May 21, 2008

Life in the Lions' Den

2008 1515 page8 capHERE ARE 10 COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD where religious freedom is nonexistent. More than 40 countries impose serious restrictions on religious minorities. What would your life be like if you lived in one of those countries?

Faithful Under Pressure
In most of these countries, sharing your faith with the hope that people will join your church is forbidden by the state. It is also seen as betrayal by the community and by one’s extended family. In 22 countries changing religions is a crime.
Imagine that every person you talk to about your faith who chooses to adopt that faith is now in danger of death—not ostracism, but death. At best, they will be rejected by their families, lose their jobs, and sooner or later be totally marginalized. You’ll have serious problems too. Religious fanatics may execute you; at the very least, you and your family will be ostracized.

In 1999, authorities in Turkmenistan destroyed the only Adventist church building in the country. Later, one of the members invited others to worship God with her in her apartment. The police came, took the names of the people, and made her life so difficult that she had to leave the country. She lost everything. Why? Because she held a prayer meeting in her apartment.

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Related StoriesPolice recently raided church meetings in several countries, arrested the pastors, took names and addresses of the attendees, and threatened parents that their children would be taken from them. How would you react if you lived in such a country?

Maintaining a Low Profile
In some countries Christian minorities have survived for centuries by avoiding any kind of proselytism. For them the equation was simple: to survive, live your faith in your community but don’t try to share it. If you openly share, your family and your religious community will be in serious trouble.
They identified themselves as Christians, but since they didn’t threaten the established order, they survived. They had to exist to be witnesses, and they did their best to be Jesus’ witnesses by their presence. They witnessed to the power of the gospel by living a consistent Christian life. Spectacular evangelistic activities would have threatened their presence and ended their testimony forever.
This may be difficult to understand for those of us who live in countries where we have freedom of religion. We enjoy the privilege of public preaching, using media, and being protected by the authorities. In the country where I live, you can criticize the beliefs of other religions with few problems, except for embarrassing your own people. It is possible to make a lot of money in the business of religion. This is part of the freedom of expression, and we happily use it—sometimes without thinking about the consequences. This isn’t the case for at least 1 million Adventists who live in countries where they have to act judiciously to survive and share their light.

I’ve visited several of the 50 countries where religious freedom is limited or nonexistent. I saw the result of religious fanaticism and intolerance. I saw the remains of houses, universities, and churches that had been burned. I talked with Adventist families who spent weeks under the threat of being killed or losing everything because they didn’t practice the state-sponsored religion. They survived, and they are now a light in the darkness.
Imagine living in such a repressive country. You get up Friday morning, happy because Sabbath is coming. But you’re likely to face hostility, recrimination, or mockery from your employer, your coworkers, or your schoolteachers. Why? Tomorrow, Saturday, you won’t go to school or to work. You may lose your job or be forced by the police to send your children to school. People will see you as strange, different, potential spies for a Christian country. The glances people give will say: What are you doing here? If our religion isn’t good enough for you, just leave and join your friends in America! You have to explain again and again why you’ve chosen to live as you do. You’ll feel alone, defenseless.
2008 1515 page8Every time you watch the news, you pray that Christians in America will say nothing that could instigate violence from your countrymen against you. Unfortunate statements by religious leaders have sometimes resulted in the killing of Christians around the world. Who will protect you? Who will protect your children? Will your neighbors, colleagues, or teachers differentiate between you and your fellow believers living in America? Will Christians in other countries think about you before they speak?
You pray, because you are in the lions’ den and they are not. You also pray that you won’t have to face another Waco tragedy, where the Adventist name was mentioned unflatteringly again and again by the media. It could turn your life and your family’s life upside down. You are in the lions’ den, and even though the lions are quiet for the moment, their mood can quickly change.
To survive in the lions’ den you must be faithful, you must pray, and you must use good judgment. Your dream is to live in a country where you have religious freedom, where your children can choose and train for a profession they love, where you can share your faith with others, and where your rights are protected. You are in the lions’ den, and there you are the light, the sign of the kingdom of God. You are sure of one thing: God is your protector and your life is in His hands. You are in the lions’ den, but God has the power to shut the lions’ mouths.
John Graz is director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department for the General Conference.