ANM recently held a panel discussion on persecution. In this edited version of the transcript, host Eric Vess and panel member Dan Reichard, ANM’s Far East regional director, discuss some of the issues and misunderstandings around this topic.
Eric Vess: Persecution is a serious subject. It’s pervasive, it’s real, and it takes place all over the world. But persecution is not the end of the story. Despite what this world is attempting to do to stop the gospel, to stop the church, to stop faith in Jesus Christ — God always wins. And, as the Psalmist says, “Blessed are all who take refuge in Him.” Dan, why is it important to understand how persecution affects Christians in the world today?
Dan Reichard: I think that it’s important for a number of reasons. The sheer numbers: we’re here in America, and what we know about persecution may be because we receive a magazine or we hear the stories, but the reality is that we represent a minority in the world today. God’s people around the world are suffering. More Christians live under persecution than do not. We are a rarity. So we can’t think of the church without the perspective that it’s the majority of our brothers and sisters [who suffer for their faith].
The other thing I think about is when I first started speaking about the persecuted church, I really had this mindset that we need to pray for the persecuted church because of what they’re going through, and we need to try to help. And these things are true. But as I have spoken and — more than spoken — listened to the persecuted church around the world, I began to realize that what the persecuted church was going through was not something for me to talk about as much as it was for me to listen and learn.
In Philippians 1, Paul is talking to believers about the things that happened to him. He says, “I want you to know that the things that have happened to me (he’s speaking about imprisonment) have happened rather for the furtherance of the gospel.”
Many have been emboldened by the example and the illustration of Paul’s life. I find that to be true everywhere. When I speak now to a crowd or an individual about the persecuted church, I want them to be encouraged. I want them to be stronger in their faith. I want them to be able to say, “My brothers and sisters are doing it around the world.” And I want it to be a barometer in my own life. You know, if I were in that position, what would I do? Hebrews 13:3 says to remember those that are in prison as if we were in prison ourselves. So we have to ask ourselves, in the face of persecution, “Where am I in my relationship to Jesus Christ compared to the rest of the world? Because it may very well happen here one day. And that’s another story in itself.”
Eric: You just got back from China. What’s the first thing you want American Christians to know about how persecution works in China?
Dan: The church in China was born of persecution. There’s a very strong feeling among believers that persecution is the birthright of the church. It’s not an accident. It’s not “Where was God when we needed him?” or “Is the devil winning?” It’s “God has allowed this to happen for a number of reasons.”
In China in 1949, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution under Mao, an estimated 80 million individuals were killed during that time of transition to the socialist, communist form of government: people that stood in its way; some were Christian, some were teachers, some were landowners, business owners, people that wore glasses…because they would have been seen as intellectuals or people who could at least read.
In 1949, it’s estimated, there were less than 1 million Christians in China. Then, Mao, communism, persecution. We don’t hear much about what’s going on in China [after that]. By the year 2000, just 51 years later, as [China] begins to open up more and we begin to find out more of what’s going on, we realize that the Chinese church has grown from less than a million to over 100 million Christians. And they were born in persecution. The Chinese believers see that persecution is something that God uses to expand the church.
I was meeting with a pastor in Beijing just a little more than a week ago, and he said they closed his church down. He had 26 families in the church. With a big smile he said, “They closed down one church, but 26 more [started].” And that seems to be the spirit.
There’s also a very, very strong spirit among [Chinese Christians] that God uses persecution to purify the church, even as Peter talks about it being the crucible of fire. They’ll say, we got too interested in comfort, materialism, our own little denominations and our own groups.
China, for a country that has prided itself in not changing for five thousand years, changes very rapidly these days. Around 2000, the persecution in China seemed to lessen. And from 2000 to 2012…some of us actually felt that maybe the time had come — because of sheer numbers — where the government would recognize Christians as not being the enemy of the state.
But around 2012–13, and especially [with] new laws enacted by President Xi Jinping in 2015, there came a brand new attack on the church. And what’s different this time [is] it’s not been regional. Sometimes in one of the provinces it may be bad, [but in] the next province 40 percent of the Communist Party members are Christians. But now, it is all over China. [In other countries, like India,] persecution is regional and starts with regional leaders. It’s very much centralized in China.
They are not dragging you out and beating you. They’re not leaving your body in the street to send a message like they had for many, many years. They will come to your child’s school and put a form in front of this child and say, “You need to sign it, that you’re not a Christian. And if you’re a Christian, you will not be allowed to go to school here anymore.” This is China. They’ve got very small families. They have no Social Security. They have no health care. The parent wants the child to get the best education they can possibly get, so that when they get old, the child with the good job and good income is going to take care of mom and dad and grandmother and grandfather. So if the child will not sign this form, they are put out of school. They can never go to college, trade school. They’re relegated to washing dishes, to plowing the fields. Their parents are going to die in utter poverty.
If you’re a soldier, they’re going to try to get you to sign the form and to say that [you are] not a Christian. And then you can stay. If you refuse to sign it, you’re out of the army. Your career is ended. This is widespread.
If you are a landowner and you rent to a group of Christians who meet for secret church, you’ve got to put them out. And if you don’t, the government will confiscate the property. A number of Christians, especially leaders, pastors, are disappearing. Simply are never heard of again. Some are being imprisoned. But by and large, [the government is] trying to put a good face on this. They’re trying to say, “We’re trying to protect the Christians from the cults, and we just need to know who they are.” It’s all about registration. They want to know who the Christians are, who the pastors are. And that is the single issue that Christian believers, by and large, are refusing to comply with.
Eric: Thank you, Dan. Persecution is complex. It involves differing levels of political, cultural, religious, and social intimidation and pressure, and violence in some cases. What’s being promoted is a national identity, Xi’s program of Sinicizing the entire country. Everything must be Xi’s form of Chinese.
Dan: Atheism is the religion of China. You don’t hear about this, but there are two major Muslim groups within China. They’ve been there for hundreds of years: the Hui and the Uyghur. Right now in the northwest portion of China, there are re-doctrination camps, where somewhere between a million and a half and maybe three million Uyghurs have been taken from their homes. They’ve been put in these schools, and it’s for re-doctrination, so they will give up their “terrorist ways.” We believe there’s probably mass genocide going on. So in China, it’s not just the Christians. They are persecuting the Buddhists [and] the Muslim minorities as well.
Eric: Part of Xi’s program is apparently to promote a new translation of scripture that comports with communist ideology and Chinese nationalism. That means, of course, severely editing and leaving things out of scripture. I know you asked some questions about this while you were there. What did you learn?
Dan: Of course there’s hatred of the Bible. China prints more Bibles than almost any country in the world. But they are to sell outside for massive profits. They’re not for China. Even the Three-Self Church, the government church — they’ve cut off Bibles sales. You cannot get the Bible on the Internet anymore.
So two things are happening: the supply of Bibles that we’re able to get into China, either brought into China or printed in China, is really being challenged right now by the government. The other is this plan to print the Patriot’s Bible, a blasphemous translation of the scriptures. You know, 1 out of 14 Chinese profess to be born-again Christian. So the Bible is very familiar to a lot of society, though they may not have seen it. Right now, we have requests for over 40 million Bibles. There’s a tremendous need for Bibles. So the Chinese government plans on printing the Patriot’s Bible. It’s a five-year plan. One individual that we work with has seen a portion of John 1: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was a sinner. Communism is the kingdom of God. The Communist Party is the savior of the world.” You cannot even imagine the confusion that’s going to come, even among believers, when this Patriot’s Bible is finally printed.
Eric: Talk about the government’s surveillance of Christians, including believers from other countries traveling in China.
Dan: First thing I want you to know is that the Chinese government, the minute you get off of the airplane to the minute you get back on — and probably further than that — they know who you are. They know what you’re doing there. And they know everybody you associate with.
There are 250 million facial-recognition cameras in China. The goal is 1 billion facial cameras. The goal is to know where every citizen, every visitor, is every moment, and who they’re with. They know who you are. Yes, there are spies in the churches. They are offering a fifteen hundred dollar reward to anybody who will turn in a Christian family that [the government does not know] are Christians. Children are turning their parents in right now for the money. And yeah, there are spies everywhere. We were followed constantly when we were in China last time.
Eric: So in a world that’s filled with persecution, how do we best pray for our brothers and sisters undergoing persecution?
Dan: Having talked to, prayed with, and heard the stories of at least hundreds, if not thousands, of believers who are experiencing persecution, one of the things I always do is say, “How can we pray for you? When I go back to the United States and meet with your brothers and sisters and tell them your story, how can I tell them to pray for you?” I have never had one persecuted believer ever say to me, “Pray that the persecution stops.” But they say, “Pray that we’ll have the faith. We’ve already talked to our children. Even if we die in front of them, they’re not to recant their faith. And if they die in front of us, we will not recant our faith. We’ll see you in heaven.’” I think that’s probably a big, big part of it right there.
Eric: I want to conclude with a passage from the fourth chapter of Acts, and I think it applies perfectly. Peter and John had been arrested for preaching on Solomon’s Portico inside the Temple. So many people were listening to them and responding to what they were doing. When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them, which was, “Don’t preach Jesus.” When their friends — this nascent church in Jerusalem — heard what had happened, they lifted their voices together to God and said this:
“Sovereign Lord, you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against His anointed one.’
“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.
“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
That’s what we pray for. That’s the real ending to this story. That’s the response to persecution that the Bible teaches us. And that’s what we see in the lives of Christians in China and India and North Korea, in Nepal, and in so many other countries around the world.
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash