The stars seemed brighter than usual this morning as I ventured out with the dog and Samuel mosied down to the bus stop. The cold clouds of the past two days had blown away, leaving open skies speckled with brilliance.
Something about walking beneath an open sky leaves the heart feeling freer than when the stars are hidden by a cloudy quilt that somehow seems oppressive.
We don’t like the feeling of oppression, even in that spare environmental sense. And fortunately, most people reading these words don’t have to worry about being actually oppressed, especially when it comes to our faith. We can believe as we please and practice such worship as is meaningful to us.
From our happy context, we often forget that we have many brothers and sisters in the faith who cannot worship as we do, followers of Christ who face real persecution from oppressive governments or majority religions that feel threatened by the presence of Christians.
That’s why it’s a worthy idea to observe the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church on November 14. If we were being arrested or boycotted or even killed for our faith, would we not want someone to remember us?
We can remember the dwindling number of Christians in Iraq, where gunmen recently invaded a Catholic church during Sunday worship and killed 58 people. The group known as Al Qaida in Iraq has reportely announced that it considers Christians to be legitimate targets of its terror campaign. Christians in Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Algeria, and Indonesia face discrimination or persecution on a daily basis.
We can remember believers in Uzbekistan, where a Baptist leader was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison on trumped-up charges, and in Azerbaijan, where four Baptists were arrested and jailed while attending a harvest festival in a private home.
We can pray for believers in Communist countries such as China, where religious freedom is growing and many worship openly, but where believers who for conscience’ sake don’t register with the government are subject to arrest and “re-education.”
We can pray for believers in Hindu countries like India and Nepal, where Christians are often the targets of militant mobs, and where legal discrimination is common.
In some contexts, even supposedly peace-based faiths like Buddhism can turn ugly toward Christians, as in Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka, where militant or nationalist Buddhists make life difficult for Christians.
There are many other parts of our world where hostility reigns and believers cannot practice their faith without fear of persecution and oppression.
The scripture for this year’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is Psalm 10:17 — “You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them and you listen to their cry.”
While we believe that God hears the prayers of the afflicted, we also understand that God expects other believers to care for those who suffer, to pray for them, and to stand up for them in whatever way we can.1 Corintians 12:26 reminds us that when one part of the body suffers, all suffer.
Observing the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is a good way to acknowledge those who suffer for their faith, to share in their pain, and to pray for their freedom.
Resource materials, including a five-minute video, downloadable bulletin inserts, and other recources can be found at http://idop.org.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.