Having mentioned the recurring reminders that he will return to earth – false messiahs, wars, famines, earthquakes etc., “the beginning of birth-pains,” Jesus mentions extensive persecution as one of the later signs. Extensive persecution is an indication that the return of Christ is beginning to draw near. And there certainly is extensive persecution of Christians in the world today. Our first concern should be to pray for and support our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted. But we should also see it as a sign of the End Times.

 

2015 was widely seen as the worst year for persecution of Christians ever.[1]  Estimates vary between 100 million Christians facing persecution (Open Doors[2]) and 200 million (Christian Freedom International). They suffer torture, rape, imprisonment and death.

 

Open Doors reports that 7100 Christians were killed in 2015 (up 3000 from 2014), 4028 of them in Nigeria. These are conservative estimates and exclude North Korea, Syria and Iraq, where accurate records do not exist. 214 churches and similar Christian buildings are destroyed per month and 722 Christians (in addition to the above 7100 figure) suffer violent treatment every month.

 

At least 53 countries place restrictions on religion. Many are Muslim (35 countries) but extreme Hindus also persecute Christians. It is reported that one Pastor is beaten and one church burned every week in Hindu areas.[3] A “Religious Freedom Bill” is being introduced in India to “prohibit conversion from one religion to another by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means.” “Force” is defined as “including threat of divine displeasure.” This bill will outlaw basic Christian doctrines, such as salvation, heaven and hell.[4]

 

In India, the Hindutva movement within Hinduism argues that every Indian must belong to a religion which has originated in India. This view has become increasingly popular and is now a dominant force in Indian politics. Mob attacks on pastors and members of congregation, with attempts to force them to convert to Hinduism, have increased greatly, so much so that there was an average of one incidence of violence against India’s Christians for every day in 2015”[5]

 

Russia is now placing serious restrictions on Christians (and other religious groups). Religious activities can only take place on Christian property, not private homes (except private prayers) or secular land. Neighbours are obliged to report any breach of this law. Teaching about Christian beliefs can be carried out by clergy and directors of Christian organisations who have a state permit. Even private prayers in a home must not be said if a non-believer is present. Evangelism is banned even in church buildings. Encouraging an unbeliever to convert to Christ is illegal.

 

Pope Francis describes all the persecution as a third world war. Speaking about the Middle East, he said: “In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place.”[6]

 

Cardinal Nichols and the Bishop of Leeds said that Christians are the most persecuted people.[7]

 

The Roman Catholic organisation Aid to Church in Need said that Christians are fast disappearing from entire regions in Middle East and Africa.

 

In summer 2012 the International Society for Human Rights based in Frankfurt … estimated that 80% of all acts of religious discrimination were against Christians. In terms of outright persecution, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMEVE) resported that 75% was against Christians. But controversy surrounds reports that up to 150,000 Christians are being killed for their faith every year …

 

In France March 2014 Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Seko of Baghdada said: “Interventions [by the West] in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have not helped to solve the problems of their peoples. On the contrary, they have led to chaos and conflict that do not bode well for the future, especially for Christains…. 1400 years of Islam have not been able to take us away from our lands and our churches; now Western policy has scattered us to the four corners of the earth. More and more Christians are being victimized, and their exodus from the Middle East appears upstoppable.”[8]

 

Leaders of the European Parliament commented that the persecution of Christians around the world is not getting the attention it deserves. The President, Martin Schulz, said: Europe cannot afford to continue ignoring the fate of Christians, who are ‘ clearly the most persecuted group’ in the world.” The Vice President Antonio Tajani commented: “No religious community is as subject to hatred, violence and systematic aggression as the Christians. The West must break the silence on the persecution of Christians in the world and Europe must promote a model of society in opposition to religious radicalism and brutal and criminal projects, such as creating an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and then extending its tentacles into Libya.”[9]

 

We need to pray regularly for our persecuted brothers and sisters, and to support them where we can. We can also remember that Jesus spoke of greater persecution pointing to the drawing near of his return.

[1] Open Doors http://www.opendoorsuk.org/persecution/trends.php

[2] http://www.opendoorsuk.org/news/stories/world_watch_150108.php?ref=storylnk1

[3] http://www.opendoorsuk.org/news/press_releases/pr_160112_worldwatch.php

[4]http://www.christiantoday.com/article/india.plan.to.ban.religious.conversion.sparks.fears.of.heightened.attacks.on.christians/68638.htm

[5] Barnabas Aid Sep/Oct 2016

[6] http://tribune.com.pk/story/918279/third-world-war-pope-deplores-genocide-of-christians-in-middle-east/

[7] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/we-must-stop-shilly-shallying-about-the-fact-that-christians-are-most-persecuted-people-says-a6785211.html

[8] https://issuu.com/acnusa/docs/p___g_2015_executive_summary_webver

[9]http://www.christiantoday.com/article/european.parliament.leaders.call.for.end.to.western.silence.on.worldwide.persecution.of.christians/72573.htm

The number of deaths per year from terrorism has risen nine-fold since 2000, according to the Global Terrorism Index. In 2014 32,658 people were killed by terrorists – an 80% increase on 2013. Steve Killelea, chair of the Institute for Economics and Peace said recently: “Terrorism is gaining momentum at an unprecedented pace. The Paris incident in many ways is a watershed within Europe.”

However the horrific terrorist attack in Paris has profoundly changed the situation. Although the highest death toll from terrorism has been in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, Europe now feels very vulnerable. Shortly after the Paris atrocity Brussels (a European capital city) shut down for several days because of intelligence about an imminent attack.

It is also clear that terrorists are mixing with the huge number of genuine refugees entering Europe, which heightens the insecurity felt by Europeans. BuzzFeed, an American internet media company, claims that an ISIS operative told them that 4000 terrorists had been smuggled into Europe.

I am convinced that some of most serious dangers in the world are not caused by totally evil actions but by good actions going wrong. These actions will further trends towards various End Time scenarios. For example, it is clearly right and necessary for governments to protect their citizens from terrorism, including by tightening security and strengthening surveillance. But these actions can go wrong in the hands of failing human beings. They can lead towards a totalitarian state. I do not believe that such a thought is paranoid but rather a serious concern we should pray about.

No, I don’t believe the (ultimate) Antichrist predicted in the New Testament has been revealed. But I do believe that many Christians (and others) do live under antichrist rule today. In fact, around a quarter of the world’s population does.

John writes: “You have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come … whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ … is the antichrist – denying the Father and the Son … every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world … many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (1 John 2:18,22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7).

In the days when John wrote Rome, which persecuted Christians, would have been seen as an antichrist power. Others through history have been in the same tradition. And today there are many antichrists in the world including those who persecute Christians.

Persecution of Christians has greatly increased

A report presented in March 2015 to the United Nations in Geneva by the World Evangelical Fellowship, a global network of 160 million Evangelical Christians, estimated that over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith.

The Pew Research Center found that Christians face harassment and persecution in 102 countries – more than any other religion. Pope Francis commented: “In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place, and it must end.” John Pontifex, a leader in Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic campaign group monitoring persecution said: “The persecution of Christians is at a level we’ve not seen for many, many years and the main impact is the migration of Christian people. There are huge swaths of the world which are now experiencing a very sharp decline in the number of Christians.” For example, The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, has said that “if the war continues, as seems likely . . . all the Christians will leave Syria.”

Lisa Pearce, chief executive of Open Doors UK and Ireland said that in general, persecution of Christians is increasing, “and the rate of increase is accelerating.” She added that the nature of persecution has changed: “It used to mean several years in a forced labour camp. Now it means watching your loved ones being beheaded.”

The Pew Research Center concluded: “Restrictions on religion were high or very high in 39 percent of countries. Because some of these countries (like China and India) are very populous, about 5.5 billion people (77 percent of the world’s population) were living in countries with a high or very high overall level of restrictions on religion in 2013, up from 76 percent in 2012 and 68 percent as of 2007.”

The 10 countries who are the worst persecutors

The 10 most dangerous countries for Christians are
• Laos where the government is openly hostile to Christians.
• Uzbekistan where there are raids on churches.
• Iraq where attacks on Christians are growing.
• Yemen which practises Sharia law.
• Maldives where all citizens must be Muslims.
• Somalia which has no effective central government and Christians are in particular danger.
• Saudi Arabia which has no religious freedom. Public non-Muslim worship is banned and conversion to
Christianity is punishable by death.
• Afghanistan
• Iran
• North Korea where being a Christian is one of the worst crimes possible.

A 2014 Aid to the Church in Need report stated that conditions had deteriorated in 55 countries, and significantly so in six countries: Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria.

Lord Alton of Liverpool said we will see at least half of the 12 million Christians in the Middle East either gone or killed by 2020.

Persecution in China

Persecution of Christians is at an all-time high in China. One of the reasons is that there are 100 million Christians in China and only 87 million members of the Communist Party. In 1947 there were only 4 million Christians and under Mao tse Tung 500,000 Christians were martyred. Yet the Christian community has grown phenomenally. Since China has a one-child policy for families, this growth has almost all happened as a result of conversions. This seriously worries the Communist government. By 2030 China will have the largest number of Christians of any country in the world.

Persecution in Israel

Sadly, some Israeli extremists have also joined the ranks of persecutors. Benzi Gopstein leads an organisation called Lehava which means “[Organization for] Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land. Gopstein has called for the removal of churches from Israel. “We don’t have a place for churches here…. It’s Jewish law. This is what God told us.” He condemned “the state of Israel’s great sin of allowing idolatry – churches and monasteries abounding in the Land of Israel.” In June 2015 the historic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee was burnt. Sixteen religious Israeli Jewish students were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the arson.

Some Muslims also make life difficult for Christians in the West Bank and the Christian sector of the Old City of Jerusalem. Areas which previously had a majority of Christians now have a majority of Muslims and many Christians have emigrated, partly because of persecution.

We need to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. What they are experiencing is a foretaste of what is to come, as Jesus predicted.

Mark Spencer, Tory MP for Sherwood, said that teachers could express their opinion that they didn’t agree with gay marriage but they are not allowed to teach that it is a sin because that would be “hate-speech.” He says that Christians disagree with gay marriage are “perfectly entitled to express their views” but says that it could constitute “hate speech” in some contexts. This is a disturbing development which indicates that persecution of Christians will eventually come to the West.

Recently, the US gave visas to Sunni, Shia and Yazidi delegates to advocate for persecuted Muslims and Yazidis but refused a visa to the only Christian delegate Sister Diana, a leading Iraqi Christian. Yet she had been granted a visa in 2012.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, responded: “I hope that as it gets attention Secretary Kerry will reverse it. If he doesn’t, Congress has to investigate, and the person who made this decision ought to be fired.”

Eventually Sister Diana was given a visa.

In 2014 when the US Institute for Peace brought together the governors of Nigeria’s for a conference in the U.S., the State Department blocked the visa of the region’s only Christian governor, Jonah David Jang.

Yet, more Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East than ever and some people point out that the increase in persecution is not just because of ISIS but also as a result of the US-UK invasion of Iraq. This puts a solemn responsibility on the US (and the UK).

I am definitely not anti-Muslim but it is a cause of concern when Christians, whether in the US or the UK, seem to have to play second fiddle to Muslims. Persecuted Christians and Muslims should be treated equally, i.e. well.

The “Arab Spring”

The so-called Arab Spring was a remarkable series of events including the following:

December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire because the authorities had confiscated his produce. This was the culmination of many years of such maltreatment and it sparked protests in Tunisia and elsewhere, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Syria and Yemen.

January 2011 The Tunisian President fled to Saudi Arabia. A few days later protests in Egypt forced the Egyptian President to resign.

March 2011 Protests against President Assad began in Syria leading to a prolonged war with many atrocities.

October 2011 Lybian President Gaddafi was killed after a 9-month conflict.

February 2012 The President of Yemen resigned after protests.

June 2012 Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt.

July 2013 Millions of Egyptians demonstrated against Morsi forcing his resignation.

May 2014 Former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected President of Egypt

Many people saw all this as a positive revolution which would establish democracy in the Middle East. But it was not to be. Instead, there were many sinister developments. One early example happened in August 2013 when Muslims set fire to over 70 Christian churches in Egypt. Since then extreme Islamists have come to the fore, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lybia. The most prominent is, of course, the so-called Islamic State (Isis). The removal of dictators has opened the way to far more extreme leadership taking over. This had happened much earlier when the Shah of Persia (Iran) was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by hard-line Islamists. On June 29th 2014 Isis announced that it had re-established the Islamic Caliphate (global Islamic state) led by the Caliph Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. One Iraqi politician said that the Arab Spring had become an Islamic Spring.

International chaos in the Middle East

Isis seems to be aiming at weakening Arab states and their armies so that it will be able to gain more influence and make it easier to ‘liberate’ the Palestinians from Israeli control. Turkey, Iran and Israel are the only strong states in the Middle East.

Syria and Iraq

Syria and Iraq are, of course, deeply divided and largely ungovernable. They are well on the way to becoming failed states. Isis (which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is now in control of more than half of Syria and controls all the border crossings between Syria and Iraq. Their intermediate aim is a Middle East Islamic state which includes the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Syria is crucially important for Isis because they see it as the heart of the Islamic State on the border of Palestine. They see it as the road to Jerusalem. Isis is known to have some chemical weapons but there is fear that they will gain more from Syrian sources. Israel is afraid that Hezbollah, the Islamist group based in Lebanon, also could get hold of Syrian chemical weapons and smuggle them into Lebanon. Some experts are afraid that people could be exposed to biological weapons such as anthrax, plague, and cholera which could cause pandemics that are very difficult to control.

Iraq is divided between a Shia Muslim majority and a more traditional Sunni minority. But Isis (which is Sunni extremist) also holds large areas of the country and at times the Iraqi army has shown it is not up to withstanding it.

Egypt

Egypt initially accepted 300,000 Syrian refugees but since Morsi was deposed has turned against them. President Sisi is authoritarian and there have been unfair trials and an increasing number of executions. Morsi has been sentenced to death and the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed.

Militant Islamists have mounted attacks particularly in North Sinai. Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed. One terrorist group called Sinai Province has links with Isis.

Egypt receives financial support from the Saudis and the Emirates. It is regarded as supporting Israel against Hamas in Gaza which is seen as a terrorist group.

Iran

Iran is an oppressive regime which restricts human rights. It is strongly opposed by the Saudis and the Gulf States. It co-operates with Hezbollah in Lebanon to support President Assad of Syria. The US is, of course, seeking to ensure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. President Obama stated in April 2015 that Iran will accept “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear programme in history. If Iran cheats, the world will know it. This deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification.” However Israel is very suspicious of the agreement and believes Iran will not keep to it. Clearly the Saudis share this suspicion.

Jordan

Jordan has received 600,000 Syrian refugees. This, together with the surrounding chaos in Iraq and Syria is creating a serious crisis in Jordan and fears that the conflict could spill over into its territory.

Kuwait

Kuwait is an oppressive regime which curtails freedom of speech. David Cohen, Deputy Director of the CIA, once described Kuwait as the “epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria” However Kuwait is regarded as an important ally by the West.

Lebanon

Lebanon has suffered by being caught up in battles between countries such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia and it fears that the Syrian conflict could spill over into its territory. Fears are also raised by the strong connections between Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and is regarded by many as a terrorist group.

It is a country where citizenship is only available to members of one of 18 approved religious groups. Power is shared out between these groups and, especially in the context of a weak state, this leads to an acceptance of compromise.

Lebanon has one million Syrian refugees, the equivalent of one fifth of the Lebanese population. The presence of the pro-Assad Shia group Hezbollah in the country has caused violent reactions from the Sunni community

Libya

Since 2014 there has been civil war in Libya. Central government has collapsed and the numerous militias are out of control. The country is moving towards being a failed state. Libya is very dangerous and journalists tend not to go there. Isis has moved into territory which is not controlled by the state and set up training centres for extremists. It was from there that the recent massacre in Tunisia was mounted.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is dominated by Wahhabism, a very strict version of Sunni Islam. It is repressive and carries out severe punishments, including many beheadings. No political parties are allowed. The Saudis, assisted by Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates have funded Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq. However Saudi Arabia has 25% of the world’s oil supplies so western governments want to maintain good relationships with the country despite its bad human rights record. Hence Saudi Arabia has recently hosted a conference on Human Rights run by the UN Human Rights Council. The country is also the British arms industry’s largest customer.

Although the Saudis have funded Islamic fundamentalists around the region, it has now rebounded on them as extremist groups are threatening the Saudi leadership. They are also very threatened by the extensive influence of Iran in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. They have made it clear that if the US is not successful in preventing Iran developing nuclear weapons they will acquire them too. It is thought that the Saudis funded 60% of the development of the Pakistan nuclear weapons on the basis that they would be allowed to obtain some of those weapons if necessary. Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal has said: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”

Tunisia

Many Tunisians have joined Isis to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey

Anxieties in Turkey about growing Islamisation and the authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister led to riots and in 2015 Erdogan did not do too well in the election.

Turkey is very concerned to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state by both Syrian and Turkish Kurds. They are sending troops to fight against the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish Kurds live in SE Turkey.

Turkey has accepted 1.8 million Syrian refugees.

Yemen

There has been an undeclared civil war in Yemen for some time. Iranian-backed rebels gained control of government institutions. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is close, not least because about half the Saudi army is of Kuwaiti origin. The Saudis are afraid of the Iranian influence in Yemen and they are also afraid that Kuwait will become a failed state controlled by terrorists. So in 2015 a Sunni Muslim coalition of nine Arab countries plus Pakistan invaded Kuwait.

Summary

Much of the conflict in the Middle East is between the more traditional Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. They are at war with each other in Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. Isis is an extreme form of Sunni Islam.

Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are torn by war. They are becoming failed states. Egypt is facing serious division. Saudi Arabia is an oppressive, anti-Christian regime. Jordan and Lebanon feel threatened and Turkey intends to prevent the Kurds establishing a state by violence if necessary.

In March 2015 a joint Arab military force was set up to face the unstable situation in the Middle East. The 22 states involved in the Arab League are to combine forces.

Many refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Other refugees are crossing the Mediterranean to find safety in Europe – causing problems within the EU.

The effects on Christians

One thing that complicates the position of Christians in Muslim countries is military action by western nations which are seen as Christian nations. Consequently, Muslim countries persecute Christians. The Arab Spring and the growth of Isis has led to much greater oppression of Christians in the Middle East.

In Egypt, where there is a long-established Christian community, the removal of President Morsi in 2013 led to the worst persecution of Christians in 1400 years. It was against Coptic Christians and 65 churches, Christian bookshops, schools and convents were burned down, looted or destroyed. There has been some similar persecution since then.

In recent years in Syria over 450,000 Christians have fled and hundreds of thousands are in hiding. Christians and Christian leaders have been abducted, ransomed or executed.

Since the 2003 Gulf War over a million Christians have fled from Iraq. In 2014 when Isis captured Mosul and much of the traditional Christian area around Nineveh 200,000 Christians fled to Kurdistan.

The chaos in Libya has meant that persecution has increased, with Christians being afraid to meet together. The only religious gatherings allowed are Islamic. Isis has executed Christians.

Saudi Arabia officially bans churches and Christian meetings, even amongst ex-pats. Sometimes the authorities take oppressive action to enforce this ban against Christians meeting in homes. Bibles are prohibited. Converts from Islam to Christianity face the death penalty. Nevertheless for economic and political reasons the Saudis are treated as respected allies by western countries.

The Israeli perspective

I write as a friend of Israel but I am a genuine friend who, unlike some Zionist Christians, faces up to her failings as well as defending her when appropriate. She is not treating the Palestinians justly and currently she is becoming increasingly isolated in the world through the unwise leadership of her present government.

However, some of the criticism of Israel is unjust and there is some which is based on thinly veiled anti-Semitism. In fact, some Christians have decided that Israel is in the wrong and don’t wished to be confused by the facts. There is a growing movement to boycott Israeli goods but, as Israel points out, there is no such boycott of other countries deemed to be guilty of injustice – Saudi Arabia, for example. It is essential that we seek to look at the world through Israeli eyes, as well as through Palestinian eyes.

Israel is still affected by centuries of persecution and the trauma of the Holocaust. She also knows that a large number of people dispute her legitimacy and would like to see her destroyed. Against that background she looks at the chaos in the Middle East around her – the extreme Islamism, the wars, the advance of Isis (which is now speaking of taking over from Hamas and ‘liberating’ Palestine), the threat of Iran, which wants Israel destroyed, gaining nuclear weapons after all (which is perceived as possible by the Israelis and others) and the danger the Saudis would follow suit. Yes, Israel should provide justice for the Palestinians but she also needs to protect herself. After all, Isis is getting too close for comfort.

It is all very well for the Christian armchair critics in the West to be calling for justice for the Palestinians. But they must also take the fears of the Israelis seriously. Yes, of course, sometimes politicians over-emphasise threats for political reasons but the fact is that Israel is seriously threatened – and things will get worse.

We need to pray for the countries of the Middle East, for Israel and for Christians in that region facing grave difficulties, persecution and violent death. We should also recognise that the growing persecution of Christians and the increasing threats to Israel are in harmony with the New Testament’s teaching on the End Times.

A US group led by a church minister is fighting against religious freedom laws which protect religious people and organisations from being forced to accept homosexual marriage. If we think present protection in law for Christians who follow the Bible’s teaching on such matters will last long-term we should take careful note. It won’t. Pray against this trend. See http://christiannews.net/2015/07/08/group-launches-national-effort-to-abolish-religious-freedom-laws-protecting-people-of-faith/