Religious freedom and persecution are challenges starting to face believers in the West, but it has been a reality for Christians globally for a long time. In many parts of the world it is getting worse. What should the church know about, and how should we respond, to the crisis of religious freedom?
To help answer these questions Biola Magazine spoke with David Curry of Open Doors USA, an international Christian ministry that supports and strengthens persecuted Christians around the world. Open Doors serves in every country in the world where Christians are persecuted, equipping believers with Bibles and educational materials as well as helping meet basic needs. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
David, we’re seeing a lot in the news these days about ISIS and religious persecution in the Middle East. What is happening now in Iraq and Syria? What are the needs of the Christians there?
What Iraqi and Syrian Christians are facing with the terrorist group ISIS is one of the most dramatic examples of Christian persecution today, though it’s by no means the only situation. There are a number of factors there. In the north of Iraq for some time they’ve had a lot of incidents of persecution for Christians. There was at one point at the end of the Iraq war about a million Christians in Iraq. Before this crisis there were about 300,000 and now we believe there are about half that, maybe less, in Iraq as a whole. We’ve seen a mass exodus of Christians over the last 10 years and it has to do with the constant pressure from Sunni extremists in that region. ISIS is the ultimate manifestation of that. So we have all these refugee Christians being forced out of their homes and their businesses, and they are not peasants; they are lawyers and doctors and the whole swath of a civilization. They are being forced out under the threat of death. Many have been killed for their faith in Syria and Iraq.
I recently heard about one story of a Syrian family where the parents decided that, with all that was going on in their country, they needed to sit down and explain to their children: If anybody ever knocked on the door wearing shrouds and carrying swords, you need to say to them that “Jesus is Lord” and that “you forgive them.” The parents said to the children, “It’s gonna hurt for a while, but then we’re gonna meet each other in heaven.” The unfortunate part of that story is it happened. We heard that story recently in Syria because a family member who was there and had seen what happened. ISIS came, knocked on the door, the family said what they needed to say, and they were all four beheaded. So, that’s a very human, dramatic example of people who are standing for their faith in Syria and Iraq against ISIS. That’s what’s happening, but now you have tens of thousands of these people who have fled north into the Kurdistan region of Iraq. We at Open Doors are working there, supporting them with food, water, housing, bedding, trauma counseling and everything in between right now. But we’ve been in that region for a long time. So it’s not just for this crisis.
What tangible, practical things can Western Christians do to help with this crisis?
I think one thing is we need to love and reach out to Middle Eastern believers here in the United States. Loving and supporting expatriate Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians, Saudis, should be our first step. We need to love them, encourage them, share Jesus with them, invite them into our homes for dinner, and befriend them. I think we need to start looking at them as people who are created in the image of God. We need to love them with the love of Jesus. And then I think we need to be praying for persecuted believers in these regions and supporting them. At Open Doors we have refugee packets that we’re sending to these hundreds of thousands of refugees with food, water, cooking utensils. For $50 somebody can help provide a meal for a Christian for a week. So we’re doing what we can, but I think we need the support of believers everywhere to just reach out their hands and love these people whenever they have contact with them.
A columnist in Washington Post wrote an article this fall with the dramatic headline: “Christianity in Iraq is finished.” What would you say to that? Is there a future for Christianity in Iraq?
There is a future for Christianity, for the move of Jesus, in Iraq; of course there’s a future for it. … Certainly the threat of Christianity’s extinction in the Middle East region is very real. It’s not just Iraq. It’s all over the Middle East. One hundred years ago 20 percent or more of the population in the Middle East was Christian. It’s the birthplace of Christianity. And now it’s less than 4 percent. So, there is a problem there, and it’s not just extremists. It’s also the fact that Western Christianity has largely abandoned charitable outreach there. Now, that sounds funny to say when people are now roused to help refugees, but if you look at the number of dollars that were spent on missionary efforts in the Middle East, it’s a fraction of what we’re doing elsewhere. And it’s because we’ve thought of Middle Eastern people as enemies, as combatants, but we’ve not thought of them as people that are loved by God. But the reality is people are coming to know Jesus through this, though people are also leaving Iraq. So we need Christians to stay in the Middle East to grow the church.
The statistic you mentioned about the decrease of Christians in the Middle East from 20 percent a century ago to 4 percent now is pretty striking. What is happening in that region, or just in the world, that is contributing to a decreasing Christian presence?
There are a number of things going on. The spread of radical Islam has led to more incidents of pressure and violence against Christians. Even before ISIS, you had pressures on Christians and bombings of churches and issues in places like Iraq and Pakistan and Nigeria. In Saudia Arabia it’s illegal to be a believer; it’s illegal to convert. And then you have the cultural aspects of Islam where, within the region, there are families putting pressure on people not to convert, for the family’s honor. So there’s family pressure, there’s religious extremism, there’s political systems like governments that withhold the freedom to read a Bible. All of those factors exist in the Middle East. Even if you have some freedom, if you get ahold of a Bible perhaps, your family may disown you. They also might kill you.
Beyond the Middle East, what are some hot spots where persecution and religious freedom is an issue?
North Korea is certainly the most extreme. There are 70,000 believers there that are in labor camps for their faith — 70,000. It’s on a scale unlike anywhere else, and you have extreme government control, extreme poverty, and Christians are in the worst of the worst place as far as the political categorization of the government. The government sees Christians as enemies of the state because the government has set up a system of leader worship with a blend of communist totalitarianism that is unique in the world right now.
When we look at these extreme examples of Christian persecution globally, it’s hard to even mention it in the same breath as the small religious freedom challenges we’re facing in the States. But do you see commonalities? Can we talk about them in the same breath or is that offensive?
It’s important to know that one of the drivers of persecution is what I would call aggressive secularism. It’s something that we have to be mindful of in the States although we can’t make a direct analogy to what is happening around the world. It can, however, give us a sensitivity to what people are going through. And I think it gives us a view into where we’re headed because right now persecution is episodic in the West and it’s not episodic in the Middle East and in North Korea. It’s constant. I think we have to understand that persecution of Christians will be the issue in the next generation and beyond. It’s going to grow. It’s not going to be episodic. The question is whether or not we’ll rise to the challenge and whether we will support our brothers and sisters, pray for them, encourage them and allow their story to affect our spiritual life. We need to learn the lessons of the North Korean Christians and the Iraqi Christians because it may one day be us.
The idea of pluralism is often put forward as the ideal that should in theory allow religions to peacefully coexist. But isn’t the challenge that most religions feel called to transform the society around them rather than just kind of keeping themselves in private worship? Should there be limits to religious freedom in a pluralistic society? When religious freedom leads militant Islamic groups to establish a caliphate, that crosses some sort of line, right?
Well, let me put it this way: What Open Doors is advocating is that people have the freedom to study the words of Jesus and choose for themselves whether or not they want to convert and become a follower of Jesus. That basic principle is a good starting point for any civil society. When people have the freedom to choose what they study or what they believe and don’t impose the belief upon others, you can have a healthy society because the reality of Christianity is a conversion of the heart cannot be forced upon people. There are other religions that can force a conversion because they are not looking for transformation of the heart. But Christianity is not; that’s not what the teaching of Jesus is about. When we’ve strayed from that, when Christianity and the Crusades thought that they could impose a formal religion on people … that is when we’ve strayed from the words of Jesus. What I encourage believers to do is to live their faith in a loving and pure way as described by the words of Jesus, defending others’ freedom to study the words of Jesus and hopefully decide for themselves what they think. When Christianity is available in the marketplace of ideas, it does well. It does well because it’s truth. We don’t have anything to fear from openness. But obviously other religions do.