Last week, 33 individuals who were attempting to establish an underground church were sentenced to death. The missionary who was assisting them has been imprisoned for months, and his fate, like all of those he has come in contact with, is still perilously undetermined.
Officially, their crimes are related to “attempting to overthrow” the regime of dictator Kim Jong-un. But in North Korea, where the lines between state-allegiance and cult-like devotion to government leaders is so blurry that it may no longer exist, the crimes of being a Christian and opposing the regime are one and the same.
A growing martyrdom
If the government goes through with the executions, the 33 people will be joining a growing group of martyrs who have paid a price for their faith that’s almost completely unknown in most parts of the West. They represent a dramatic divide within the Church—in the very same Body of Christ, there are those who daily risk death for their faith and those whose biggest daily risk is taking it for granted.
In 2013, the number of Christian martyrs globally doubled over the previous year, with the organization Open Doors reporting the deaths of 2,123 Christians.
A representative of Open Doors told Reuters, however, the actual number could be much higher: “This is a very minimal count based on what has been reported in the media and we can confirm.” The news agency noted that some religious watchers say that their were as many as 8,000 Christians killed for their faith last year.
Victims of conflict
While American churches squabble over doctrinal debates and celebrity pastor faux pas, in many places in Africa and the Middle East, thousands of Christians have found themselves in the middle of conflicts where they are easy targets in attacks that aren’t merely idealogical—they are literally a matter of life or death.
Aside from Saudi Arabia, where practicing a religion other than Islam is outright banned, many of the countries highlighted in the Open Doors report are marred in conflict or government instability.
In Nigeria—where even attacks on school children receiving non-Islamic education are becoming common—1,403 Christians were killed for their faith from 2011 to 2013. In other developing countries such as the Central African Republic, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia, where anti-Christian religious ideology can go unchecked by weak or complacent law enforcement, Christians have been frequently, and openly, targeted.
Perhaps the worst of the conflict areas last year was Syria, where a civil war that has been raging for three years has devastated the population, displacing millions, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving much of a generation without access to an educational resources or basic social services.
Christians in the country—who make up roughly 10 percent of the population—have been faced with especially difficult circumstances. With the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad on one side and an opposition that’s partly composed of radical Islamic factions, Christians are literally caught in the middle of a bloody fight with no end in site.
Early in the conflict, churches were destroyed, Christians were targeted in violent attacks and kidnappings were commonplace, but now the persecution has taken on a more organized turn through extortion campaigns. A recent Public Radio International investigation found that the practice of “jizya” (taxing Christians for “protection”) is “being revived in Syria.”
The alternatives to paying the tax are grim. Nadim Nassar, a Syrian pastor living in London, told PRI, “Imagine the minorities in Syria, which are part of the social fabric of the society, are asked either to pay a levy, a tax—an Islamic tax—for their protection, or become Muslims, or get killed.”
These are not empty threats. In Syria alone, Open Doors reported that 1,213 were killed because of their faith—that’s more than were killed around the world in all of 2012.
How we can help
For Christians in the West, the problem can seem too big or too far away to be worth engaging in. But for those of us who can largely practice their faith openly, without the fear of violence, there are ways to help fellow believers facing seemingly insurmountable opposition. Here are a few of the organizations helping persecuted Christians.
Liberty in North Korea, raises awareness about the plight of those subject to the dictatorship of Kim Jong-un and aids those attempting to escape the country.
The group Voice of the Martyrs also has a number of resources for individual Christians and Western Churches to help Christian communities around the world through prayer, aid, awareness and advocacy.
There’s also the Biblical reminder to pray—both for those facing persecution (“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering,” Heb. 13:3) and those who persecute them ( “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” Matt. 5:44-45).
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.