International (MNN) – Last week, the United States called out several countries for their human rights violations when the State Department released the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017.
Acting Secretary of State, John Sullivan, singled out China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, calling them “morally reprehensible” for their abuses of human rights. Also called into question were Myanmar, Syria, Turkey, and Venezuela.
Todd Nettleton of the Voice of the Martyrs USA says, “It’s certainly no surprise to us— some of the countries that the State Department has listed as being human rights abusers—because many of them are the same countries where we see our Christian brothers and sisters facing persecution. And religious freedom is one of the very basic human rights—the freedom to worship as you see fit, the freedom to choose your religion and choose the god that you follow.”
As Nettleton says, religious persecution often goes hand in hand with other human rights violations. Therefore, this report is incredibly relevant to the Persecuted Church.
The Voice of the Martyrs USA works in China, Iran, and North Korea and recognizes the particular challenges that each nation faces when it comes to religious persecution. Nettleton hopes this report will be another motivator to get the international community to put pressure on these nations.
North Korea has topped the Open Doors World Watch List for well over a decade. This list ranks nations by their level of Christian persecution. The persecution in North Korea stems from an oppressive government. If North Koreans are found out to be Christians, they risk going to a labor camp along with their family, or being killed. Therefore, there’s not much of a Christian community, even underground. The risk to have faith in Christ is very high and it’s hard to know who can be trusted.
“One of the very interesting things about this report in light of the timing, in light of what’s going on right now in the world, is naming North Korea in this report and actually singling them out along with a couple of others—calling them morally reprehensible on the issue of human rights.
“As we know, President Trump is due to sit down with the leader of North Korea in a few weeks. And so, the obvious question is, are human rights going to be a part of that discussion? Are the Christians who are being held in political prisoner camps in North Korea—are they going to be a part of that discussion as they sit down at the table, or is it going to solely be focused on the nuclear program and nuclear missiles?
“I hope that our Christian brothers and sisters are a part of the thought process of our American officials as they plan those meetings and as they plan those conversations. I hope human rights will be an issue as they meet together.”
Similarly, in China, the government is also a source of persecution and oppression against Christians. The World Watch List puts China at number 43. But while there is arguably more tolerance for Christianity in China overall, the government seems to be cracking down on Christian activity. Religion is heavily monitored and regulated in the registered churches.
Earlier this year, the Golden Lampstand Church was demolished for not being registered. But many church bodies choose not to register because they want to avoid the monitoring that comes with registration. The Voice of the Martyrs has noted several other unnerving trends that have taken place in the last few months, including the online sale of Bibles.
Additionally, Nettleton reminds us: “Earlier this year, new religious regulations went into effect in China… the new law that they had enacted took force and we’re already seeing the results of that. We’re seeing churches being attacked. We’re seeing Christians being put in jail. And so, it very much seems like this is not a thawing in the issue of human rights and religious freedom, this is actually a step backwards.”
Even in 2016, Nettleton said the group of Christians he met with in China were already discussing how to prepare for these new regulations. Today, they are wondering about the best way to operate as the Church in China going forward.
Voice of the Martyrs, like many organizations working within China, has been closely watching the situation. Nettleton says he hopes that the United States will follow up this report by urging China to re-examine its treatment of its citizens, especially when it comes to religious freedom and other basic human rights.
Back up at the top of the World Watch List at number 10, Iran has a similar story. But the persecution taking place here stems from Islamic oppression.
Nettleton says, “To my knowledge, there are not any above-ground churches in Iran that are holding services in Farsi, which is the national language of Iran. So for them to try to say ‘Oh, no, we have religious freedom’ when no church is allowed to remain open and hold public services, sort of puts the lie to that claim.”
In fact, many Christians have been arrested and imprisoned for their faith. Currently, VOM is asking people to pray for Ebrahim Firouzi who has been in prison for nearly five years now. Instead of being released three years ago, he was re-sentenced to five years of additional prison time.
Firouzi’s story points out something significant about the Christian persecution in Iran. Nettleton says, “When we talk about an Islamic nation, [we] want to remind people—don’t just say the word ‘Christian’. Talk about Christians from a Muslim background, because that’s really where the rubber meets the road.”
He further explains that the Iranian government will point to the Armenian minority as proof that their nation allows religious freedom. But the only reason this group is allowed to practice Christianity is because the government perceives them to be traditional Christians.
“But then you start talking about Farsi-speaking churches, and you start talking about people born into Muslim families who are now following Jesus Christ, and they don’t have freedom…. Absolutely Iran is a persecutor of our Christian brothers and sisters.”
How VOM is Supporting These Believers
VOM USA is well aware of the human rights violations in these nations when it comes to Christian persecution, and that is because they are working to support believers in these areas.
“In each country, our work is different because our work is always field-driven. It’s always driven by Christians in that country who say ‘Listen, this is how you can help us,’” Nettleton explains.
In North Korea, that means sending Gospel-centered radio broadcasts across the border. This ministry method requires them to constantly switch frequencies in order to compete with the North Korean government’s efforts to jam the signal. They are also sending in balloons with Gospel tracks attached.
Meanwhile, he says, “In China we are working to deliver Bibles. We are working to assist the Church, encourage pastors, help with pastor resources and pastor training. In Iran, we are doing some of those same things—encouraging the Church, helping to train church leaders, helping the families of Christians who’ve been imprisoned for their faith, and standing with the Church there.”
How You Can Respond
It’s hard to know what to do when reports like these are issued. But as Christians, Nettleton says the most important thing we can do is to pray, keeping this truth in mind:
“Our salvation is not dependent on government decree, it’s not dependent on whether the government says ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to Christian churches. Our salvation is dependent on Jesus Christ and our calling from Him is to be witnesses and to go into all the world.”
This is true whether things are difficult or not. Here’s how you can pray:
“We need to pray for believers in these countries to continue to be bold witnesses, continue to share the Gospel. And obviously, we want to pray for their protection and their encouragement, and just that God will go with them—that they will continue to do His work and that He will sustain them and encourage them as they do that.”
Another way you can help is to support VOM as they bring the hope of Jesus into these countries. To sponsor a Bible (or several) to be delivered to Christians in need, click here.