Prayer meetings do not often get much of a mention.
However, Easterhouse Baptist Church in Glasgow is drawing its members to pray at 7pm tomorrow. Release, an agency of 45 years' standing, is calling a national day of prayer for persecuted Christians. The Baptist World Alliance estimates there are 171,000 Christian martyrs every year.
Persecution has long been evident in communist countries where religious believers are rated as enemies of the state. In North Korea, an estimated 200,000 Christians are believed to be in forced-labour camps. China, more capitalist than communist, allows state-registered churches, but Christians who meet in groups in homes are liable to harsh imprisonment. The rapid growth of persecution has been in countries with large Muslim populations. In Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram is an Islamic terrorist group that regards Christians as supporters of the West. It has slaughtered an estimated 1700 since 2010. In June, it burned 29 students to death.
Last year, Dr Tony Sargent of Glasgow, who serves destitute children and elderly people in Asia and Africa, led a conference outside Iran, attended by 10 Iranian pastors. On return, they were imprisoned. They are not unusual. Recently, a Muslim who converted to Christianity was sentenced to 10 years for being part of "an anti-security organisation."
In September, All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, two suicide bombers left 80 Christians dead and more wounded. One witness, Imran Gill, a Pakistani graduate of the International Christian College in Glasgow, said: "We are visiting the hospital every day. There are some who need serious surgery as they had nuts and bolts in their bodies that suicide bombers use to cause damage. A girl is paralysed because something has entered her body and broken the spine."
Iraq has a long-standing Christian population. Since the invasion by Britain and the United States, it has been targeted on grounds that Christians are traitors. The number of Christians has falled from 700,000 to 50,000. In Baghdad, the remarkable Andrew White is the long-time vicar of St George's Church. Many of his congregation, including children, have been killed. Yet the church grows and has 1800 members. Despite attempts on his life, Canon White has friendships with many Muslims and insists most are opposed to the attacks on Christians. However, he acknowledges that al Qaeda is a worldwide threat. I have an Iraqi friend who was an interpreter for the British Army. When the troops withdrew, some of his colleagues were assassinated. He managed to secure asylum in Britain. Yet he, too, is sure most of his countryfolk want peace. He adds it not just Christians, but followers of other faiths who are persecuted.
What can be done to help? First, support for agencies such as Release. It provides financial aid for mainly poor families driven from their villages and trauma workshops for those whose spouses and children have been hacked to death.
Secondly, we can offer friendship for those who flee to Britain. In the face of a Westminster Government that whips up feeling against immigrants, they soon feel rejected and unwanted. We could help them obtain specialist advice when applying for asylum.
Thirdly, the support of MPs can be sought. An outstanding lead has been set by the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, who has long been concerned about political and religious repression in Burma. He delivered a superb speech at Rangoon University in August in which he congratulated the democratic progress being made. He declared: "In this multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation, home to Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Animists, respect for religious diversity and freedom is essential." Pointing to the Buddhist principles of loving kindness and compassion, he added, "All the great religions have similar teachings to these. These are the teachings that unite us, people of different races and religions, for they are the teachings of humanity and they are fundamental to democracy."
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