Jesus told His followers that the world would hate them (John 15:18-19), so it’s no surprise that people who wear His name around the world are still being persecuted in our day. Many of these Christian brothers and sisters remain anonymous to the world, known only to the Father they serve and suffer for.
Some of these believers and their stories, however, rise to the consciousness (and hopefully prayer lists) of Christians around the world, and even to the pages of major newspapers and airwaves of national news broadcasts.
Here are ten important stories of Christian persecution that reached that level in the past ten years:
10. ISIS establishment of a “Caliphate” where Christians weren’t welcome.
When ISIS began to control territory in 2014 and establish its so-called caliphate, Christian homes and businesses were marked with the nuun symbol, the Arabic-letter-N for “Nazarene” that signified followers of Jesus. Traditional Christians were offered the choice to flee and forfeit their homes or pay a jizya subjugation tax and remain in the caliphate. Former Muslim converts to Christianity were also given two choices: return to Islam immediately or be killed. Tens of thousands of Christians fled their homes in Iraq and Syria, moving to camps within their nation or in surrounding nations. Many of those are still trying to recover and put their lives back together.
At the height of the ISIS onslaught, I interviewed an Iraqi pastor. As we finished our conversation I asked him how American Christians could pray. I won’t ever forget his first request: “Pray that God will call Christians to stay here.” There were so many good and logical reasons to flee. Many of his church members had left for Europe or North America. But he was asking us to pray that some Christians would feel called to stay and to continue gospel outreach in their nation.
9. Churches closed in Iran; Church explodes in Iran.
The church in Iran exploded in growth over the past 10 years as the people of the Islamic Republic have lost faith in their Islamic government—and also in Islam itself. In 2013, Tehran’s Assemblies of God church building was closed—one of the last “building churches” holding services in Farsi that remained open in the country. Today, all building churches are closed. All Christian meetings occur in private homes, in parks or some other location, and all of them are illegal. House church leaders are arrested, interrogated and imprisoned, yet the church continues to grow. There are estimates that as many as one million Iranians are now following Jesus Christ.
8. Pastor Andrew Brunson arrested, tried and eventually released in Turkey.
It is difficult to imagine being more high-profile than having President Trump tweet about your case. When Andrew and Norine Brunson went to the police station in October of 2016, they thought they were about to receive permanent resident status in Turkey. Instead Andrew would be held for two years in prison, charged with helping to lead a coup against Turkish President Erdogan.
Since his release Pastor Brunson has been open about the great difficulty he endured in prison; wrestling with his own faith in God and at one point even wondering if he was losing his sanity.
7. Omar al-Bashir removed from power in Sudan after decades of targeting Christians.
Bashir’s Islamist government had long targeted Christians in South Sudan; with the separation of that area into a separate, new nation in 2011, Bashir’s government turned more attention to Christians in his new, smaller country.
Meriam Ibrahim was arrested for apostasy and sentenced to execution. Czech Christian Petr Jasek—my coworker at The Voice of the Martyrs—was sentenced to life in prison for alleged espionage before the Czech government arranged for his release. Two Christians charged with colluding with Petr were also found guilty, sent to prison, and later released.
But late in 2018 Sudan’s people rose up and demanded a change. Bashir’s government was removed from power in 2019, with surprisingly-little bloodshed. The former dictator was arrested and is currently locked in one of the prisons where Petr was held.
6. John Chau’s martyrdom on North Sentinel Island.
It was just before Thanksgiving in 2018 when the world learned that a young American had been killed by islanders on North Sentinel Island, a small island belonging to India whose inhabitants are completely cut off from the world. The initial news reports painted John Chau as an adventure-seeker or some kind of Christian Indiana Jones. There was criticism, including from many in the Christian community. What was he thinking? What kind of diseases did he expose the North Sentinelese to? Why take such risks?
The details that have emerged since paint a much deeper portrait of a young man who’d been preparing for years to go to the island to share God’s love with the North Sentinelese people. And today, thousands of Christians are praying for the people on an island that they had never heard of before John Chau landed his kayak on the beach there.
5. Hindu nationalism’s rise to power in India.
When Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister in India, he presented himself as the can-do, pro-business leader who’d brought electricity to thousands of citizens in his home state of Gujarat. What he didn’t talk about as much, but was well-known by India’s voters, was his background in the Hindu-nationalist RSS movement that aims to make every Indian citizen a Hindu and make non-Hindus feel as unwelcome as possible.
After his initial election in 2014, Modi was re-elected in 2019 with an even stronger majority, and he’s keeping campaign promises to his RSS base by ending Muslim autonomy in Kashmir and now offering citizenship to non-Muslims from surrounding countries.
Indian Christians received a clear message as they watched Modi’s government take action: you aren’t welcome, and you won’t be protected. Hindu nationalists also received a message: attacks on Christians or other religious minorities will be tolerated and even encouraged by Modi and his RSS-backed government.
4. Changes in China.
The past 10 years have seen an alarming increase of persecution of Christians (and Muslims) in China, spearheaded by Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping. New laws on religion took affect at the beginning of 2018 and have led to marked increases in church demolitions, arrests of church leaders and control over all religious activities in China. Concurrently, China has created a surveillance state that tracks every Chinese citizen everywhere in China, making underground Christian work significantly more difficult.
Numerous unregistered churches have been closed down, and several well-known Chinese pastors are currently in prison. In addition to persecuting Christian citizens, China has attempted to force out foreign Christians, with numerous foreigners finding that their visas have been revoked or won’t be renewed.
3. Asia Bibi’s Blasphemy Case in Pakistan
Asia Bibi’s persecution saga spanned almost all of the decade as she was arrested in 2009, then sentenced to death by a lower court. Her appeal process took years before the Supreme Court of Pakistan finally ruled in October, 2018, that there was no basis for the blasphemy charges against her and ordered her release.
But even after their order, it took more than six months before she was allowed to leave Pakistan for an undisclosed new home where her protection can be better insured.
In spite of the eventual just outcome in Asia’s case, the blasphemy laws that sent her to prison and are often used as a cudgel to settle disputes are still on the books in Pakistan.
2. Chibok girls kidnapped in Nigeria, just one chapter in the story of the rise of Boko Haram and Islamist jihadists within the Fulani tribe.
The rise of social media in this decade placed this 2014 story of 276 kidnapped girls—many of whom were Christians—in front of millions of people, as thousands—including first lady Michelle Obama—tweeted the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.
Five years later, too many of those girls are still missing, and the problem of Islamist jihad attacks not only continues in Northern Nigeria but has spread to Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and other nearby nations.
Christians are targeted, and Nigeria’s government has shown neither the will nor the ability to put a stop to the attacks—something that is unlikely to change with the arrival of 2020.
1. 21 men killed on the beach in Libya by ISIS butchers.
Like Leni Riefenstahl in 1930’s Germany, the terrorists of ISIS clearly understand the power of moving pictures. The group made sure to release a high-definition record of their evil, from the burning of a Jordanian pilot to the beheadings of western hostages. Images from the 2015 murder of 21 “people of the cross” on a beach in Libya is seared into the memory of millions. The men—20 Coptic Christians from Egypt and one Christian from Ghana—were hailed as martyrs and heroes back home. The video captured some of them saying, in the final seconds of their earthly life, “Jesus help me.”
Christians around the world were inspired by their courageous faith. They could have saved their lives by accepting Islam. Yet, knowing what awaited them, they chose the way of Christ.
There will be more stories of Christian persecution in 2020 and beyond—Jesus’ promises are always true. And Christians in free nations will have more opportunities to be inspired—and to pray for—Christians who choose Christ over their comfort or even their lives.
Todd Nettleton is the host of The Voice of the Martyrs Radio, a weekly half-hour program heard on 1000+ radio stations and by podcast listeners around the world. Todd has served with The Voice of the Martyrs for 21 years and speaks regularly at VOM Advance Conferences. He has traveled to more than 20 restricted and hostile nations and interviewed hundreds of believers who faced persecution for their Christian witness. He is the author of Restricted Nations: North Korea and was part of the writing team for four other VOM books.