The challenges and rewards of sharing the Gospel in closed countries

(Photo: Unsplash/Faruk Kaymak)

Christianity Explored Ministries (CEM) says the evangelistic course is being used in at least six of the top 11 Open Doors watchlist countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. J and P, friends of CEM who cannot be named for security reasons, regularly travel to closed countries to encourage Christians and share the gospel.

They explain more about the challenges but also the opportunities for sharing the faith in countries that have little or no religious freedom. 

J and P, you've met Christians living with various amounts of persecution all around the world. I understand that most of the countries you visit are majority Muslim?

Yes - we mainly work with Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, and these countries tend to be Muslim.

We want to emphasise before we begin that the culture in these places is so different to our own, and the media doesn't always portray things accurately.

You would think Islam is a very religious religion but it's not - we have met lots of nominal Muslims, who believe in God, know about sin and heaven and are not fundamental or hostile to Christians. In fact, many are very open to Christianity. So the attitudes of some of these governments and extremist Muslims are not reflective of all people living in these countries.

Can you tell me a bit about what it's like to live as a Christian in a country that is closed to the gospel?

Christians face the most pressure from their governments and, if they convert from a Muslim background, their own families.

In many countries it is illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. People will be issued with identity cards and their religion will be clearly marked. It would be impossible for these identity cards to be changed, and Muslims will generally receive preferential treatment. In some countries if you are a Christian there will be very open discrimination and you might find it hard to get a place at university or to get a job.

It's often also illegal to evangelise in public, and it's common for the government to watch Christians and try to catch them out.

In one country Christianity is called the 'virus' because the government keeps trying to get rid of it (even with specially designated government roles) but it just keeps growing.

In places where there is extreme persecution, you hear stories of Christian girls being stolen and raped and forced into marriage. There is a certain prestige for a Muslim man who marries a Christian woman.

Sadly the culture of shame and honour means families also put converted family members under a lot of pressure. We have met many Christians who have been turned out of their houses by their families. You even hear of family members killing those who convert, and this is overlooked by the authorities.

On one trip we met a girl in her mid-20s. She seemed nervous and told us she had been a Christian for about three years. We asked if her parents knew about her faith. She said they knew there was something wrong as she stopped going to the mosque and stopped wearing the Hijab. Her family won't eat with her and she is forced to sit separately to them at mealtimes.

When we asked what would happen if they found out she was a Christian, she motioned with her finger across her neck. It's a very real danger.

How do Christians cope with this sort of pressure and suffering?

It is amazing when you meet these Christians. Despite the pressure they face, they are so happy, so committed and so grateful to have fellowship with one another.

The environment they live in does away with nominal Christianity and they are very serious about their faith.

Generally we find people to be very bold and adventurous in sharing their faith. There does seem to be a particular blessing from God that comes with being courageous and open.

On a recent trip we met a young man whose mother had him arrested and put in a sex offender's prison when she found out he was a Christian. In prison he was treated terribly. Yet despite all he had suffered, when we met him he was so buoyant and joyful.

As Christians boldly share their faith amid this persecution, are they seeing many people being converted from different backgrounds?

Yes! God really is doing amazing things in this part of the world. Huge numbers of people are coming to Christ from a Muslim background.

You hear a lot of stories of God using special means to convert Muslims through visions, dreams and miracles. This tends to happen more in places where there is not ready access to God's word - when the Bible is available in a country, you hear less stories like this.

We met one man who had been serving as a soldier, and became a Christian when he saw a vision of Jesus. When he shared this with the other soldiers, four of them became Christians too. When religious authorities found out, he was threatened and he had to flee the country for his life. This man is now marked, but after training at a seminary in a neighbouring country he now travels around training believers and evangelising.

When we visit we encourage the Christians we meet by telling them there are far more people interested and engaging in the gospel message in that part of the world than we see at home - they'll regularly get 250 people coming to find out more about Jesus, and there is such an openness among many Muslims to the gospel.

In one particular country there have been more copies of Christianity Explored printed and distributed than in the UK over the last six years. Even this figure is a modest guess - materials like this get copied over and over so it's hard to keep track of exact numbers.

Are there problems getting Christianity Explored and similar resources into closed countries?

Bringing Christian materials into these countries is often banned, so resources like Christianity Explored have to be printed within the countries. Normally this is done underground, in people's basements.

In a lot of cases, when people get the resource they copy out the pages by hand or rip out pages so if they're caught you wouldn't be able to identify where the material came from.

Can you say more about why Christianity Explored works well in these contexts?

It works well because it presents the gospel straight from the book of Mark, which is relevant to all cultures.

Christianity Explored is designed to be investigative and invites people to ask questions. In the Middle East Persians and Arabs are generally very well educated and they value education, so it's presented well for people from this kind of background.

In the case of the country we mentioned earlier, who have distributed more copies recently than in the UK, it was translated in a matter of weeks and right from the beginning there was such a demand for it.

In another country, we visit refugee camps where we help run training and children's Bible clubs. We met two Muslim background ladies who had just finished doing Christianity Explored and had come to faith. You could see in their handbooks that they had really engaged with the sessions - every page was covered in notes.

When we left the room with these women, their neighbours were booing at them. Even in refugee camps it is dangerous for people to become Christians.

Christianity Explored is also used to train Christians. Part of what we do when we visit is to provide training to people who may have grown up culturally as Christians but don't know much about the faith they have been born into due to poor teaching.

Even evangelical Christians have often got big gaps in their teaching or lack trained people to teach them. We heard of one area that hadn't had a pastor for 30 or 40 years and so the Christians there had become nominal. There is now a pastor there who uses Christianity Explored with the congregation.

What does church life look like in a closed country?

The culture is extremely sociable, so most church meetings involve long fellowship meals. People are so eager to serve and to show hospitality. They are very open and generous.

Many Christians will be part of a house church.

In the Middle East families live on top of each other and you can have several generations in one house. We heard one story of a couple who had become Christians and hosted a house church. They lived above their Muslim parents and would have to whisper when they sang hymns together - they couldn't sing out loud.

One day they forgot themselves and made too much noise. The parents heard and asked what was going on. When the daughter-in-law explained that they had become Christians, thankfully the parents didn't object but they stopped any further meetings in the house. That church now has to rent a meeting place.

One place that is generally safe for Christians to gather for church is in the least desirable part of the city, where the rubbish recycling happens. The Cave Church regularly gets 500 people meeting together there for Bible studies in the week and thousands on Sundays.

Church life is very different to where we live in the UK!

How can we, as Christians in the West, pray for our brothers and sisters in closed countries?

Without exception, whenever we ask this question to Christians we meet in these countries they tell us first what not to pray for! Remarkably, they ask that we don't pray for the persecution to stop. Instead, they ask us to pray for boldness and the ability to stand firm in the Spirit amid persecution.

We believe there is a great window of opportunity in these countries at the moment, particularly among refugees both in the Middle East and as they have spread out around the world. There is a huge amount of openness.

Do pray also for ongoing translating, printing and distribution of Bibles and materials like Christianity Explored.

Thank God for the spiritual hunger we have seen among non-Christians in these countries and pray that God would continue to move to bring many from death to life as they come into contact with His word.

This interview first appeared on the blog of Christian Explored Ministries and is republished here with permission.