Prison Credentials: A Reflection for Easter 2017

Under Caesar’s Sword is a three-year, collaborative global research project by a team of scholars to investigate how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is severely violated. A public report with the findings of this project will be launched at the Public Symposium: What is to be Done? on April 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C. 

This series of blog posts draws from scholars' research, personal reflections, and responses to current situations of religious persecution. See all posts in the series: Reflections on Under Caesar's Sword

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As we approach the Easter holiday it is not only time to celebrate our faith but also to honor our sisters and brothers who risk so much to stand for their faith in many nations around the world. This past week when I read about Christian churches being attacked in Egypt I had to ask myself the same question that you might have asked yourself: Would I attend a church service if attending might cost me my life or the life of one of my children? This question is not a theoretical one in many places around the world and this should give all of us a deeper sense of perspective about how precious our faith really is for all of us.

For four years after graduate school our family served as volunteers for a Dutch ministry called Open Doors that focused on helping persecuted Christians around the world. These years included many opportunities to travel and directly meet Christians in the firing line for their faith and these encounters have taught me so much. I remember one encounter in the country of Vietnam where we were attending a church service and were about to meet the pastor when a caution came that we should be more careful about a certain pastor. Why? “Because that pastor has never been to prison” came the answer.

After leaving Open Doors, our family spent six years in the People’s Republic of China. Christians in this nation suffered greatly for their faith after the 1949 Revolution and the country was closed from the outside world until 1979. Many Christians outside of China had heard terrible stories of persecution experienced by their Chinese sisters and brothers during the Great Cultural Revolution and wondered if any Christians survived this time of struggle. Amazingly, the church in China actually grew during this time of attack. When Wang Ming Dao, a Protestant Pastor was asked to explain this miracle to a non-Chinese person he made this observation: “For decades Christians in China have had no Bible, no Church, no missionaries, no Bible Schools. Perhaps it is because we had nothing therefore that God had special mercy on us. He has given us the faith of a mustard seed; simple childlike trust in Him. The Chinese Christians just believed God and His word. We believe that He is able and willing to do great things for us.”

The example of one Pentecostal Pastor Mehdi Dibaj of Iran has always been vivid in my mind because I spent many hours praying for him and learning about his imprisonment before he was eventually released only to be killed months later for his faith. Before a judge shortly before his death Pastor Dibaj said that he was honored and considered it a great privilege to have been sent to prison for his faith. I can only imagine how such a bold declaration of a confident faith would have resonated in the ears of his captors. How can such devotion be destroyed?

In the world where I spend much of my time, people focus on credentials such as who has a doctorate and from what university or credentials such as what book or notable article a person has written. In most churches in North America a focus on the pastor’s credentials would probably refer to where a person attended seminary or what other ministry experience they have gained. But in some parts of the world, a credential for faithfulness to the Christian message can mean whether or not you have gone to prison for your faith.

If you are a Christian in North Korea today you risk facing the fate of those who have been literally thrown under rolling bulldozers. If you are a Christian in Eritrea today you may be thrown in prison for your faith and, for one Eritrean Christian, prison meant a rough shipping container for many months. If you are a Christian in Northern Nigeria or Egypt or Syria or many other nations in our world, you face tremendous uncertainty about your own safety and the safety of your family every time you leave your home. Some in the West might meet someone from another faith and feel comfortable to share a testimony of how God has helped you, but the Christians of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and in many other Muslim majority nations might risk imprisonment if they had such casual conversations with their neighbors about what they cherish most in their lives.

In our contexts of abundance and privilege it is hard to begin to understand the daily experiences of Christians worldwide who face great persecution. Perhaps the least we can do is also the most we can do – we can pray. The scriptures remind us that “to whom much is given much is required” and this might mean that part of our busy lives can include time to pray and remember those who are in prison as if they were our very own family members -- because they are!

We can also learn from the examples of others. Perhaps you are like me, you have numerous Bibles in your home and often are so busy that you do not have time to read God’s Word. In recent decades, some Christians have not been able to own their own Bible and they needed to share a copy among many people and memorize large portions in order to encourage each other in faith. Sometimes when I feel that I am too busy to read the Bible I try to stop and remember a story that I heard once from the founder of Open Doors, Brother Andrew. During a time when China was much more restrictive than it is now, Andrew once gave a Bible to a pastor who had never owned a Bible before. When the pastor took the book in Chinese he immediately turned to a page in the book of Ephesians. When Andrew asked the man why he had did this he simply explained, “throughout my life as a Christian I have only owned one page of the Bible and it was a page from the book of Ephesians. I have always wondered what was on the next page.”


Christian Van Gorder is an associate professor of Religion at Baylor University, with a focus on Muslim and Christian interactions. He is a scholar on the Under Caesar’s Sword project investigating Christian responses in Iran and Saudi Arabia.His most recent publication is Islam, Peace, and Social Justice: A Christian Perspective (2014).


**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**

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