Editor’s Note: In preparation for the the Nov. 9 International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, Interim editor Paul Tuns interviewed Glenn M. Penner, executive director of The Voice of the Martyrs.
The Interim: What is Voice of the Martyrs. When and why was it started?
Glenn Penner: The Voice of the Martyrs is a Canadian Christian ministry committed to glorifying God by serving his persecuted church around the world. The Voice of the Martyrs was founded in the mid-1960’s by Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, who was imprisoned and tortured by Communist authorities in his native Romania for 14 years. While still in prison, Pastor Wurmbrand envisioned a ministry that would focus on the plight of the persecuted church, raise a voice on their behalf and provide encouragement and assistance to them. The story of Richard Wurmbrand and his burden for persecuted Christians around the world is recounted in his many books, most notably in his book, “Tortured for Christ.”
TI: What is your role (full title) with VOM and how long have you been with them? How did you get involved?
GP: I have been the chief executive officer of VOM for the past two years. I have been with VOM since September of 1997, serving as the communications director for the first nine years of my ministry. I got involved after I returned from the Ukraine as a missionary and was looking for a way to continue to serve the Lord. I had been previously involved in ministering in eastern Europe during the communist era.
TI:. Many people think Christian persecution is a relic of the past, but it in reality it is very much a tragic part of the world today. How extensive is the persecution of Christians globally?
GP: The persecution of Christians takes place in one form or another in every country in the world. The more extreme forms, of course, where Christians are physically assaulted, arrested, tortured and killed are where the Voice of the Martyrs focuses its work. Some studies indicate that over 167,000 Christians have been killed for the faith in the past year alone. This has been a fairly consistent figure since I joined VOM in 1997. Hundreds of thousands of others in much of the developing world especially daily face violence and imprisonment for being Christians. It takes place on every inhabited continent apart from Australia. The most significant growth of persecution has been in Asia in recent years, especially China and India. Most people assume that it is Muslims who are the primary persecutors of Christians today. This isn’t necessarily so.
TI: What are the different ways in which people around the world are persecuted for their faith?
GP: It really depends on the country. Persecution worldwide really does reflect the biblical perspective. Persecution in the Bible manifests itself within a broad spectrum, ranging from mildly hostile to intensely hostile actions. These actions range from ridicule, restriction, certain kinds of harassment or discrimination, ostracism to kidnapping, torture, imprisonment, sexual assaults or killing (see Matthew 6:11-12; 10:14 -28; Luke 6:22; 2 Corinthians 11:23-29; James 1:2 and others).
Persecution, from a biblical perspective, must be understood to encompass actions spanning the full range of hostility, whether they are violent, physical, psychological or social. We cannot define persecution strictly on the basis of the level of harm it might cause or the level of hostility in which it occurs. To do so would be inconsistent with Scripture. The issue that missions like the Voice of the Martyrs must consider is at what point on this spectrum we see our involvement as necessary. We tend to focus our attention on the more severe kinds of persecution. But literally every day, we receive reports of violent attacks, rapings, kidnappings, imprisonments and killings of believers around the world.
TI: You said that Christians are persecuted in every country. Do you include Canada and the United States? How are Christians persecuted here at home?
GP: I would say that Christians in the West are persecuted on the milder end of the spectrum: ridicule, certain kinds of harassment or pressure to compromise or face consequences like job loss, etc., sometimes rejection from families. The fact is, the Bible makes it clear that anyone who will follow Jesus will face persecution. If we do not face persecution, it could be because we have ceased to live with a proper and appropriate antagonism to the world. We fit in too well; there is no reason to persecute us.
TI: In general, is the danger Christians face perpetrated by governments, organizations (including other religious groups) or simply unruly, disorganized bands of individuals (mobs)?
GP: It’s all of the above. As Westerners, we tend to think of persecution more as governmentally organized phenomena. In many countries, it is led, however, by religious leaders who stir up mob attacks on Christians in the region. In some cases, the persecution even comes from family members who either try to cleanse their family honour or to pressure loved ones into reconverting to the prior religion.
TI: Even in places where the government is not officially the persecuting threat to Christians, in many places such persecution is tolerated, isn’t it?
GP: Absolutely. In Ethiopia, for example, freedom of religion is guaranteed by law. On July 30, a group of Muslims along with members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church attacked believers in the town of Metto, in the Selte region, while they were arranging to bury a local Christian man. The attackers also filled in the grave plot meant for Teshome Alyeleb. The believers fled in fear for their lives. Teshome’s family members appealed to the local government, but no action was taken to allow them to conduct a proper funeral and burial. Finally, after having to keep their loved one’s body in their home for four days, the family laid Teshome to rest in a town 96 km from their home.
In India, the world’s largest democracy, which officially supports religious freedom, Christians in Orissa state have been suffering attacks almost nonstop since late August, when a Hindu religious leader was killed by Maoist terrorists. Local Hindus, however, already angered by the number of Hindus becoming Christians and knowing that their leader opposed such conversions, blamed the Christians for the killing and began attacking local believers. At least 60 Christians have been killed in the last month, dozens of homes and businesses have been burned and looted, a number of churches and even orphanages razed to the ground. Local authorities have done virtually nothing to stop the violence. Even the federal government has officially downplayed the attacks when criticized by European countries for the inaction.
TI: What country is the most dangerous for Christians?
GP: That’s a close tie between North Korea and Saudi Arabia. In both countries, simply being found to be a Christian can mean execution and certainly imprisonment. There is no religious freedom in either country.
TI: Why should the average church-goer in North America care about persecution that takes place half-way around the world?
GP: These are our brothers and sisters; children of our Father and members of our church. Jesus says that when his people are persecuted, He is. He also tells us that when we minister to the least of his brothers (a term never used to refer to non-Christians) who are sick, naked, hungry, thirsty and in prison, then we minister to Him and when we neglect them, we neglect Him. We are all the persecuted church and our calling is to reach out and minister to those who are suffering violence and loss for Christ’s sake since we are one family. There is actually no need for us to even pray as to whether we should help our persecuted brothers and sisters. The question, if we are to be true to Scripture, is not if we should help, but how.
TI: What is the International Day of the Persecuted? Why is it important?
GP: It’s actually called the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. That is a significant difference in wording. The focus of this day is to call Christians from across Canada to pray for their brothers and sisters who are being persecuted for our faith; for what we believe it. As I have travelled around the world, this is the number one prayer request of persecuted Christians. “Please pray for us,” they plead.
TI: What resources does Voice of the Martyrs provide to churches and church groups to help them work on the issue of persecution in general and the IDOP in particular?
GP: The Voice of the Martyrs works together with three other organizations in putting together a kit that churches and church groups can use to help them to pray more effectively on IDOP Sunday. You can download a free copy on www.idop.ca.
TI: Concern about our persecuted brothers and sisters should not be limited to Nov. 9. What else can the comfortable Christians in North America do to help?
GP: They can continue to pray throughout the year. The Voice of the Martyrs has a number of resources that can help, including videos, a monthly magazine/newsletter, a weekly e-mail prayer and news alert and websites (www.persecution.net, www.persecution.tv, www.rememberthem.ca) that have a tremendous amount of information and tools for Canadians to use. These give assistance on how to pray and suggestions on practical ways that we can reach out in love to persecuted Christians through providing Bibles, literature, medicine, funds. The opportunities are endless, really. Canadians can also write letters to prisoners of faith and write to government leaders on their behalf. As I said earlier, the question is not so much for the Christian who would be obedient to God whether to do something, but what. If someone is really ready to be obedient to God, the opportunities are there. The challenge is moving beyond just being willing.
TI: Thank you very much for talking to The Interim.
GP: Thank you.