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IDOP: “We cannot stay silent,” says Open Doors UK & Ireland’s CEO

In a heartfelt interview, Henrietta Blyth calls for unity across the global church

Henrietta Blyth took over from Lisa Pearce as chief executive officer of Open Doors UK & Ireland this summer. In this earnest interview, the ambassador of justice implores Christians around the UK to back the charity as it fights the corners of persecuted Christians around the world.

Of all the Christians charities in the UK, why Open Doors?

As I approach the last third of my career I have been thinking about the sort of legacy I want to leave behind. I don’t want to waste my time. The most important thing to me is to contribute to building the kingdom of God around the world. We pray every day the Lord’s prayer: Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I want to be an active participant in making that happen.

Open Doors is dedicated to ensuring that the light of Christ does not go out in the countries where Christians are persecuted and under extreme pressure. Brother Andrew, the founder of the charity, was originally convicted by this verse in Revelation 3:2: Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.”

I want to encourage and support Christians around the world to stand firm in spite of the challenges they face. Their testimony and witness is in turn a huge blessing and challenge to the church in the UK. The church here is strengthened and encouraged by the stories of faith our persecuted brothers and sisters share and from the stories of what the Holy Spirit is doing right here and now across the globe.

You care a great deal about Christians who are being persecuted around the world. What ignited this compassion?

I have been passionate about justice ever since I worked for the Iona Community in my year off after school. Hearing Christian writer and political activist Jim Wallis speak at Corrymeela, a community dedicated to reconciliation in Northern Ireland, was the catalyst for me going to work overseas. Jim said, If you want to know what Jesus meant by blessed are the poor, go and live with them”. So, I did! I went to work in Nepal for two years as a volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas.

When I lived in Nepal in the 1980s there were only about 1,500 Christians in the country, and anyone who was convicted of converting from Hinduism to Christianity was condemned to seven years in prison. I remember attending an Easter service where the police were waiting at the door to take the Nepali preacher to prison. That was the first time I came across Christians being persecuted for their faith.

Twenty five years later I returned to Nepal with Tearfund and was delighted and amazed to see how the church had grown. There are now reckoned to be up to three million Christians in Nepal. When I went back there were about 100 Bible colleges in the Kathmandu valley and Christmas day had become a public holiday. 

Everywhere we went I was keen to understand how Nepalis had become Christians. Over and over again I heard stories of miraculous healings. Clearly the Holy Spirit had been moving in a miraculous way across Nepal and many people had come to faith as a result. I am convinced this move of the Spirit was enabled by the believing prayers of so many faithful people who have had a heart for Nepal and been praying for years.

Now that I have arrived at Open Doors I am immensely saddened to discover that in 2018 Nepal is number 25 on Open Doors’ World Watch List of the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians. There has been a backlash against the growth of the church. Radical Hindus have physically attacked Christians and are able to act with impunity. Christians struggle to obtain land where they can bury their dead and often resort to burying people illegally in the forest. If this is discovered, radical Hindus have been known to dig the bodies up and take them back to the homes of Christians or leave them in the street.

Open Doors works through church partners to support believers in Nepal with Bibles and Christian books, training, livelihood projects, relief aid and legal support.

Our persecuted brothers and sisters need our help; we cannot ignore them.

How have your past experiences equipped you for this role?

I have spent the last 30 years working for charities internationally and in the UK. I have also worked for several Christian organisations, including Mildmay Mission Hospital, Tearfund, Christian Aid, and InterHealth Worldwide. I understand the joys and the challenges of trying to lead organisations based on the Christian faith.

Over the years I have lived and worked with many different churches and Christians from a wide variety of church backgrounds. It is a joy to be able to build on these relationships at Open Doors.

I have visited and worked in several of the 50 countries on Open Doors’ World Watch List of the most dangerous countries for Christians. I am familiar with working cross-culturally and with many of the challenges these countries face. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to build on these experiences and to rekindle relationships.

Why is it important for Christians in the UK to think about believers around the world?

We read many times in the New Testament that as Christians we are all part of one body. If one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts. If you stub your toe, your mouth cries out in pain. So, we cry out on behalf of the parts of our body that are in pain. We cannot stay silent.

Jesus also told His disciples to love one another as He had loved them, because this is how the world will know that we are His disciples. The love we show each other demonstrates to the world our love for Jesus. The judge in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 is looking for evidence that people love him. He is looking to see whether they had met the needs of their brothers and sisters when they were hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick or imprisoned. Jesus asks the same of us today. Our persecuted brothers and sisters need our help; we cannot ignore them.

But, on top of this, I believe there is an eternal, kingdom-building imperative for us to help and support them. There are so many things that seem to be going wrong around the world. It is hard to see how we can effect positive change. How can the forces of evil be overcome? How will integrity in leadership around the world be restored? How can relationships within families, communities and between nations be out right? Jesus is the answer. 

People need to know Jesus. It is only in His strength that we can change the world. So, we need to protect and build the church around the world. We need to pray that the Lord will raise up leaders for His church, people who can teach and disciple others. We need to pray and claim the Lord’s promise that He will build His church and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. As Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon preached in 1863: The church is the world’s hope. As Christ is the hope of the church, so the Church is the hope of the world.” It is absolutely imperative therefore that the church is not destroyed.

There is also huge benefit to us in the church in the UK in getting involved with our persecuted brothers and sisters. Their witness, their courage and the stories they tell of how the Lord has strengthened them in the direst of circumstances are so convicting. If faith is the currency of God’s kingdom, we need to be doing everything we can to grow our faith. The witness and stories from the persecuted church help us do that.

We recently hosted a sister from North Korea, Hea Woo, who came and spoke at several of the summer festivals. North Korea is the most dangerous country for Christians and has been for many years: 70,000 Christians are imprisoned in detention camps. Hea Woo told us how she and other believers had held services in the toilets at the camp because they were so disgusting that the wardens would never go there. She told us how the Lord showed her that when the weather was bad, and it was pouring with torrential rain, she could worship Him at the top of her voice and nobody would hear her. Jesus shines out of her. Her witness has blessed and grown the faith of thousands of UK Christians this year.

What support would Open Doors like from Christians in the UK?

There are four things I think we need to do as Christians in the UK:

  1. Educate yourself about what is going on. In order to pray and help effectively we need to get informed and understand what is happening. The Open Doors’ World Watch List provides a wealth of information and can be found on our website: www​.open​door​suk​.org
  2. Pray. There are lots of prayer points on the website, and Open Doors produces a monthly prayer diary. We have launched a seven-year campaign of prayer for the Middle East. In the 1980s we launched a seven-year campaign of prayer for the countries behind the Iron Curtain, and seven years later the Berlin Wall came down! Prayer works.
  3. Give. Partners and churches tell us that the needs are growing. In countries like Syria it will take one or two generations to rebuild what has been destroyed. In many countries it is particularly difficult for Christians to get work. We need money to enable our partners and churches to rebuild, to set up businesses, to train pastors, and to provide Christian literature. And pastors still need money to distribute food, clothing and essentials to members of their churches and to others who are struggling in their communities. More people are coming to faith as a result of this outreach.
  4. Write to your local Member of Parliament. We need to ask members of our own government to bring pressure to bear on their counterparts. For example, North Korean Christians who escape to China are pursued by the secret police and repatriated if found. We need the Chinese Government to stop these repatriations.

How can Christians in the UK keep abreast with the work of Open Doors?

Our website is full of current stories of tremendous hope and bravery in the face of persecution. If you prefer to read off the page, then we send out prayer dairies and a magazine which you can sign up for online or get hold of by calling our team on 01993 460015. If you want to hear first-hand the amazing stories of our brothers and sisters around the world then why not join us at Standing Strong, our yearly celebration of how God is moving across the persecuted church. Again, check the website or call our team.

How will you juggle your new position and your other commitments, including the women’s ministry you lead?

I have become well used to juggling, as have most of the women I know who work and have other commitments at home and more widely! As I get older it is very important to me to invest in the next generation and so I am very committed to supporting younger women in recognising and growing their God-given potential and using their gifts to change the world.

About the author

Naomi joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2018 as editorial content manager. Positions with publishers and within the marketing and communications faculty of a higher education institution, plus stints as a reporter, have enabled the media and cultural studies graduate, who has an NCTJ diploma in newspaper journalism, to hone the necessary skills and qualities to serve members well.

See more from Naomi Osinnowo

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