The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer: Wikipedia)
Reportedly, as many as 100,000 Christians a year have been killed for their faith in the last couple of decades.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, outgoing president of the U.S. Catholic bishops, in 2013 referred to the beginning of the 21st century as “a new age of martyrs.“
Others dispute the use of the term ‘martyrs’ for those killed and maintain that their Christian faith was only one of the reasons for their deaths. Nevertheless there has never been a time since the first and second centuries where more Christians have been killed at least partially if not substantially because of their faith.
It is happening in so many different countries that the immensity of it all is somewhat distorted and most Christians in the West aren’t really aware of how huge this really is. Plus it is really difficult to keep up with it all.
In some ways it is like what happened in the 1940’s when journalists for many different reasons failed to report upon the very real holocaust that was killing thousands of Jews everyday.
Many believed that it was too terrible to be true and that a ‘civilized’ Western country like Germany could never be involved in such a monstrous enterprise. Others considered it to be mere war propaganda or excited exaggeration. Besides no one really had access to the death camps until the war was substantially over. Then the truth turned out to be far worse than anyone had ever imagined. Millions of Jews and many others slaughtered- men, women, and children.
Today we are in the midst of a ‘war’ on Christians all around the world mostly being perpetrated by radical Muslims and mostly ignored. Documented estimates put the number at around a hundred thousand killed a year. Nothing like the holocaust in Europe of the 40’s but maybe closer to the persecution and genocide of the Christian Armenians in Turkey during WWI.
What is really lacking is a context to make sense of it all. The media is covering all of these events and you can find references to each and every one on the Internet. But each story is presented as standing alone in the midst of some greater political or cultural context that minimalizes the religious motivations and connection.
Since so many in the Western media are secular folks in which religion is only a minor part of their everyday lives and experience, it is really hard for them to even consider that religion could be a major motivator behind many events around the world. As it is most reporters project their own secular views and perspectives into their understanding and analysis of news.
Intellectually they realize that religion is important to the folks they are covering but look for any other possible explanation to frame the news in. So many of the instances where Christians are persecuted or killed are explained away as unique events brought on by on-going political battles, civil war, or racial/cultural strife.
I believe that there are two major contexts that help to make sense of why more Christians are being killed now than anytime in last 1,000 years or so. Number one- the rise of radical Islam and number two- a world-wide Christian revival and harvest.
First Context: The Rise of Radical Islam
One of the major factors contributing to the increase in the persecution of Christians is the rise of radical Islam. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI the last Caliphate was dissolved and the Muslim lands in North East Africa and the Middle East were divided up with new countries and borders defined by the winners- England, France, Russia, and the USA. It was the beginning of Western domination over the Muslim Middle East.
The Rise of Radical Sunni Islam
Radical Muslim groups rose up in the 20th century to combat the power and influence of the West on Muslim culture and rule. First came the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 which had a membership of over 2 million by the end of WWII. Their stated purpose was to re-establish the Quran and sharia law as the basis for Muslim culture, law, and rule. It began as a reaction to British rule over Egypt and Sudan but spread and expanded all across the whole Middle East and North Africa as a reaction to the inroads that Western culture had made in Muslim lands.
The Saudi Arabian Kingdom took a different tact as the protectors of the Muslim holy cities by maintaining sharia law for their citizens, totally controlling the media in their nation, and by containing Western workers and visitors in special conclaves to lessen the foreign influence. The Saudi’s were fortunate enough to be on the ‘winning’ side during the two world wars plus the ‘Cold War’ and continued to control vast oil fields that were needed by the West. So they were primarily left alone to rule their nation as they saw fit and have even received military protection from the West when needed.
While many of the rich Saudi princes jetted all around the world enjoying everything that money could buy in the West, they supported the radical ultra-conservative Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam within their own country and paid for and built Wahhabi madrassas all around the world. Schools that educated and trained an entire generation of radical Muslims particularly in the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan. One simply cannot discount the role of Saudi supported Wahhabi madrassas in the rise of radical Islam in the world today.
Saudi Arabia has long been considered allies of the West and particularly the USA but in reality it is a ultra-conservative Muslim country that has been the breeding ground for radical groups like al Qaeda and continues to be one of the worst countries when it comes to freedom of religion and the treatment of religious minorities.
In final analysis, while Saudi Arabia makes a show of supporting the West internationally and economically. Meanwhile, it has actually funded the rise of radical Sunni Islam all around the world by building Wahhabi mosques and schools in over a hundred countries (including the USA) and has provided funding to radical Sunni groups like PLO- Fatah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is the Sunni radical groups that are currently persecuting and killing Christians in Egypt, Syria, and the most radical of all- the Boko Haram in Nigeria. The Muslims and Christians had lived together peacefully for over a thousand years but all of that has changed with the rise of radical Islam.
The Rise of Radical Shia Islam
1979 brought on a revolution that saw the pro-Western government of the Shah of Iran replaced with an anti-Western theocracy under the leadership of the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Immediately the new Islamic Republic of Iran became an international pariah when the USA embassy was over-run and 52 American diplomats were held hostage for over a year. Like the Saudis, the Iranian Shiites began spreading their own brand of radical Islam. Soon they were involved in the civil war in Lebanon and sponsored radical groups like Hezbollah to counter the Israelis.
Today Iran not only sponsors terror groups all around the world, they are particularly active in supporting radical Shiite groups in Iraq and have provided troops and weapons to back Assad’s Syrian regime in their civil war. More importantly they have spent billions preparing radical Hezbollah linked communities in Southern Lebanon for war against Israel.
Even more problematic, Iran is now on the brink of becoming a nuclear power. While claiming it is all for peaceful electric power they actually have thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium far beyond what is needed for strictly peaceful uses. Meanwhile the new Iranian strategy is to pretend to be going through a more moderate phase pretending to uphold a treaty completed during the Obama Administration. Thereby decreasing the American support for any possible Israeli preemptive strike against the Iranian nuclear program while they push it across the finish line.
Some in the West do not see the prospect of Iran gaining nuclear weapons as a real problem that could affect international peace. After all, Pakistan and Israel already are nuclear so Iran could be seen as merely balancing out the Israeli nuclear force.
On the other hand the Iranian leaders continue to verbalize their plans, to their radical Islamist friends, to annihilate the State of Israel. Which if believed, would seem to indicate what they would do with nuclear weapons if they ever got them. Since it doesn’t make sense to most of the media, they disregard the statements.
What many in the west do not understand or clearly fathom is the importance of the current Shiite eschatological teaching and understanding of the ‘Hidden Imam’ and how that plays into actions in the Middle East and on the International stage. It is the eschatological passages of the Quran that have given vision and purpose to the rise of radical Shia and Sunni Islam. It has also given a major context for the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians.
The Rise of Radical Islamic Eschatology
With the rise of Iran in 1979, Islamic eschatology once more became a driving force in the Middle East. The Iranian religious leaders immediately began telling their people and all Shiites that the Iranian revolution was a sign that the culmination of history was about to take place. Soon the ‘Hidden’ Shia ‘12th Imam’ would appear and the yoke and influence of the Western nations would be expelled from Muslim lands forever. A new Caliphate was on the horizon, and eventually Islam would dominate the whole world and all other religions and competing philosophies would be eliminated.
In the scheme of this modern Shiite eschatological teaching, the USA –the great Satan and the Little Satan- Israel were the major opponents standing in the way that must be defeated. Then the ‘Hidden Shia Imam’ would take his place as the leader of a new Islamic Caliphate which would eventually dominate and conquer the world both politically and religiously.
The ‘Hidden 12th Imam’ would become or prepare the way the promised messianic ‘Mahdi’ of the Quran and rule the world along with prophet Isa (the Muslim name for Jesus) who would return and demand that all join Islam or suffer death. Jews and Christians would be Isa’s major initial targets.
A similar eschatology provided the theological foundation for the rise of radical Sunni Islam (sans the teaching about the 12th Imam which is a Shia wrinkle).
From the Sunni perspective, represented by major Sunni imams and teachers in the Muslim Brotherhood, it begins with the expulsion of Western rule and culture from Muslim lands. A secondary goal is the eradication of the Jewish state of Israel with Jerusalem once again solely under Muslim rule. Then the establishment of a new Islamic Caliphate. Culminating in the rise of a new Muslim ruler -the promised ‘Mahdi’ who would conquer and rule the whole world with the prophet Isa (Jesus) at his side who would demand the sole worship of Allah with Islam as the world’s only legal religion.
Westerners do not understand the power of these ‘end-time’ Quranic teachings. While only roughly 10% of the Muslims support the rise of radical Islam nearly all of the Muslim population around the world have been infected and enlivened with a new hope in and though the rise of Islamic eschatological teaching in the last 30 years. Most Muslims now expect and look forward to the rise of Islamic influence, the eclipse Western power, along with the establishment of a new Caliphate and eventually world domination. They only disagree upon the tactics.
That was what the ‘Arab Spring’ was really all about. The Western press got it entirely wrong. It was really all about replacing Western supporting despotic leaders with more radical Islamic leaders and regimes who would ‘purify’ the Muslim lands and rule according to Sharia law overthrowing the influence of the West both culturally and politically. It is no surprise that it started in Tunisia, the most moderate Muslim country where Muslim women were required to dress in Western garb rather than Muslim hijabs and burkas until the Arab Spring revolution.
This new emphasis upon eschatological teaching in Islam has affected how Muslims now view other religions. The Islamic radicals are now pushing to eliminated all other religions in Muslim lands. For example, in Afghanistan the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues of Bamiwam and outlawed Christianity bringing an end to the last church in that country.
This is the context that has led to the persecution of Christians living in the Middle East who had been there living with their Muslim neighbors in peace for over a thousand years. But now the Muslim lands must be ‘purified’ according to this new eschatological emphasis. Christianity is associated with the West and the oppressors and the Western culture that must be eradicated along with all other religions. So began the open season on Christians. Much of the time it is literally encouraged by the teaching of local imams.
So the current eschatological teaching in Islam has become the foundation on which Christians in Muslim dominated lands have been targeted for persecution and even death. Some are even now questioning whether there will even be any Christians left in the Middle East in 10 more years or so after being there for nearly 2,000.
Over 500,000 Iraqi Christians fled that country after the fall of Saddam Hussein when radical Islamic gangs went house to house in Christian neighborhoods forcing them to convert or leave. Now the same thing is happening in Syria and in some parts of Egypt. The worst example of what we are talking about is happening in Nigeria with the Boko Haram (name: “Western education is sinful”) who continue to attack Christian villages, schools, and churches killing thousands every year.
So hundreds of thousands of Christians, in the first ten years of the 21st Century, living in Muslim lands have faced the choice of death, conversion, or leaving behind lands, businesses, and homes that have been in their families for over a thousand years and in many cases even predated the founding of Islam.
However, not all killing of Christians for their faith has happened at the hands of radical Muslims. There is another context which has brought on the deaths of Christians in China, North Korea, India, South America, and other places around the world -a world-wide Christian revival and harvest.
Second Context: World-Wide Christian Revival and Harvest
The ‘Great Commission’ of Jesus to Christians of every generation:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
–Matt 28:19-20 (NIV)
For those of us living in America and in the West it is really hard to understand and even begin to gauge the immensity of the current world-wide Christian revival since in our experience Christianity is in decline and secularism is on the rise in our own cultures.
Nevertheless, more people have been converted to Christianity in the last 30 years than in all of the previous centuries combined. One gauge of the current expansion of Christianity is the fact that the Christian Bible is now on an average being translated into 75 new languages every year. It is estimated that by 2025 at least the New Testament will be available in every language on earth and for even every remote tribe and people group in the world.
Fact is, there are more Christians living today (est. 2.3 billion) than in all of the previous centuries combined up to the 20th and in more nations than ever before. With this exponential growth has also naturally come some of the exponential opposition and persecution that the Christian community is now experiencing.
Africa is one of the areas where Christianity is presently increasing at an exponential rate. Islam was once the largest religion represented in the continent but no more. In an 2007 interview on Al-Jazeerah, Sheikh Ahmad Al Katani, a leading authority on Islamic law in North Africa complained that 6 million Muslim per year in Africa were converting to Christianity.
The Boko Haram in Nigeria is an example where both of the major contexts are in play leading to the deaths of thousands of Christians per year. On one hand this a radical Islamic group that rejects Western culture in every way (Their very name means- “Western education is sinful”) but they have chosen to demonstrate their ‘faithfulness’ by attacking Christian villages, churches and schools. Especially those which have expanded into the Muslim dominated north in that country converting Muslims.
Another area that is experiencing exponential Christian growth is China. When the communists took over in 1949 there were less than 900,000 Christians in that populous country then they expelled all of the Christian ministers and missionaries and shut down all of the churches. By the time of the ‘cultural revolution’ Mrs. Mao Zedong bragged that Christianity had been totally eliminated in that country. But today there are over 100 million Christians in that country and at the present rate of growth China will become a Christian majority country in two generations or less. It has been called the greatest revival of all time. Meanwhile the Chinese government continues to imprison Christian leaders and has killed thousands over the years. Even the ‘official’ church that the government does tolerate and control has grown to include more than 15 million members since Christianity was supposedly eliminated.
India is another case in point. Missionaries were sent there for hundreds of years with little effect until revival started 10 years ago and since then millions have been converted. One group in India that I am personally connected with has grown from a mere handful to over 300,000 members with thousands of churches planted during that time.
The State of Orissa is one area of India where 1000’s were converted to Christianity in a short period of time. Most from the poorest and lowest rung of society- the ‘Untouchables’ who were expected to do most of the hard work for the other higher castes. It is also an example of how a reaction to that revival led to a major persecution where 50,000 Christians lost their homes in a riot that resulted in over 100 killed, 4,640 houses burned, 252 churches and 13 Christian schools destroyed. The Christian missionary groups had established schools that educated the Dalits for the first time in that area which resulted in major societal changes. Riots and persecution of Christians were the resulting reactions to the revival that brought those unwanted changes.
Korea is another example of what we are talking about. There was actually a revival going on in the north when the communists took over and shut down the churches like they did in China but North Korea is even more oppressive. Later revival came to the South and now the Christian population in South Korea is approaching 50%. Meanwhile, Christianity has been outlawed in the North but there are reports that the Christian community keeps on growing in spite of all of the persecution, imprisonment, and killing of those even caught with a Bible. In fact, missionaries from the South walk into North Korea through China but few ever return to tell of what they experienced. Most are martyred for their faith.
The radical Islamic Republic of Pakistan is another example where both contexts are in play. The Taliban and radical Islam is on the rise in that country but thousands of Muslims are being converted to Christianity every year in the midst of it all.
Here’s an article about one such move going on in Azam Basti, a suburb of Karachi: “Pakistan’s Pentecost”
The Christian community has been allowed to build a number of large churches in the area. Most started out as small house churches that expanded through conversions to number in the thousands even in the midst of all of the adversity and persecution. According to the article, even a number of imams have come to Christ sacrificing everything. Even more astounding, a Marilyn Hickey healing crusade drew more than 200,000 people on one night in Karachi.
I could go on talking about the revival which is taking place in dozens of different countries all around the world. But the most poignant example is in one of the most oppressive Muslim regimes on earth- Iran.
A full blown revival is going on in that country and government officials are trying everything they can to stop it. Authorities continue to arrest pastors and persecute Christians to no avail. Recently the government issued a decree forbidding churches from meeting on Fridays. Friday is the traditional ‘day off’ and the time to worship in the Iranian culture and most of the Middle East for that matter. This decree is only going to affect the ‘official’ churches however since most Iranian Christians meet in illegal house churches in secret.
The Iranian revival continues to expand. Some put number of Christians in that country now at over a million other estimate that as many as 2 million are now Christians. There is no way to get an accurate account since it is all underground.
Revival and Opposition
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. –Eph 6:12 (NKJV)
First of all exactly what is ‘revival’?
Revival is an environment where God is providing exceptional supernatural activity that results in thousands of new converts and an exponential expansion of Christianity.
Now here’s where I will lose most of my secular readers and even many Western Christians. The reason why this is a “a new age of martyrs” is because what is happening around the world (except in the West) is very similar to what happened during the.first age of Christian martyrs in the first three centuries when Christianity grew from being an obscure sect of Judaism into a world religion and spread across three or four continents.
Where revival is in full swing today the accounts are very similar to what is recorded in the NT Book of Acts. The exponential expansion is taking place through ‘supernatural’ activity that cannot be explained in any secular way nor can it be controlled or stopped by the opposition—signs and wonders, healings and miracles, and all sorts of supernatural events.
I will give a few example of what I am talking about even though many of you will probably not believe it. The revival in Iran is a case in point. It is not taking place in the usual way through churches and missionaries.
First of all Christian missionaries are not allowed in the country and converting Muslims to Christianity is a capitol offence. Nevertheless at least hundreds of thousands have been converted but not through the efforts of any Christian preachers but through dreams, visions, and healing.
Most of those converted claim that Jesus himself or angels appeared to them and told them where to go and who to go to for further teaching and baptism. Pretty incredible and many of the accounts sound like Paul on the road to Damascus. Meanwhile the Iranian authorities are trying to stop it all by putting Christian preachers in prison and by trying to force converts back into Islam but the revival continues unabated.
Here’s another case in point about what we are talking about when we say the word ‘revival’ and we refer to a ‘revival environment.’
A couple that I am close to signed on with a mission group in southeast Africa that has planted over 15,000 churches and has converted hundreds of thousands to Christianity in the last 10 years or so. Typically they would arrive in a new village and set up meetings but first they would demonstrate the ‘Good News’ by healing all of the sick in the village including the blind, the deaf, and the crippled. After that usually a new church would be planted. The flip side was that sometimes opposition rose up when an entire village was converted particularly if it had been Muslim.
Two years ago several different friends of mine went on a mission trip sponsored by our church to India. Over 50,000 people showed up for the meetings during which thousands of people were healed and over 20,000 were converted. Everyone my friends prayed for in India were healed including several blind people which is far different from their experience in praying for people back home.
I could go on and on but the point is that what is happening around the world where there is a revival environment is exceptional and has brought about an exceptional opposition.
From the Christian perspective the supernatural activity has engendered a supernatural demonic opposition (Eph 6:12) which is behind much of the natural persecution and exceptional numbers of Christians now being killed in the 21st century.
But also an unprecedented number of people are coming to Christ every day—more than any previous century. More Muslims have come to Christ in this century than all the centuries before and more Jewish folk have accepted Jesus as their Messiah than in any time since the first century.
So a ‘New age of Martyrs? Yes, but also a time of unprecedented revival and a Great World Harvest.