May 25, 2017

Persecution yesterday and today: the moment to be bold

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Painting of St. Stephen's martyrdom / Credit: Rembrandt
Painting of St. Stephen's martyrdom / Credit: Rembrandt

According to a report issued by the Center for Studies on New Religions, there were 90,000 Christians killed for their faith in 2016. As Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project has said, “There are many places on earth where being a Christian is the most dangerous thing you can be.” Open Doors, a non-denominational organization which supports persecuted Christians in more than 60 countries, has reported that there are 215 million Christians today who face intimidation, physical harm, loss of property and even death simply because they were Christians.

The media will give some reports of the ongoing attempts by ISIS radicals to wipe out Christianity in Syria and Iraq. But, Christians are being persecuted in many other places, such as Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Even in North and South America where Christianity is accepted, Christians are under attack for their beliefs.

From her very birth, the Church has faced persecution. After healing the lame beggar at the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem, Peter preaches the gospel. He is immediately arrested along with John and brought to trial. Before being released, they are warned to cease their preaching. But, they do not. Because they refused to be silent, they are once again dragged before the Sanhedrin. Peter boldly responds to their adversaries, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Jesus had prepared his disciples for persecution. In the Sermon on the Mount, he told them, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12). At the Last Supper, Jesus again reminded them of the hardships yet ahead. He said, “A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn 15:20).

At the Ascension, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit who would empower the Church for mission. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). For about one year and a half after the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost, the Apostles stayed in Jerusalem, building up the infant Church. But, when the first Christian was martyred, the swaddling bands were stripped away and the Church moved into the world.

On the very day on which the deacon Stephen became the first Christian martyr, “there broke out a severe persecution of the Church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria…” (Act 1:8). What the enemies of the faith had done to destroy the Church only served to quicken her missionary Spirit. “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch…” (Acts 11:19).

We see persecution from this side of heaven. God’s view far exceeds our limited vision. His wisdom is wider than our understanding. He turns every persecution into a moment of growth for the Church. What appears to be a hindrance becomes a help. God used the very first persecution to move the Church to begin fulfilling the Great Commission, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt: 28:19). With the martyrdom of Stephen, the missionary spirit of the Church burst into activity. And, so it continues today.

In 1979, the Pahlavi dynasty under the Shah of Iran was overthrown by a hardline Islamic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini. Christian missionaries were expelled. Persian bibles banned. Conversions outlawed. Muslims who became Christians faced opposition and even the death penalty.

Christianity had a birthright going back to Pentecost itself when, among the first converts were Persians, Parthians and Medes (cf. Acts 2:9). Despite sporadic persecutions over the centuries, there had always been a continuous Christian presence in Iran. But, with ever increasing pressure, the new Islamic regime was intent on extinguishing the last glowing embers of the Christian faith.

However, Iranian Christians facing persecution have been responding like Peter and John before the Sanhedrin. They boldly speak about Christ, obeying not man, but God. “As a result, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran” (Mark Howard, “The Story of Iran’s Church in Two Sentences,” April 17, 2017).

God’s ways are not man’s ways. As we face persecution for our Christian faith, as our secularized society labels us bigots and intolerant for holding to Jesus’ teaching on God’s design for marriage and on the sacred gift of life itself, we should not be discouraged. The Holy Spirit has been given us to make Christ known as Lord and Savior and to make his Church truly be his presence in the world. This is a moment to boldly speak our faith and boldly live our faith.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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