by Arielle Del Turco
January 4, 2021
What does the plight of Christians imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan, Uyghur Muslims who have been “disappeared” in China, or Christian students kidnapped in Nigeria have to do with Christians in the Western world? More than you might think. God has called Christians to care for the persecuted and oppressed, and that obligation stretches beyond our national borders. Now, at a time when religious oppression is on the rise around the world, it is more important than ever to consider our responsibility to the persecuted.
Religious freedom—the freedom to choose and live in accordance with one’s faith—is foundational to human dignity. Government restrictions on religion and religiously motivated attacks from non-state actors hinder individuals’ ability to follow the dictates of their consciences and stifle human flourishing.
Unfortunately, people are robbed of religious freedom across the globe every day. In Nigeria, Christians are slaughtered by Boko Haram and Fulani militants; in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are imprisoned under “anti-extremism” laws; and in China, Uyghur Muslims endure mass detention, forced labor, and widespread forced sterilization and abortion. We in the West do not often speak of these regional crises, but they ought to instill us with a sense of urgency.
There are many reasons why Christians should care about the plight of the persecuted abroad. Scripture instructs us to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3). This admonition reminds us to consider the persecuted church, though they may be far from our daily lives. We are to consider their suffering our own because we are linked through the universal church (1 Cor. 12:26).
But our concern need not stop with the persecuted church; a Christian worldview supports the principles of religious freedom for everyone. God does not force or coerce us into following Him. Therefore, we should imitate Him by protecting others’ freedom to choose their faith. Scripture indicates a responsibility to defend the oppressed and those who cannot stand up for themselves (Psalm 82:3-4, Isaiah 1:17, James 1:27). These verses are calls to action.
The benefits of religious freedom are not merely spiritual. They are practical as well. Religious pluralism stirs creativity and innovation by providing a peaceful space for everyone to share ideas and pursue opportunities, regardless of one’s religious or ethnic background. This promotes development and economic growth. In places where intense religious discrimination is the norm, such as Pakistan, religious minorities are unable to rise out of poverty and are barred from making meaningful contributions to the economy—and that harms all of society.
Religious freedom is, at times, also a matter of national security. Religious freedom has been shown to mitigate terrorism and internal conflicts. Where religious tensions are allowed to mount unfettered without legal protections for religious minorities, violence often follows. Such religiously motivated violence has led to recent crises in Burma, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Religious freedom and tolerance often coincide with regional peace and security.
With these scriptural mandates and practical benefits in mind, here are some practical steps Christians can take toward rightly caring for persecuted believers abroad.
The instruction in Hebrews 13:3 to remember the imprisoned and mistreated implies a responsibility to learn the stories of persecuted people. This can be done in a variety of ways, including reading the testimonies of those who have been persecuted for their beliefs and researching the main types of religious freedom violations occurring today and the countries currently in crisis.
Learning is a crucial first step toward taking action. Nothing will change until people are made aware of the dire challenges facing people around the world. Once you become informed, advocate with the tools at your disposal. Raise awareness on social media, make religious freedom a topic of discussion, and voice your support for international religious freedom to your representatives.
Lastly, you should pray. Although this may seem like an obvious recommendation, it is not an insignificant one. Pray for more religious freedom for people around the world. But also pray for individuals being harassed or abused for their faith. Consider the stories of people like Huma Younus, Gulshan Abbas, and Leah Sharibu.
Prayer often serves to encourage those held captive for their faith. American pastor Andrew Brunson has said that knowing other believers were praying for him while he was being held in a Turkish prison kept him going in his darkest moments—he did not want to be forgotten. The fact that the intensely persecuted request our prayers is meaningful, and their pleas should not go unheard.
Ultimately, there are many reasons to care about international religious freedom, even for those who do not adhere to a faith. But for the Christian, there is a scriptural calling that should motivate us more. Persecution abroad requires a response from Christians. We ought not delay our response—the oppressed are suffering as we wait.