In many closed countries in the Middle East, Christians cannot share their faith publicly – or, if they do, they risk attack, rejection or imprisonment. Open Doors fieldworkers like Rashid, Jonathan and Peter (names changed) courageously work with secret believers, ensuring that they don’t face persecution alone. In this interview, they explain what secret believers experience in the Middle East.
Peter: “They could be beaten up or imprisoned at home; their family will put a lot of pressure on them to return to their old faith. They can be expelled from their home and family, and some – like Taher and Donya – have to flee from home to a safe place somewhere else in the country, or in another country.”
Jonathan: “In other families, believers are seen as a curse for the family: ‘Uncle Achmed has coronavirus: that is your fault!’ They are ridiculed and humiliated. Men are beaten and may lose their job. Women are locked up or sexually abused. Because converting from Islam to another religion is illegal, they can’t just go to the police.”
Rashid: “It’s not just that the police won’t help them when they reach out, the police might even persecute them. Raids on house churches are common and many Christians are imprisoned for their faith. These raids often lead to further isolation.”
Peter: “For secret Christians, it is so important to know they are not the only believer in their city or region. Twenty years ago, some even thought they were the only believer in their country. When they find out that there are more believers in their city, and get connected, they feel more comfortable. In the past, some believers kept their faith secret their whole life – that is happening less.”
"For secret Christians, it is so important to know they are not the only believer in their city or region." Peter
Rashid: “At the same time, we see a dynamic in the opposite direction. Believers that do have a fellowship find it increasingly risky to gather and therefore become more isolated. And that can give way to unhealthy beliefs and practices in house churches.”
Jonathan: “I often hear that isolated believers feel like they have two identities: one as a Christian in their house church or online and one as a person in their family. This causes an identity crisis: some ask themselves if they can still be a citizen of their country, if they are a Christian.”
Peter: “They also struggle with their safety: How to hide their newfound faith? Where to hide their Bible, if they have one? How can they hiddenly pray?”
Peter: “Lockdown has made life harder for secret believers – particularly those whose families aren’t Christian. They need to be in the same space as their family the whole time, without having an ‘escape’. It is more difficult to hide their faith. There are more incidents because of them being close to their potential persecutors the whole time. More secret believers are being discovered, arrested and imprisoned during the pandemic.
“But on the other hand, the number of secret believers engaging in our online programmes has doubled! That’s because so many people have to stay at home, and spend more time online.”
Jonathan: “Community really is the key word here. Having others to share faith with helps to endure persecution. We have a lot of online programmes to be able to reach seekers and new believers, and help them get connected to people who can follow up with them. These people give new Christians pastoral care, help them grow in faith and connect them to a community of believers if possible.”
Rashid: “There’s material for more advanced believers and help to develop the skills that are needed in a house church. For instance, we invest in leadership and trauma care and help the church ‘love their neighbour’ by providing care in this crisis. This was a calling strongly felt by local Christians.”
Peter: “We also help secret believers with their direct needs. Sometimes this will be practical help like food and medicine, but also legal support or helping believers move to another part of the country, to escape persecution.”
Jonathan: “The interesting thing is that, while one might expect the practical help to be valued most, it’s not always the case. There is a real hunger to know more about Christ in our region. Recently a group of believers in a bad economic situation told me that they were happy with their food packages, but that they valued the discipleship material even more.”
Rashid: “We need supporters to help the church to find hope amid suffering and persecution. The church can still be the ambassadors of Christ's life-transforming gospel if supported and encouraged. We need to continue equipping them to grow in discipleship and disciple making. This growing church will need to develop its emerging leaders and look after its suffering members.”
"Even though we don’t speak their language, and can’t put an arm around them – nobody should face persecution alone." Jonathan
Jonathan: “When we don’t support the Christian community in the Middle East to grow in faith and stand strong in the face of persecution, many will fall back in their old faith. This isn’t only a loss for themselves, it prevents the church from maturing.”
Rashid: “The worldwide church needs to speak up for secret believers and for those who have been exposed and are in prison. These persecuted believers need to be assured that the church globally is amplifying their voice and advocates for them.”
Jonathan: “Most importantly, we need our supporters to not cease their prayers. Apart from the value prayer has in itself, it also helps secret believers to know that people are praying for them. Even though we don’t speak their language, and can’t put an arm around them – nobody should face persecution alone.”
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