Here in the UK we may struggle to hold services because of coronavirus, but at least no one in the government is threatening to arrest and imprison us for just being Christians! And yet that is the harsh reality for hundreds of millions of Christians around the world today. This article will help remind you of the struggle of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
A Christian persecution watchdog has warned that more Christians around the world are suffering because of their faith, and the kind of persecution they’re experiencing has intensified.
Open Doors has found that more than 340 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith, amounting to one in eight worldwide.
Now the charity has released its 2021 World Watch List (WWL) which highlights the top 50 countries that are most hostile toward Christians.
Here are the top ten.
1. North Korea
Being discovered as a Christian is a death sentence in North Korea. If you aren’t killed instantly, you will be taken to a labour camp as a political criminal.
ISIS and the Taliban continue to have a strong, violent presence in Afghanistan, with the Taliban controlling large regions.
Islam is considered a crucial part of Somali identity, and if any Somali is suspected of having converted to Christianity, they are in great danger. Members of their family, clan or community will harass, intimidate or even kill them. Women may be raped and forcibly married.
There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion and very limited possibility of public church life in Libya. Although there are around 34,500 Christians in the country, only a tiny number (approximately 150) are Libyan – the majority are expatriates and migrant workers.
Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws are used to target Christians, and Islamic extremist groups vehemently “defend” these laws, including attacking or killing those believed to have contravened them.
Government security forces monitor phone calls, scrutinise activity and conduct countless raids which target Christians, seize Christian materials and damage house churches. Christians can be arrested and imprisoned without trial.
Christians in Yemen usually keep their faith secret, because if they are discovered then they could face the death penalty. Leaving Islam is forbidden, and all Yemenis are considered Muslims by the state.
The Iranian government sees the conversion of Muslims to Christianity as an attempt by Western countries to undermine the Islamic rule of Iran. Christians from a Muslim background are persecuted the most, primarily by the government, but also by their families and communities.
More Christians are murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Violent attacks by Boko Haram, Hausa-Fulani Muslim militant herdsmen, ISWAP (an affiliate of ISIS) and other Islamic extremist groups are common in the north and middle belt of the country, and they are becoming more common further south.
Hindu extremists believe that all Indians should be Hindus, and that the country should be rid of Christianity and Islam. They use extensive violence to achieve this goal, particularly targeting Christians from a Hindu background.
The Ven John Barton considers the sorrows of the past year.
The Queen recently spoke for the whole country when she said that many are, “tinged with sadness. Some (are) mourning the loss of those dear to them and other missing friends and family members, distanced for safety. When all they really want … is a simple hug or a squeeze of the hand.”
We may have become accustomed to wearing face masks in public, keeping our distance from others, cutting out social gatherings, and attending church services online, but ‘no touching’ seems the cruellest of punishments.
As one vicar friend of mine said, the Church has had to learn a lot from lockdown:
“That Zoom is no substitute for meeting together, sharing warmth, laughter, tears – and drinking from the same cup. We have a commonality in Christ, whoever we are. Christianity is more ‘us’ than ‘me’.
“Also, we cannot ignore those who will bear considerable cost arising from the pandemic. People have lost loved ones, businesses, confidence, jobs. It is vital that the church becomes a place of hope – not glib, cliched words – but solid hope drawn from Scripture and made real in action. The church could become a real hub of the local community.
“But we have to rethink much of what we do and how we say things. The money has all but gone now and the church has to refocus on how it attracts people, what it says in plain English, how it presents itself and provides a warm welcome to those who haven’t a clue what Christianity is…. and all this on a very tight budget!”
He’s got to be right. And some of us could begin to apply some of his ideas right now, even before the pandemic is under control.
As a direct consequence of lockdown, many of us have much more money in the bank than we bargained for. We could send a substantial sum to our local church, and some to an overseas charity, to make some of those ambitions come true. With time on our hands, we could earmark an hour or two for emailing or phoning those in our address book who live alone. We could buy extra supplies for a food bank on our next visit to the supermarket.
And we must ask God to make our church more comprehensible to those who consider themselves outsiders.
The Revd Peter Crumpler, a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, and a former communications director for the CofE, has a football story to tell…
Thousands of BBC local radio listeners across England recently tuned in to an unusual sporting-themed church service.
It wasn’t broadcast from a typical place of worship, a church or a cathedral, but from Wycombe Wanderers FC – a football club in the Championship, the second rung of English soccer.
Four of the team’s leading players joined the Buckinghamshire club’s chaplain Benedict Musola for the special act of worship broadcast across the country’s 38 BBC local radio stations.
Professional footballers Adebayo Akinfenwa, Jason McCarthy, Alex Samuel and Cameron Yates spoke of their Christian faith during the 30-minute service broadcast in January.
Chaplain Benedict Musola explained how the team prayed on the pitch before matches and held regular Bible studies at their training ground.
He told listeners: “I am grateful for the opportunity to serve God in this role, which uniquely combines my passion for God and my passion for football.”
The service featuring Wycombe Wanderers underlined the close links between football and faith.
In ‘Thank God for Football,’ (SPCK, 2006), author Peter Lupson featured chapters on the Christian roots of soccer clubs including Aston Villa, Barnsley, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Queen’s Park Rangers, Southampton, Swindon Town and Tottenham Hotspur.
The Wycombe Wanderers service is one of a series of Christian acts of worship broadcast on BBC local radio stations at 8am on Sundays since the onset of the pandemic last March.
The services have included speakers and musicians from a wide range of denominations and have won praise for easing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The Sunday services have formed part of the important role played by local media during the series of lockdowns.
Callers to BBC local radio stations – often older people – have been expressing their thanks for keeping them in touch and raising their spirits during the pandemic.
Commenting on the church services, Chris Burns, Head of Local Radio for the BBC, said: “We know from personal testament just how important these broadcasts have proved to be. They have played an important role in bringing communities together virtually so no one need feel they are on their own.
“We expanded our religious programming on the first weekend of lockdown in March and will continue to broadcast services and reflections until life returns to normal.”
Most people will be aware that March begins with St David’s Day on the first day of the month when the Welsh wear daffodils, and some still proudly pin leeks to their chest — leeks were the traditional emblem but today the daffodil seems more popular. Then 17 days later the Irish wear shamrocks to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, and, of course, there’s Mothering Sunday. But March is also the time the Church has 14 other special days, some well-known, others not so.
Among the other well-known saints celebrated by the Church this month is Joseph of Nazareth (19 March). Often overlooked in the early Church, Joseph has become an icon of the working man. There are many churches dedicated to ‘Joseph the Worker’. He stands in the Church calendar for the ’ordinary’ person, a straight-forward craftsman who never expected or chose to be in the spotlight of history. He did what he could, and he was obedient to everything that he believed God required of him. To do the ‘ordinary’ thing well, to be was visited by the Angel Gabriel who announced that she was to become the mother of God’s son.
One of the lesser known saints of March is Chad, sometimes known as the recycled bishop (2 March). He died kind, caring and open to guidance: these are great gifts, and Joseph seems to have had them in abundance. Closely linked with Joseph is another special day in the Church calendar – The Annunciation on 25 March. It celebrates the conception of Jesus exactly nine months before his birth on 25 December. It was when Mary in 672AD after being consecrated as bishop, deposed, and then reconsecrated again. The two bishops who consecrated him first time around were, it is said, ‘dubious’. Chad took his dismissal with good heart, and peacefully retired. But then Pope Theodore had second thoughts: Chad was of excellent character: humble, devout, and zealous. So, he reconsecrated him as the first bishop of the Mercians. Second time around, Chad was a great success – again. When Chad died, he was quickly venerated. People took a great fancy to his bones, believing that they would bring healing. Even today, four large, recycled bones, dating from the 7th century, and believed to be Chad’s, are in the Roman Catholic cathedral in Birmingham.
Another less well known saint from the same era is Rupert (27 March). He is the saint for those who like The Sound of Music -or salt with your food! Rupert was bishop of Worms and Salzburg, and he founded the great monastery of St Peter in Salzburg in the 8th century, firmly establishing Christianity there. True, it would be another 11 centuries before a certain young Julie Andrews wandered about singing of her Favourite Things and Something Good, but today Salzburg is the ‘Sound of Music City’! Not only did the real Trapp family once live there, the movie was filmed in and around it. Rupert helped the people by developing the local salt mines and his emblem is a barrel of salt.
Although not venerated as a ‘Saint’, the Church of England remembers on 8 March a WWI hero best known today as ‘Woodbine Willie’. He was the Rev Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy MC, a much-loved army chaplain who served on the Western Front in WWI. When the war broke out, he was vicar of St Paul’s Worcester and he volunteered to go to the Western Front as a chaplain. Life on the front line in the trenches was a desperate affair, but he hit on a way of bringing a few moments of relief to the stressed soldiers — as well as good cheer he handed out ‘Woodbines’, the most popular cheap cigarette of the time. He once described his chaplain’s ministry as taking ‘a box of fags in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart.’
March is the month to remember God’s extraordinary work in our world with simple ‘Favourite Things‘ such as daffodils, leeks, shamrocks, salt, music and even Woodbines – but not on 10th March which is No Smoking Day!
The Revd Canon Paul Hardingham considers the need to stay connected
‘You’re still on mute!’ If you’ve used Zoom over the past year, you’ll be familiar with this cry! After a day on Zoom, the last thing we often want to do is using it for a chat with friends or a church service on Sunday! Now this reveals a wider problem that we face. We know that staying connected in the pandemic is hard. When we’re tired and busy, it’s easy to stop connecting with others, which would encourage our faith or wellbeing. This might also include not sending a text, Facebook comment or phoning somebody up.
Remember what Paul says: ‘For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ (Romans 7:15). It’s often easier to avoid connecting with God and others, when this would be good for our sense of value, purpose and identity. Certain patterns of behaviour can make us feel safer, but in reality they prevent us from living our lives fully as God intends.
Paul adds: ‘What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Romans 7:24,25). Through the death and resurrection of Jesus we have the freedom to act differently. Lent is an ideal time to develop new habits, especially when we are tired or anxious. It may involve spending less time on Facebook, turning the TV off to call a friend who we need to catch up with, or getting up a bit earlier to spend time in Bible reading and prayer.
Let’s keep reminding ourselves that ‘God is bigger than Zoom’ and make sure that we don’t get disconnected! Let’s be committed to doing the right thing, rather than simply the easier thing.
I just had an email from a clergyman, saying, “Hi” and asking me to do him “a favor”. I replied to say yes, of course. I then began to wonder why he had not said what sort of favour it was, and why he was asking me.
I decided to telephone him and find why he had not explained. His wife answered and said: “Is it about the fake email?” I could tell from her tone of voice that I was not the first caller.
This was a scam of some sort and probably the favour was to send money. The same day someone else in the same parish had their accounts hacked. The email addresses used were correct, but if had looked carefully I would have noticed he would not spell “favour” like that and not say “hi”.
This all makes me quite cross, because these scammers are playing on church members’ kindness. A friend of mine also got the email and was upset that someone else was in trouble. We need to be aware of the risks and look out for messages of any kind which seem strange.
Criminals target churches and pretend to send emails from people in authority such as clergy, churchwardens or treasurers. They prey on our credulity and charity.
What should we do?
If you get a telephone call or email you and you are not sure if it is genuine, use another form of communication to check.
It is a crime, so report it to the authorities. If it is connected to a church, tell your diocese or governing body.
The scammers must have got these addresses from somewhere. How easy would it be to get a list of the names and addresses of your minister, leaders and treasurer?
Lastly, carry on being generous and kind. These scammers should not stop us.