that American Christians have it really good compared to Christians in other countries. Anyone can attend any church they want without fear that the government or a group of radicals will interfere. Churches enjoy tax-exempt status and are free to conduct outreach activities in their communities, often with the blessing of the local government. Christian leaders are still given a prominent public platform to speak out on the hot-button social and political issues of the day. Secularists might complain about it, but at this point the powers-that-be in American society still accord a level of respect and deference to Christianity and its disciples.
Contrast this with the antagonism and persecution encountered daily by Christians in the Muslim world. As documented in a recent pledge of solidarity signed by a diverse array of America's preeminent Christian leaders, Christians in countries like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq experience the following:
Christians, including some clergy, after being identified as such by their names, identity cards, or some other means, have been beheaded, shot execution-style or otherwise brutally murdered. Clergy have also been killed for their peace-making efforts or simply as personifications of the Christian faith.
Untold numbers of Christians, including bishops, priests, pastors, and nuns, have been kidnapped and held for ransom.
Young women have been abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry their captors.
In some instances, Christians have been told to convert to Islam or be killed; some have been forced to pay protection money.
Muslim apostasy and blasphemy codes and standards for dress, occupation and social behavior are being enforced for Christians, as well as for Muslims, in some communities.
That so many Christians in these countries feel forgotten and forsaken by the western church is a shameful testament to the attitude of complacency and apathy that has infected the hearts and minds of American Christians. We should be outraged and horrified by the treatment our fellow believers suffer and we should use every tool at our disposal to counteract it. After all, we are talking about family here, the family of Christ.
We are called to be His hands and feet, and called to care for the poor, vulnerable, and needy. This means we must widen our gaze beyond the narrow scope of our own problems and pay some attention to what's happening to Christians around the world. There will come a day when each and every one of us will have to give and account for our actions, or lack of action, in this life.