International (MNN) — Start praying: 2011 is ramping up to be a year of heavy persecution.
Many are hoping that the first 12 days are not an omen for what the rest of 2011 will look like for believers, especially in the Middle East. Many Christian leaders, however, may find it difficult to remain optimistic.
"We've just been sensing that 2011 is really going to be a year that is heated up with persecution," says Tom Doyle with E3Partners.
Already, Christian and secular news sources alike have reported a rise in the persecution of Christians worldwide. The arrests of 70 converted Christians in Iran, the assassination of anti-blasphemy law governor in Pakistan, and the bombing of a church in Egypt is a lot for just 12 days. And just yesterday, six Coptic Christians were shot by Muslim extremists on a train in Egypt, killing one and wounding the other five.
"We've been hearing things out of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, things out of the Gaza strip where there are threats," says Doyle. "Believers are bracing themselves because once something like this happens, where people coming out of a church are killed, or a church is blown up, or Christians are killed anywhere, it can be a chain reaction throughout the Islamic world. Many times, different terrorist groups try to outdo each other in their fanaticism."
Most of the persecution so far has involved various Muslim extremists–a trend influenced by the chain reaction Doyle describes, but also by pressure extremists face regarding Islamic youth. Doyle suggests that some of the persecution is a backlash in reaction to the general disinterest among youth toward Islam.
"[Islam] is, in a sense, imploding because the young people–some of them–want to go radical, but many of them do not," says Doyle. "They are tired of traditional Islam…. There's a fear there among religious leaders all throughout Islam that they're losing this young generation."
Not surprisingly, then, much of the persecution to come, says Doyle, will be as a result of Christian-Muslim clashes in the Middle East. Already, E3 Partners has gotten word of ten new terrorist groups dedicated to eradicating Christianity. "We just see this volcano ready to erupt that Islam is going to be a major part of, with persecution toward believers all throughout the region."
Because the Middle East is far away from most of us, though, there's a temptation to look away.
"I think it's so easy to look at the news and say, ‘Boy, Pakistan is such a terrible place,' and ‘Look at all the terrorists,'" says Doyle. "But there are believers there. And there are underground churches that are lifting up Jesus, living for Christ, trying to influence their neighbors; it's a harsh place to live when you want to walk with Christ."
The best response for Christians all over is to pray. "We're praying for the spread of the Gospel, the spread of new believers becoming true disciples, and building the church in these areas of darkness."