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19 December 2014

Counting the cost of following Christ

Counting the cost of following Christ

This summer the persecution of Christians reached the national headlines, as Meriam Ibrahim was released from a death sentence in Sudan and Iraqi Christians were driven out of their homes in their thousands. According to secular group the International Society for Human Rights, Christians face 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today, while the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that 11 Christians die every hour because of their faith.

So what is it like to live out your faith in the face of opposition, simply because of your identity as a Christian?

Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, describes what life is like for Christians in Pakistan. "They face fear, poverty and discrimination on a daily basis. Many are locked in a cycle of poverty and illiteracy, and there is continuous fear of attack or blasphemy accusations.

"About 40 per cent of Christians in Pakistan are ffectively slaves – bonded labourers of one sort or another."

"I gave up everything, including my family, for Christ, and all I got in return was meetings."

School textbooks describe Pakistani identity as synonymous with Islam, with Christians made to feel they are abandoning their national identity and treated as second-class citizens.

Christians are particularly vulnerable to blasphemy accusations under Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws (Section 295C of the Penal Code). Pakistan has been named the number one enforcer of blasphemy laws in the world, and many Christians are falsely accused by others and kept on remand for years. Even if they are acquitted, they face a life on the run hiding from violent mobs.

These mobs often take the law into their own hands, as seen on 4 November 2014 when Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi, brick-kiln workers in Kasur, near Lahore, were falsely accused of burning the Qu'ran. News of their 'blasphemy' spread to surrounding villages, with several mosques using loudspeakers to call for their deaths. Tragically, the couple were beaten, paraded naked and then burnt alive, leaving their three children orphaned.

Many families flee their homes in fear of their lives. Sheem Gill, former chairman of the Scottish Asian Christian Fellowship, explains that usually only those from well-off families are able to seek asylum abroad. On arrival in the UK, many face intense questioning to prove that they are Christians. Groups such as the Scottish Asian Christian Fellowship and the British Pakistani Christian Association, members of the Alliance, provide a network for Pakistani Christians living in the UK, and also arrange protest marches and petitions for the persecuted Church in Pakistan.

Pressure to convert to Islam is intense, with Christian women and girls facing kidnap, rape and forced conversion, followed by forced marriages, which often mean they never see their families again. In most cases the police side with the kidnappers, with parents sometimes beaten by police. Fathers who refuse to convert to Islam can be punished through the rape of their daughters, some as young as two.

Christians who are born into a Muslim family in Pakistan can be identified as 'apostates' through compulsory identity cards that display the religion they are born into. Wilson Chowdhry explains that while the civil service has procedures to change identification from Christian to Muslim, there is no such process for those converting from Islam to another religion.

Mohamad Fiaz was born into a Muslim Pakistani family in the UK and chose to become a Christian in his late teens after questioning Islam. He experienced love and compassion from Christians while living in a Salvation Army hostel, confirming to him that Jesus was the true way.

"I haven't seen my family for almost 30 years.They took it as a personal attack," Mohamad told me. He has lived outside of the Asian community in the UK ever since, explaining: "If I return to the Islamic community in any town, I'm considered an apostate and would get into trouble."

But for Mohamad there is no question that he will continue in his faith, despite the opposition he faces: "When you know the truth and reality of who Christ is, you can't turn away from it. You'd have to be totally mad to turn away. I stand firm in that."

Mohamad's story offers a sobering challenge to the UK Church, which he has often found to be "superficial".

"I gave up everything, including my family, for Christ, and all I got in return was meetings."

Mohamad feels that genuine fellowship and practical support is lacking in churches, describing stories of Christians from all walks of life who have experienced a lack of care. These include a single friend in Scotland who has never been invited to visit anyone from her church, and an elderly man who was not visited by his church leadership or house group members while in hospital. Rather than making excuses for our own inactions, he calls on us to treat each other as we would our own family.

The reality is that under Christ we are one family, and: "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it," 1 Corinthians 12:26. Because of this, the Evangelical Alliance's Religious Liberty Commission exists to bring together organisations working on behalf of persecuted Christians to speak with one voice. Along with member organisations CSW, Open Doors and Release International, we are encouraging the UK Church to pray and act on behalf of our persecuted family across the world.

Mohamad Fiaz's full story will be released in 2016 in the book Apostate.

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