A Pakistani Christian woman is sentenced to death for defiling the name of Muhammad. A suicide bomber outside a church in Egypt kills twenty-one people and wounds many more. An attack on a church in northern Nigeria by a thirty-strong Muslim mob armed with guns, knives, and petrol bombs leaves five people dead.
These incidents all happened in the last few months and are sadly typical of the plight of Christians across the Muslim world today. Many of our brothers and sisters live in constant danger of physical assault, imprisonment, and even murder and execution simply because of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Even where they are at less personal risk, they often have to endure discrimination in education and employment, as well as many restrictions on their freedom to practice their faith.
The tragedy of 9/11, which we are remembering in this issue of Tabletalk, cannot be rightly understood simply as Muslims persecuting Christians. Although Muslims were responsible for the attacks, people of different faiths (including other Muslims) and no faith died on that terrible day. But many in the Muslim world perceive such a close association between Christianity and the West that they make no real distinction between them.
So, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the unfolding events were widely seen in the Muslim world as a conflict between Islam and the supposedly “Christian” West. The result was increased suspicion and hostility toward Christian minorities and an immediate upsurge of violence against them. In the ten years since then, the involvement of Western forces in military action against the Muslim Taliban in Afghanistan and the former government of Muslim-majority Iraq has further fueled resentment and has been used as an excuse for more severe persecution of Christians in the Muslim world.
The ill-treatment of Christians by Muslims long predates 2001. It originated with the rise of Islam in the seventh century, and many factors have contributed to it through the centuries. But the 9/11 attacks and the West’s response to them have undeniably intensified Muslim antagonism toward Christians in Muslim lands to the point where the eradication of the churches in various places has become a real possibility.
Take just one example: since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Islamic militants have been trying to “cleanse” the country of all its Christians, using threats, bombings, kidnappings, and killings. Huge numbers have fled to neighboring countries, where many live in desperate circumstances. The Christian presence in Iraq is less than a third of the size it was twenty years ago.
As members of the worldwide body of Christ, Christians in the West have a special responsibility for their suffering brothers and sisters in the Muslim world. The apostle Paul exhorts his Galatian readers: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10, NIV). We are called to stand with Christians who endure discrimination and persecution because of their faith. We can do this both by practical support to relieve their needs and through our prayers.
In His story of the sheep and the goats, the Lord Jesus commends those who perform acts of mercy toward “these brothers of mine” who suffer hunger, poverty, or imprisonment (Matt. 25:34–36). In the Gospels, the true “brothers” of Jesus are His disciples, those who do the will of His Father in heaven (12:49), and He reckons the meeting of their needs as service done to Him (25:40). So, He calls us to identify with them in their persecution and suffering by means of practical care.
We are also called to pray for persecuted Christians (Heb. 13:3), and Paul shows us how effective such prayer can be in protecting or delivering them from suffering or in turning it to good. He urges the Christians in Rome to join him in his struggle for Christ by praying to God for him, not least that he might be kept safe from the hostility of those who do not believe (Rom. 15:30–31). And when writing from prison to the church in Philippi, he expresses his confidence that through their prayers and the help of God, even his sufferings will turn out for his salvation (Phil. 1:19).
But it is not only the suffering church for whom the Bible calls us to love and pray. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In this, we imitate our heavenly Father, who gives His good gifts to good and bad people alike (Matt. 5:44–45). We are to seek His blessing, through our actions and through our prayers, even for those Muslims (and others) who hate and mistreat our Christian family.
These principles should also govern our relationships with the Muslims whom we meet every day. Although most of them want only to live in peace as we do, the evil of 9/11 still lies like a shadow across the West, and many Muslims living here remain ambivalent or even hostile toward their host society and its Christian heritage — sometimes even toward its Christians. But to love them in practical ways and pray for them is the best way for us not to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21).