The Open Doors World Watch List for 2021 was published this week, showing that one in eight Christians worldwide, or 340 million people, suffer very high levels of persecution and discrimination.

Biblically, most people see the beginning of persecution in the Book of Acts where, in chapter 8:1, we read: “That day a great persecution broke out against the church...” But it actually starts in Acts 6:11 when a group in the synagogue in Jerusalem spread a lie about a deacon called Stephen, alleging that he had “spoken blasphemy against the temple and the law”.

He had done nothing of the kind. All he had done was critique the belief that the temple was God’s only dwelling place and everyone who went to it was saved. Stephen became the first Christian martyr, and a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem as a result. 

In our time, it is no different. Christians all over the world are the victims of campaigns that are driven by lies. In many places these lies lead to severe persecution.

The big lies that drive the persecution of Christians today

In some parts of the Middle East, one of the lies which flourishes is: “Christianity is a foreign religion, a Trojan horse for pro-Israel, pro-American forces.” In countries such as Egypt, Christian leaders feel it is necessary to be extra forceful in their condemnation of Israel and the United States, because, as one Coptic Bishop put it: “Otherwise they will think we are anti-Muslim.”

In Iraq it is often said that Christians “just want to take the oil”. In Iran, people say Christians are “the tools of the Great Satan – the USA”. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, most Christians are killed for their faith each year due to a host of violent Islamic extremist movements such as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab. They motivate their mobs and killers with lies such as: “Christians have brought Covid to kill Muslims,” or “Christians just want to steal our land.” These lies kill. Of the 4,761 Christians killed for their faith in the world in the past year, 91 per cent came from this region, and that’s up 60 per cent from last year. 

In the Asian subcontinent, a very common lie is that “Christianity only grows through unethical or forced conversion and wants to take over our countries by stealth”.  This is the cry of the Hindu extremists in India and the Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka. But the fact is that it is Christianity’s growth among the poorest segments of the population that threatens the extremist agenda.

In India, for example, over 60 per cent of the Christian population has come from the so called “Dalit” community – the low caste and ‘untouchables’, who must do the dirty jobs in society that the high caste groups cannot do, lest the whole system collapses.

It is easier to claim these groups have been tempted away “unethically” than to admit that a rival religion empowers and cares for the poor better. Other lies are put about that “Christians want to get rid of all Hindus”. 

In those countries where the Marxist ideology still lingers, such as China and North Korea (the latter country is number one on the World Watch List for the twentieth year in a row), the lie is this: “Christianity is for weaklings who can’t face the world on its own terms, and who need crutches of illusion to get by.”

Also, in China the government says: “Christians represent a foreign religion that wants to interfere in China’s affairs.” This is nonsense. Christianity first came to China in 635AD, that’s a long time before another foreign idea – Marxism – arrived in the late 19th century. 

Even in the West, there is a lie that: “Christianity is intolerant, anti-scientific and best kept out of public life completely.” This view is most often perpetrated by a secularist elite whose concern is that Christianity entails sub-rational belief in absolute categories, resulting in an anti-liberal bigotry that is subversive of the essential nature of democracy. 

Lie detecting and why it's important

What lie is threatening to marginalise the church where you are? It is very important to name it, confront it, refute it, lest it burgeons into fully fledged persecution. 

The persecuted church can teach us two wonderful things about confronting lies. First, these lies are only told when enemies are threatened by Christian growth. As a Chinese pastor said: “When they lie about us, we take it as the ultimate compliment, that they have had to resort to these tactics to make life hard for us – we know they are scared of the church growing to number nearly 100 million.”

He added: “Make sure the world is telling lies about you...your life as a believer should appear a threat to them.” 

Second, God turns our enemies’ lies into our love for them. Stephen makes a strong speech, but he died under the stones of his killers with a vision of the glory of God and forgiveness on his tongue: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

We are coming up to the 22nd anniversary of the gruesome killing of an Australian Christian missionary in India, burned alive with his two young sons on the 22nd of January 1999 by a crazed mob.  All he had done was help people suffering from leprosy, but Hindu extremists spread the lie that he had forcibly made converts of Hindus. The Indian nation was convulsed, but his grieving widow, Gladys, went on national television and forgave his killers with these memorable words: “Let us burn hatred…and spread the flames of Christ’s love.”

As one Indian evangelist put it: “She did more to spread the Gospel in India with one phrase than most of us had managed in a hundred years.” 

Persecution – and the lies that drive it – is a forgotten dynamic of growth in the church today. Let’s listen to the persecuted and walk the path of conquerors! 

Rev Dr Ron Boyd-MacMillan is ?director of strategic research at Open Doors International 

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