Apostasy


Earlier this week I asked for prayer for Christians in Egypt and mentioned that some Salafi extremist clerics had declared that any Muslim who so much as offered a Christmas greeting to a Christian would be considered apostates and traitors. I also mentioned that many Muslims and some significant Muslim leaders had made a public stand against those declarations to stand in solidarity with Egyptian Christians celebrating the birth of our Savior. The video below shows that solidarity in action.

Taking a stand like this is not without its risks, especially as the citizens of Egypt face an uncertain future. Individuals of all faiths who are willing to put themselves out there, however, for the cause of unity and religious freedom, and especially leaders who know that their words and actions have the power to influence so many, give me hope for Egypt’s future.

Please continue to pray for Egypt and to lift up these men and women who are taking a very public stand against extremism and for an Egypt that derives strength and legitimacy from its own rich and diverse history and present.

ImageWould you give your life for Christ? If your answer is “no” you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. If your answer is “yes”, here’s another question for you: would you attend church if doing so put your life at risk? No? Ok, skip ahead. Yes? Here’s another: would you encourage your spouse or your children to attend church with you, if doing so put their lives at risk?

To be very honest, I am not sure what the correct answers are to the second two questions, and I’m certainly not sure what my actual, as opposed to my theoretical, response would be if I was personally faced with these choices.

What I do know is that tonight many of my brothers and sisters in Egypt will make these decisions, just as our brothers and sisters in Nigeria did thirteen days ago. Twelve Christians there were killed in attacks by extremists on two different churches.

The Nigerians didn’t unwittingly choose to put their lives at risk. Attacks on churches have become part of the regular news cycle, and they would have been very much aware that acts of violence on a significant holy day are of particular interest to extremists as they look for high profile publicity to spread their brand of terror.

Tonight, on the first Christmas Eve celebrated under a new Islamist constitution, Egyptians will also make this choice. They know the risks and are painfully aware of the threats that have already been made against them. And yet, a very great number of them will venture out of their homes and neighborhoods to join together to worship and celebrate the birth of our Saviour. They will do so with the full knowledge that the act of physically coming together in fellowship transforms them in the eyes of extremists into a high value, high profile target.

This great country, which once served as a place of refuge for the Holy Family fleeing persecution, is becoming a place where it is unsafe to celebrate the birth of their Son.

It is dark, but it is not hopeless. Each person who tonight stands in a church in faith stands against that darkness. Each one of their non-Christian Egyptian brothers and sisters who stands with them in solidarity tonight stands against that darkness. Each one of us who tonight stands with them in prayer, stands against that darkness.

John 1:1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few years now, since I first chose the name for this blog. I didn’t just choose an ancient martyr at random, though based on what comes up in a google search for Biblis, it might seem that way.

I had finished reading Eusebius’ History of the Church, which as one might expect, was filled with all kinds of amazing historical characters and inspiring stories. For some reason, however, Biblis, who only gets one paragraph in all of written history, stuck with me.

She stuck with me because she wasn’t named by Eusebius for her strong fortitude in the face of persecution or her stoic insistence on staying true to her faith. She wasn’t one of those early Christians, whose reported superhuman endurance in the face of horrific ordeals I tend to associate with the stories of the early martyrs.

Biblis broke. Biblis recanted her faith. Biblis denied Christ.

Eusebius describes her as having been “handed over to punishment by the devil, who imagined he had already devoured her…so he thought – a feeble creature, easily broken.”

And our faith is the faith of broken and weak people. Our faith is the faith of people who buckle under adversity far less serious than that faced by Biblis. Our faith is the faith of people, myself included, who disappoint each other and God all the time.

But our God is a God who is full of grace and mercy and seeks out His lost sheep. Our Church, when we’re behaving the way we should, holds up those who are struggling and receives the fallen penitent with love, forgiveness and encouragement.

I’ve met many men, women, and even children who have been persecuted for their faith. In my experience, the person who never faltered, never doubted, and stood strong and unflinching in faith is the very rare exception. The vast majority tell me of periods of intense doubt, of anger at God, of confusion and of despair. They also tell me that the support of their brethren, locally, nationally and internationally, was key in reminding them that they were not alone and encouraging them to persevere, beyond what they thought themselves to be capable of, in faith.

Biblis made a comeback. Eusebius tells us that, while on the torture rack being pushed to accuse the other Christians of horrific crimes, “she came to her senses, and, so to speak, awoke out of a deep sleep…she flatly contradicted the slanderers… From then on she insisted she was a Christian, and so she joined the ranks of the martyrs.”

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that even after they learned Biblis had denied Christ, her fellow Christians continued to pray for her and to lift her up to God’s mercy. Somewhere, somehow she found the strength in her utter brokenness to take her stand.

I chose Biblis to head this blog as a reminder to myself never to fall into the trap of promoting members of the persecuted church (or any church for that matter) into some superhuman tier of perfect faith, never to impose upon them standards that were only ever met once in all of history. It reminds me, too, that those men and women out there today, suffering discrimination and persecution, rely on our support in ways that we can’t comprehend and as part of the same Body, we are commanded actively to pray for them, to encourage them, and to suffer with them.

I Corinthians 12:24b-26 But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

In addition to prayer, which is the first and most important thing we should be doing, in some cases there are other simple ways to encourage and build up a persecuted Christian: Connect & Encourage

He made my words of judgment as sharp as a sword.
He has hidden me in the shadow of his hand.
I am like a sharp arrow in his quiver.

Isaiah 49:2

I read this verse before going to work one day at the start of the week. As I read it, it seemed like little more than an interesting metaphor for the work my colleagues and I do. Over the course of the week however, I found myself a witness to the phenomenal power of words, like a sharp sword when directed by God. I also saw the destruction caused by careless and malicious words.

For some time now, my organization has been working on the case of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani. Nadarkhani is an Iranian who became a Christian fifteen years ago at the age of nineteen. He is married with two young boys. Two years ago, he complained about the fact that his Christian sons were being forced to receive an Islamic education. He probably knew this would cause some trouble, but I don’t think he or anyone else could have predicted how much. He was arrested, imprisoned and found himself at the beginning of a long and torturous journey through the Iranian court system, which continues today.

His crime in the eyes of the Iranian state was his teenage conversion to Christianity. Iranian law does not explicitly call for converts to be put to death (although there have been attempts to pass legislation that would do just that) but the words, statements and judgments of Islamic clerics can also be taken into consideration. Hardliners call for all apostates, or those who leave Islam for another religion, to be killed. My colleagues who have been working directly on this case believe that powerful individuals want to make an example of Nadarkhani by executing him for this “crime,” in the hopes that it will make other would be converts think twice.

In Mexico a few weeks ago, I was amazed at the reaction the case received when I mentioned it to Mexican officials at both the Federal and State levels. Information is a powerful thing; as these officials in Mexico and other Latin American countries including Peru and Uruguay, received these words about Nadarkhani via my mouth but also through the briefings written by colleagues and translated by incredible volunteers, there was a strong and immediate reaction which I know has been communicated directly to the Iranian embassies in those countries.

This past week, Nadarkhani was given what appeared to be his final chance to live. Over the course of three days he was asked each day by the judge to recant. Each day his mouth emitted the simple but powerful words, “I cannot.” After the third day, his last chance and his third refusal, Nadarkhani became vulnerable to execution at any time.

His lawyer, a courageous human rights lawyer who has also been persecuted by the Iranian government, used his words to argue that demanding Nadarkhani renounce his faith is in fact illegal under Iranian law. It remains to be seen how much these words penetrated the heart of the judge as we still await the written verdict.

New forms of media (well, not so new anymore) like Twitter and Facebook provide a way of getting out words on a massive scale. My colleagues have worked tirelessly all week and weekend, often late into the night, publishing short, powerful messages that have been passed on tens of thousands of times. They’ve also used more traditional forms of communication – working with the mainstream media to get the word out about Nadarkhani’s situation.

It’s been hugely encouraging to see celebrities and famous writers, both Christian and non-Christian, retweet our words and campaign messages. But in some ways it’s been even more deeply inspiring to see how the rank and file has reacted. Individuals literally all over the world have prayed without ceasing, have told their friends and churches, have organized marches and public protests, have on their own initiative found out the details of the Iranian embassy in their country and telephoned them, and have taken my words and the words of my colleagues and without being asked have translated them into other languages, increasing the impact of our words on a grand scale.

I’ve also seen the darker side of words. I’ve seen other organisations behave carelessly with the names and personal details of sources, putting them and their loved ones in danger and jeopardizing their work. I’ve been disgusted as a few individuals and organisations have used Nadarkhani’s plight and their words to promote themselves. The reaction from Iran has been truly despicable – as they too tried to use the power of words to slander and defame Nadarkhani, in the apparent hope that this would cause his supporters to fall away.

But this did not happen. When we allow God to use our words they become that sharp sword. We, His people hidden all over the world in the shadow of His hand, are those arrows in His quiver. As I write this, almost 40,000 people all over the world have used their words to send a letter of protest to the Iranian government. The EU, US, Canadian, British, French and German governments have used their words to express strong public condemnation of what has happened to Nadarkhani. Later today Brazilian Christians will march down Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro in a public demonstration of their support for Nadarkhani.

Only God knows what will happen to Nadarkhani and we pray and know that He will sustain him and his family. All day every day, my colleagues and I wait for more news from Iran – sharing it with his thousands of supporters as soon as we are able. We’ll continue to do this, using our words, the freedom we enjoy to speak those words and the technology with which we’ve been blessed to spread them to strengthen and build the unity of the Body behind Nadarkhani.

If you want to use your words please go to http://bit.ly/nadarkhani to send a letter of protest to the Iranian government. Tell your friends and your churches to do the same and to use their words to pray.