In many parts of the world, the decision to follow Jesus has an exceptionally high cost. A public declaration of Christian faith can lead to harassment from your local community and government authorities, the loss of your home, livelihood, family, and even death.

Many of the people we work with find their faith in Jesus to be a comfort in the face of such intense danger, committing their suffering to God and drawing on promises such as that of 1 Peter 4:14: If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” Sometimes, that commitment blossoms into extraordinary courage and faith. Many of you will be familiar with the story of Leah Sharibu, a 15-year-old girl who was abducted last year alongside 110 of her classmates from their school in Dapchi, Nigeria by Boko Haram. 

A few months later, the government negotiated the release of the girls. But, as they were being loaded onto the trucks that would carry them home, Leah, the sole Christian in the group, refused to renounce her faith to ensure her freedom. Her friends begged her to pretend to convert, but Leah refused, saying that her conscience wouldn’t allow her to make such a choice. One year later and Leah remains a prisoner of this jihadist terrorist organisation which has said she will be their slave for life. Leah’s courage has inspired thousands of people around the world to pray and campaign for her release.

Two Nigerian newspapers even declared her Person of the Year 2018’, and she has been dubbed a goddess of resistance’ for her stalwart faith. This faith and endurance are also seen in entire communities. In Surabaya, Indonesia, three churches were left reeling after a devastating, simultaneous bomb attack. Thirteen people were killed and many more injured. When our East Asia team leader, Benedict Rogers, visited the churches to offer support and solidarity, he was shown upper rooms that had been turned into charnel houses by the blast. Benedict met with some of the leaders of the churches, including Father Aloysius Widyawan of Santa Maria church, who described the extraordinary response of his congregation: There was no anger, no criticism of other religions. There was only forgiveness and prayer. 

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Of course they had not conferred with each other. It came from their heart. People from other religions came to them to show sympathy. Our message: It’s about equality, solidarity and unity. Keep doing good, don’t discriminate, and work for equality, solidarity and unity. Respect for God means respect for other persons.” It was clear that the congregations of Surabaya had found the strength to forgive their attackers through that same identity of faith in Jesus that had made them a target for such horrific violence in the first place. One mother, who lost her two young sons in the attack, told us: I have already forgiven the bombers. I don’t want to cry anymore. I know that our mother Mary also lost her Son, Jesus. I forgive.”

Her friends begged her to pretend to convert, but Leah refused.

However, these heroic narratives of faith under intense pressure only tell one side of the story. It is equally true that the people who face these harrowing situations are, simply, people, with loved ones whose suffering tears at their hearts, and living can become intolerable in the face of severe harassment and the threat of death. In some cases, the pressure to renounce their faith proves almost too much to bear. In 2009, Pastor Omar Gude Perez was sentenced to prison for leading a church network in Cuba. Conditions in the prison were brutal: he was only allowed visits from his wife, Kenia, every three weeks; and she had to bring him basic supplies such as toiletries and soap, funded from their own dwindling finances. At times he was fed rotten food, and he was denied medical treatment for high blood pressure. He would regularly be forced to undress in front of the other prisoners to humiliate him. To make matters even worse, while Omar was in prison, the authorities repeatedly threatened Kenia with confiscating the family home.

Omar knew that if he renounced his Christian faith and committed to the violence that ruled the prison, he would have an easier life. Feeling that God had forgotten him, Omar made a plan to kill one of the prison gang leaders to establish himself in their place. But before he could carry out his plan, Kenia visited him with a card from a Christian Solidarity Worldwide supporter. The simple message, written by a little girl, said God still has faith in you, and I trust you.” This powerful reminder of Omar’s true identity in Christ strengthened his faith while also breaking his heart. He confessed his plan to Kenia and recommitted himself to living for Jesus, no matter how terrible conditions in the prison became. Ultimately, Omar was set free after serving just three years of his sentence. He now lives in the US with Kenia and his family.

Sadly, some stories of faith under pressure don’t have such a happy ending. In 2017, our founder and chief executive, Mervyn Thomas CMG, visited Iraq and met a Christian family that was starved out of their home and village when Daesh (Islamic State) took over their village. Both mother and son were taken by Daesh and forced to convert. As they talked, the mother told Mervyn that she said the words but in her heart didn’t convert. And her 12-year-old son, seeing those who refused to convert and join Daesh executed in front of him, felt there was no other choice but to join Daesh to save their lives. Though the boy has now left Daesh and returned to live with his mother, their village no longer trusts them (as they are, in the eyes of their community, apostates), and they are more isolated than ever.

These heroic narratives of faith under intense pressure only tell one side of the story.

Mervyn also met a Christian woman in Iraq named Mariam, who had been taken as a slave by Daesh when they attacked her village. Mariam was sold from man to man like cattle, repeatedly raped, and was at one point tied to a post, naked, with a for sale’ sign around her neck for potential buyers to examine. Heartbreakingly, her release brought no relief. Due to the brutal way Daesh had used her, Mariam has been shunned by her Christian community and spends most of her time indoors, severely traumatised by her double suffering. It is as if, for Mariam’s village, her identity as a Christian has been obscured by the terrible things done to her by Daesh.

We can see this kind of tension, the way that we don’t always respond as we would hope to under pressure, in Matthew 26:69 – 75 – Peter’s infamous denial of Jesus. Nobody could argue that Peter did not literally find his identity in Christ. His very name, Peter, was given to him by Jesus to signify his role as the foundation (rock) of the church. However, we are privileged here to see Peter’s very darkest moment, when his faith buckles under the pressure of Jesus’ arrest and impending persecution, and he denies being a follower of Christ. It’s also worth noting that Peter was not being tortured, or even questioned by a soldier. He wasn’t even under arrest. And yet, the pressure was intolerable to him and he denied Jesus.

Peter’s story is a valuable reminder that we must be careful not to expect from other Christians what we cannot know for ourselves. We can never dream of a situation like that of Gao Zhisheng’s daughter, Grace, whose every move at 14 years old was monitored by security forces who even took note of how long she spent in the bathroom (imagine the intense shame of that for a teenage girl). Or of Helen Berhane, an Eritrean gospel singer who spent months locked in an airless, lightless shipping container designed to break her sanity. We should pray that we never come to church, as many Christians in Cuba do, and find the building shuttered or demolished.

Yet, that isn’t the end of the story – not for Peter and not for any of the people we work with. We know that Peter’s journey continues and takes him from that dark courtyard to a beach, and to a reaffirmation of faith. In a beautiful act of forgiveness, Jesus eats with Peter and offers him the absolution that he must have feared had vanished the moment the rooster crowed. Peter denied his identity in Christ three times – but he found forgiveness all the same.

From this we can see that Christ promises us suffering – yes – but He also promises us forgiveness and love in the face of our own human frailty. That is, after all, the entire reason He came – His sacrifice on the cross atoning for all that we cannot achieve ourselves. If we truly love those members of our church family who are being persecuted for their beliefs, then we must love all of them, from the courage and defiance of Leah Sharibu, to the loving sacrifice of a 12-yearold boy pledging his allegiance to Daesh and radical Islam to save his elderly mother.