Restrictions and persecution are two realities that cast long shadows over work amongst unreached peoples. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity, http://www.globalchristianity.org/, estimates there are 1.8 billion unevangelized people in our world. Nearly 24% reside in forty-one majority-unevangelized (World A) countries where restrictions are severe. Nearly 73% live in fifty-three majority-evangelized, minority-Christian (World B) countries where restrictions, although lighter, remain present. Only 2% of the world's least-reached peoples live in mainly Christianized Western countries.
In general, persecution is less today than it has been under other world empires. Researchers estimate that 175,000 people are martyred each year. Under the Roman Empire, the rate of martyrdom was much more severe, and under some world empires (such as that of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane) it was catastrophic. Although more people have died for their faith in this century than in all previous centuries combined, this is not because persecution is more severe. Rather, it is because the church today is much larger, consisting of hundreds of millions of people. Even a small percentage of Christians being martyred can mean tens of thousands of people. Also, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the average rate of martyrdom, according to missiologists, has been cut nearly in half. Satan’s forces are hard at work against the Church, but the victory is through Christ Jesus is assured. Already our world has seen divine breakthroughs, and we know the best is yet to come.
However, persecution is a reality today and it reaches those who work among unreached peoples. The following is a small sampling:
– Afghanistan used to be as restrictive as Saudi Arabia. Christians were often rooted out and summarily killed. The situation is now muddled with the entrance of United States and allied forces; however, Christians in Afghanistan still face heavy restrictions, a block on open evangelism and a threat from radicals and general lawlessness.
– In Algeria Muslims may not convert to Christianity and converts may be arrested, imprisoned and ostracized. Christianity's presence in Algeria is very small and is currently declining.
– In Azerbaijan there is “officially” freedom of religion; however, an Islamic revival has caused many to be less open to Christianity. Church growth is perceived as a threat to national culture. The government pressures converts both directly and indirectly, and the church's share of Azerbaijan's population is in decline.
– Bhutan has a restriction on evangelism and conversion and Buddhism continues to form significant social and official barriers to Christianity. Converts face serious consequences for their decision to trust in Christ.
– In Brunei evangelism is illegal and there is only limited freedom of worship. The enormous influence of government subsidies form significant social barriers to the gospel.
– Cambodia is experiencing a new freedom after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Yet, although there is freedom to worship and evangelize, Christians are generally looked upon as second-class citizens. However, the church is growing rapidly.
– In Djibouti there is freedom of religion and freedom to evangelize; however, the church is very small and often harassed. Islam continues to put up strong social barriers to evangelism.
– Iran’s government is nearly as restrictive as Saudi Arabia, with secret police forces ruthlessly rooting out all Christian presence. Many horror stories of arrest, torture and executions have emerged.
– Iraq’s government under Saddam Hussein was both restrictive and somewhat amenable to Christians. Humanitarian aid was allowed and some Bible distribution was permitted. The future of governmental decisions is still unclear. There is a window of opportunity to share the gospel; however, Christians must be careful in how they go about this.
– In Israel there is freedom to evangelize within one's own community; however, Jewish Christians are granted no rights and often denied entrance. There is freedom to evangelize, but it is frowned upon. The government has unsuccessfully pressed for new restrictions on evangelism with a significant piece of anti-missionary legislation posed in the mid-1990s that did not pass.
– Jordan’s constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but guarantees freedom to worship and evangelize. Christians are even represented in the government. Evangelizing Muslims is illegal but Muslims may convert on their own, however, those who do so will face discrimination. Anyone may be a Christian without registering with the government, but registration is required to purchase and use property.
– North Korea remains one of the most closed nations. The government is solidly opposed to religion and quashes Christian groups with regularity. However, Christian groups are permitted in if they are bringing aid and relief.
– In Nepal there is constitutional freedom of religion, freedom to change religion and freedom to worship. Although not permitted, evangelism still occurs. The church in Nepal is rapidly growing—so much so that it is “growing into persecution.”
– In Oman expatriates have freedom to worship; however, there is no freedom to change religion. Christians may evangelize other expatriates but may not evangelize Muslims–and Muslims may not attend Christian services. Although there are restrictions, there is little immediate personal danger.
– Pakistan’s blasphemy law prevents Muslims from converting. There are separate electorates for religious minorities. Evangelism is not permitted and the Christian community as a whole is very fragmented. Although there are thousands of secret believers, few openly share their new faith for fear of retribution.
– Saudi Arabia’s government remains one of the most ruthless and restrictive in the world. A bounty of a year's salary is offered to anyone who reports a Bible study. Westerners are expelled if caught at a Bible study, but others—Asians, for example—are arrested, imprisoned, often tortured and sometimes killed.
– In Tajikistan freedom of religion is protected by the constitution and missionaries are allowed to evangelize openly. However, they are often opposed by local Muslims. Some churches have been attacked by radicals. Persecution is isolated but growing, and the church is in rapid decline.
– Tunisia’s constitution proclaims Islam to be the state religion and stipulates the chief of state must be a Muslim. However, it does guarantee freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. The government tolerates Christians but does not favor evangelism, and although there is little overt, harsh persecution, Islam has thoroughly permeated the society.
– In Turkey there is freedom to worship and discreet evangelism is possible; however, the church continues to struggle with the strong grip of Islam. Legal recognition of the church, although possible, is very slow, and some expatriates have been expelled from the country.
– In Turkmenistan there is limited freedom to evangelism and the church is often harassed. The number of Christians is declining rapidly, and for the foreseeable future it is likely that the size of the church will be determined by the size of the expatriate community.
Anyone wanting to contact workers in these countries would be advised to first work carefully to establish a security protocol. This is sometimes difficult. It is hard to garner support for something you cannot talk about—and yet talking about it can threaten the lives of individuals. When writing to someone, do not speak too frankly and intimately in the first email. Explain who you are and that you share their interests. Ask whether the current address is okay to use for conversation and correspondence. They may give you a different address. Also, think twice before posting their prayer letter to your church's website. Remember that anyone may have access to this information, including people who don't necessarily want to see the gospel message preached.