Some see a progression in the way Christians are persecuted: It begins with disinformation – in the media when printed articles, radio and TV broadcasts malign the reputation of Christians, without a right to reply being offered. This moves on to discrimination – where Christians are given inferior legal, social, political and economic standing than the majority. The final stage is outright persecution by the State, police, mobs, paramilitary groups, and representatives of other religions.

We see a mixture of these within the persecuted church column in Christianity.

How widespread is it?

Figures vary, but Paul Marshall in his book on persecution, Their Blood Cries Out suggests that 200m are affected, with a further 400m suffering from discrimination and legal impediments. The Rev Johan Candelin, Director of the Religious Liberty Commission, World Evangelical Fellowship believes 200m in 60 nations are being denied their basic human rights because they are Christians.

Is it worldwide?

Christians everywhere face ‘persecution’ in minor ways. The apostle Paul warned Timothy that, ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…’(2 Tim 3:12). Jesus told his disciples that they would be persecuted just as he was (John15:20). But there is a big difference between a believer being marginalised at work, or denied promotion because of their faith and the sort of activity described above.

This aggressive persecution can be seen in every continent, but is most pronounced in countries with a militant religious faith, where Christianity is seen as a throwback to a colonial past; such as Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, or where the Christian faith is outlawed as in some Arab nations.

Is it always clear cut?

People are persecuted for ethnic, social and political reasons. It can be difficult to assess whether persecution is based on faith alone. The easiest way to determine this is to ask: if an individual changes their faith to the majority religion, will things improve? If the answer is ‘yes’, it is likely to be faith based.

Is persecution on the increase?

The oft quoted phrase is that there were more martyrs in the 20th century than all the other centuries combined may be hard to substantiate, but certainly there are no signs of the problem abating. There are various reasons for this, not least because of the growth of the church. Whereas in 1960, over 70% of all evangelicals lived in North America and Western Europe, where religious freedoms are generally enjoyed, in 1990 70% of all evangelicals lived in the third world under non-democratic regimes. As the church grows, and becomes vibrant, it is perceived as a threat, especially if the dominant religion is aggressively anti- Christian. Persecution is not of course confined to evangelical Christians, but their growth does help explain the trend. Furthermore, across Asia, in the Middle East and in parts of Africa, militant forms of Islam are seeking to spread their influence. Christians are one of many groups to suffer as a result.

What can Christians do?

The Bible encourages believers to stand up for truth and justice. God sent prophets to speak to his people and pagan nations on matters of injustice.

The apostle Paul demanded a hearing before the Roman Emperor when he faced persecution from Jews for preaching the gospel.

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights of 1949 Articles 18 and 19 says that ‘every person should have the freedom to adhere to and practice the religion he or she chooses, and to change religion without coming under pressure as a result’. So everyone has the right to keep his or her religion without being forced into another. If there is evidence of these articles being abused, we can bring the matter to the attention of the authorities concerned.

There are a number of organisations that specialise in promoting human rights and religious liberty, three of whom contribute to this column inChristianity:

Christian Solidarity Worldwide works for the religious liberty of persecuted Christians, those suffering repression and children in need.
Jubilee Campaign promotes the human rights and religious liberty of ethnic and religious minorities in countries which imprison, terrorise or oppress them.

Release International is an advocacy movement on behalf of the persecuted church, formerly known as Christian Mission to the Communist World which is part of the International Christian Association, a global alliance of fifty ministries working among the persecuted church
These organisations will often urge readers to write to their MP or the appropriate ambassador to register concern at the way human rights are being flouted. The material also helps us pray intelligently for those in particular need.