Spotlight on Release International

With James Fraser,
Lead Engagement Manager with responsibility for Scotland

With the situation in Afghanistan changing daily, we would like to point out these answers were prepared mid-September 2021.

Release International was founded in 1968 through the inspiration of Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned for his faith for 14 years during the Communist era.  During that time, he was kept in an underground cell, prevented from seeing his family, and regularly beaten and tortured.  However, throughout his imprisonment God sustained his faith in remarkable ways.  His story is recorded in his well-known autobiography Tortured for Christ

When Richard was finally released, he managed to leave Romania, and he made it his mission to let Christians in the West know what was happening to their persecuted brothers and sisters.  He challenged them to respond, and today Release International continues that ministry.  

The world has changed a lot since 1968.  For example, there is no longer a clear-cut definition between the Communist world and the so called ‘free’ world.  However, today Christians continue to face severe persecution in many different countries and from a diverse range of perpetrators. 

For example, in India Christians are being violently attacked by Hindu nationalists; in Nigeria Christians are being forced off their land by Islamist militants; in Sri Lanka Buddhist nationalists attack Christian pastors. In China, Christians are being imprisoned by the Communist government; in Iran the Islamic government won’t tolerate house churches; in North Korea Christianity is outlawed by an oppressive dictator.  In Pakistan and Egypt discrimination against Christians is embedded in the culture, and in many of these places Christians are rejected and ostracised by their own family members because of their faith.

So, the situation is more complex and multifaceted than it was in 1968. Through our network of international partners, Release International works hard to understand these varying contexts so that we can offer the most relevant and effective help to persecuted Christians, and so that we can help Christians in the UK to pray for and stand with persecuted believers in informed and effective ways. 

In general terms, much of the work we are involved in has remained similar over the years.  For example, supporting Christian prisoners and their families; providing for the families of Christian martyrs; supplying Bibles, Christian literature, and media etc.  One particular area of work which has developed significantly during the last decade, is our support for Christians who have been forced to flee.  Many persecuted Christians have been caught up in the global refugee crisis and we are helping to provide food, accommodation, and pastoral support for them in several countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria, Turkey and South Korea.

The crisis in Afghanistan is heart-wrenching and life for Christians under the new regime will be very difficult. They could face death or imprisonment, and some will be forced to flee or go into hiding.  In some places there is relative calm and a return to order is being reported, but generally believers are deeply concerned and afraid because they know what the Taliban is capable of.

However, we must remember that before the current crisis, Christians in Afghanistan did not experience religious freedom.  There was no visible church and many believers had to live their faith in secret for fear of how their family and local community would react. The situation has undoubtedly deteriorated, but Christians in Afghanistan already know what it is like to live under persecution.

The most important thing we can do to help them just now is to pray.  Pray that our Afghan brothers and sisters will experience the peace of Jesus with them, guiding them and offering them reassurance.  Pray that the Holy Spirit will bring scripture and worship songs to their minds.  Pray for Release International partners as they minister to Afghans everyday via online, radio and phone connections.  And pray that our efforts to secure safe refuge for those who are fleeing will be successful.

You can see more information about Release International’s response to the crisis here.

Yes and no.  Sometimes the church grows because it is opposed. Persecution forces Christians out of spiritual apathy.  Either we believe that our faith is worth suffering for or we don’t.  And when people see Christians wholeheartedly following Jesus and living for his Kingdom despite the great cost, it is very compelling, and the church grows. 

However, sometimes it is because the church is growing that Christians begin to experience increased opposition.  Government or community leaders perceive the influence of the church and the personal allegiance Christians give to Jesus as a threat to their own control over people.  And in this case, if a powerful persecutor is determined to destroy the church, Christians can be severely impacted.  For example, today in Iraq, after two decades of war and persecution, there are only around 300,000 Christians left – in 2001 there were six times as many.  In some places such as North Korea or Afghanistan there is no visible church.  Christians must practice their faith in secret and may not be able to meet together with any other believers. 

However, as our partners often tell us, even in the most difficult situations there is often evidence of church growth.  For example, in Iran, despite the severe consequences of becoming a Christian, the church has grown significantly during the last 40 years of strict Islamic rule.  And that answer can be supported when the question is considered from the opposite angle i.e., where is the church in greatest decline?  That seems to be in the places where there is most ostensible freedom, such as secular Europe. 

So, the answer is not straight forward, but we trust and believe that God is faithful, and that all things work together for the good of those who love Him.  Persecution can be severe, but it can never defeat God’s purposes. We hold on to that truth, even when we find it extremely difficult to understand why certain things happen, such as the current situation in Afghanistan. (Romans 8:28, Acts 4:23-31, Genesis 50:20) 

There are many stories of Christian persecution that the secular media does not report proportionately. To give just one example, in Nigeria thousands of Christians have been killed and tens of thousands have been forced off their land in an ongoing programme of religiously motivated attacks but we hear very little about it.  Even when these kind of stories do make the headlines, the religious angle is often overlooked, perhaps especially when it is Christians who are suffering. 

However, the news is there if you are prepared to look for it, sometimes on secular media websites, and certainly in Christian media.  And more recently, in response to the Bishop of Truro’s report on persecution and the action of many constituents contacting their MPs, the UK government has paid more attention to the problem and is implementing the recommendations of that report. 

That said, on face value many of these problems do seem very difficult to resolve. National governments, military forces, and international organisations, with all of the resources at their disposal, don’t seem to be able to do much to effect positive change.  

But in some ways, our attitude towards the problem depends on what we perceive to be the goal.  If we want to stop persecution entirely and instate liberal democracy in every corner of the world, perhaps that is impossible.  But if it is to give Christian communities the tools they need to continue to live for Jesus in a context of persecution, then perhaps that is possible.  If it is to feed a group of families who have been forced off their land, if it is to support the child of a prisoner of faith through school, if it is to train a group of pastors to know their legal rights and develop a deeper theology of persecution, then that is possible.  

When you read the New Testament, it seems that persecution is an expected backdrop to faith, and we need to think more in terms of being equipped to persevere rather than eliminating every risk of opposition.  Our persecuted brothers and sisters understand that, but it is something that Christians in the West find more challenging to grasp.

And, of course, everyone can pray.  We should never underestimate what God will do when his people pray.  We hear many stories of prisoners being released, of refugees being granted asylum, of people coming to faith, of martyrs remaining faithful to the point of death, of Christians forgiving their enemies, of Bibles being distributed, of governments repealing discriminatory laws. There is so much to give God thanks for when we pray and ask for his perspective.

Prayerfully – 2 examples 

Jesus warned his followers that ‘if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (John 15:20).

Our report on the likely trends of persecution in 2021 is a wake-up call to take our prayers and support for our persecuted family to a new level.

I’ve mentioned already about prayer. A big part of our UK facing ministry is aimed at encouraging people to pray.  We produce a daily prayer diary with short prayer points covering a range of different countries.  We send out regular prayer alert emails to our volunteer and supporter base.  And we help to get local prayer groups established.  So, a key way that we support persecuted Christians prayerfully is by mobilising Christians in the UK to pray for them.

A good example of international prayer support ministry is the work done by our partners in Pakistan.  They regularly visit prisoners of faith to pray with them in prison and amongst the practical support they offer to prisoner’s families, prayer is vital.  This is also the case in their work with the families of those who have been killed or injured in violent attacks. You can watch a couple of short films about that work in Pakistan here and here.

Pastorally – 2 examples

“Around the world Christians face an increasing array of violent persecutors, whether the brutal Islamic State in the Middle East, Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria or  Hindu extremists in India.”

Linked to prayer, pastoral support is also critical in situations of persecution.  One example is the trauma healing workshops run by our partners in Nigeria.  Thousands of Christians have been killed in this region, and many more have been forced to flee their homes.  The workshops help victims who have experienced suffering and loss to express their pain, process it and to bring it to Christ.  They aim to bring victims to a point where, by the grace of God, they are able to forgive those who have hurt them.  They then have a foundation on which to rebuild their own lives.  You can watch an interview with our partner in Nigeria here and read more about the project here.

Another example of pastoral work is our partner in India who runs several one-day conferences throughout the year, for hundreds of pastors living in sensitive areas where persecution has been rife.  These conferences include teaching, fellowship and prayer.  They aim to encourage, inform, unite, and empower the pastors;  to help them understand their rights under Indian law and, above all, to give them solid biblical teaching on persecution.  You can read more about this project here.

Practically – 2 examples

Hundreds of grieving widows and mothers like Halima,  in Burkina Faso,  Nigeria, Sudan and the Middle East, and other countries,  are unsure about where their next meal will come from and are worried about the future of their children.

Halima said, “Please pray for me. Pray for my children so we may continue to believe in Jesus, and we may continue to have strength from Him.”

Practical help is also extremely important for persecuted Christians.  For example, we support a project in Burkina Faso helping Christians who have been violently attacked by militants and forced to flee.  Our partner provides food for widows and their children, digs wells to provide clean drinking water, and pays school fees for displaced Christian children.  You can listen to a podcast interview with our partner here.

Another example of practical support is our Strength to Stand women’s groups.  These groups exist to help marginalised Christian women in Egypt and Pakistan.  They are led by trained facilitators who enable the women to develop spiritually, psychologically, socially, and economically. They do Bible studies together, they work on self-esteem, they do parenting and relationships work, and they develop small business projects to earn extra income.  Currently we support more than 70 of these groups in Egypt and many more in Pakistan.

The best way to start getting involved is to subscribe to receive our news and prayer information. We publish a free quarterly magazine with prayer diary which is available in hard copy or online, we produce a monthly podcast, we have lots of helpful short videos on YouTube and you can follow us across social media. We also organise regular online and in person events with our international partners. All of these resources will enable you to hear the voice of our persecuted brothers and sisters, pray for them, learn from them, and join in fellowship with them.

For those who want to get more involved we have lots of good volunteering opportunities. You can be a church representative helping your own congregation stay informed and organising local fundraising initiatives. You can be a volunteer speaker helping to represent the voice of persecuted Christians in other local churches. You can help staff our stands at Christian events and exhibitions. And there are many other opportunities for those with more specialist skills to volunteer. 

At a church level there is also the option to become a Building One Body partner church. This programme enables local congregations to get connected to one specific international project over a period of time.

There are several ways to get involved with IDOP this year. We encourage churches to have a special service, or section within a service, focused on praying with our persecuted Christian family. Churches from multiple denominations across the world will be participating. (Although Sunday 7 November is the official day for IDOP, there is a general focus throughout November so any other Sunday during the month would also work.) There are a variety of resources available at www.releaseinternational.org to help you plan a service. 

Release is also involved with a number of other organisations in hosting an online IDOP event on Sunday 7 November. This is an opportunity to hear from some of our international partners and to join in prayer with Christians across the country. Again, details of this will be on our website.

‘Do not abandon them.’ Those are the final words in Richard Wurmbrand’s book Tortured for Christ, and that challenge is as pressing today as it ever has been. Persecuted Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ and when one part of the Body of Christ suffers ever part should suffer with it (1 Corinthians 12:26.) In amongst all of the things that would distract or discourage us, we cannot forget that spiritual reality. We have a responsibility to remember them and use our influence and our resources to support them. But being in fellowship with persecuted Christians is very much a two-way relationship. They can also bless us and energise our own faith through their example of perseverance, forgiveness, and hope. 

To church leaders I would say something similar. I think that we have to help our congregations understand and express the fact that we belong to a global Christian family and that many of our brothers and sisters suffer because of their faith. Entering into fellowship with them, through some kind of consistent prayer and action which is integrated into the wider rhythm of church life, helps us to express Christian love and gives us perspective and encouragement to persevere in our own walk of faith. 

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Cover photo (top) by Martin Péchy on Unsplash

Article published 30th September 2021