Recently, I sat down with Canadian human rights journalist Geoffrey Johnston with Toronto’s Kingston Whig Standard newspaper to talk about the intersections between African American Christians, US Church history, and the persecuted Church. That conversation evolved into this article, “Learn from African Americans.”  It became the first part in his series for the Whig Standard on persecution in Pakistan. For great reporting on human rights, follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston


In many parts of the world, Christians find themselves under siege simply for being Christians. And too often, politically correct governments in the West, including Canada’s, ignore both religiously motivated violence and the growing numbers of Christian refugees displaced by societal and governmental persecution.

As an ambassador for International Christian Response (ICR), Karen Ellis works tirelessly on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world. “Essentially, I use whatever platform I have to be a face and voice for people who can’t show theirs,” she said of her work for the Christian nongovernmental organization (NGO) that provides spiritual and material support to Christians in places where traditional missionaries cannot go.

In a telephone interview, Ellis recalled meeting with a persecuted Christian leader who, along with other Christians, did their best not to draw attention to themselves in the society in which they lived. But the Christian leader urged Ellis, an African-American, to use her “visibility” the same way persecuted Christians use their “invisibility.” “And that’s when I decided this is how I can serve them,” Ellis said of her decision to become the voice for the voiceless.

Rising anti-Christian sentiment

According to Ellis, there is a rising tide of anti-Christian sentiment around the globe, including an “unprecedented” cultural bias against Christians in the West. However, she cautions against viewing the targets of persecution overseas as merely victims.

Instead, she urges people in the West to recognize the ability of Christians in other parts of the world to survive in the face of persecution and harassment.

International Christian Response, established 45 years ago, works in 38 countries that are hostile to Christians, partnering with locals to assist people in need. The Christian human rights organization provides humanitarian assistance and relief and helps Christians to establish locally driven churches “in the most difficult places for Christians to live,” Ellis explained.

Where are Christians persecuted? “Sadly, the list is incredibly long,” replied Ellis. She pointed out that Communist North Korea tops the list and is “probably the worst in terms of government restrictions” on Christians. Saudi Arabia and Iran are also high on the list of countries where governments persecute Christians; as are China, Egypt and Uzbekistan. In terms of societal persecution of and hostility towards Christians, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia are big problems.

Helping victims of genocide

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) is carrying out a genocidal campaign against Christians in Iraq and Syria, targeting ancient communities. ICR is providing legal and medical and humanitarian assistance to those in need. “In Syria, for example, we’re doing relief and disaster response alongside a number of other organizations,” Ellis said.

“Of course we help Christians,” she continued, “but we also help other persecuted minorities when it comes to disaster and humanitarian relief. We deliver food, and we do it without a western approach to evangelism, which sometimes has a hidden agenda.”

Instead of telling aid recipients that they represent the Swiss-based NGO, ICR workers merely say that they “represent the church,” Ellis said. “I think, because we have divorced ourselves from that westernized approach of evangelism, people on the ground who receive our aid can notice the difference.”

Many Christian organizations are on the ground in the Middle East providing assistance to the victims of war. And they tend to be well received by people in need. “A lot of times,” Ellis said, “people will turn to Christians in hostile regions that are on the ground for help, because they are known for their compassion.”

“We also provide safe places for refugees,” she said of displaced Christians. In many cases, Christian refugees cannot go to United Nations or government-sanctioned humanitarian relief centres, “because of the continued discrimination and faith-based persecution.”

Persecution and Jim Crow

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of religion. Yet Christians face discrimination in many countries. “In Islam, there is no separation of mosque and state,” Ellis said. And she noted that Christians living in countries governed by sharia law face hostility and persecution.

The African-American human rights defender sees parallels between the persecution and harassment that Christians endure in many parts of today’s world and the “Jim Crow” laws that enforced racial segregation in parts of the United States from the post-Civil War reconstruction era all the way up to 1965.

“For example, in a place like Pakistan, which is very similar to Jim Crow-type laws in the U.S. south, you don’t have economic advancements,” Ellis said. “You don’t have opportunities for jobs.

The laws of Pakistan discriminate against Christians as well as Ahmadi Muslims and other minorities, effectively making them second-class citizens. For example, religious minorities are excluded from serving in key political posts. Under Pakistan’s constitution, the country’s prime minister, as well as provincial governors and chief provincial ministers, must be Muslims.

In addition, the constitution requires that “all existing laws shall be brought in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah, and nothing shall be enacted which is repugnant to such injunctions.”

“It’s just not limited to your freedom of worship or your ability to convert [to another religion] or where you want to worship,” Ellis continued. “It’s a question of can I even function in society.”

Life is especially difficult and dangerous for Muslim-background believers (Muslims who have converted to Christianity) in Muslim-majority countries, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

“In places like that, you can see Muslim-background believers are giving up a lot,” Ellis said. “They are giving up a position in society, their status. And they are giving up family relationships.”

For instance, the ICR ambassador met a man whose family tried to kill him when he left Islam to become a Christian.

Lessons from Jim Crow

What lessons can the persecuted church learn from the African-American experience with slavery and institutional racism? “This is really where my heart lies in terms of understanding the persecuted church,” Ellis said. “This is why I do what I do, because of the African-American church experience.”

Even prior to the American Revolution, noted Ellis, there were some “well-educated African and European Christian theologians” in the north who challenged the notion of slavery. And they asserted that African slaves were being treated unjustly and their very humanity was being violated.

“The root of this kind of thinking is the same root as the UN Declaration of Human Rights,” Ellis said. However, it was a cruel irony that as the world came together after the Second World War to draft the declaration in 1948, “African-Americans in the south were living under Jim Crow, which legislated violations of the Declaration of Human Rights. They were legislated in the south and culturally propagated and systemized in the north.”

“We come back around to the same questions that we’re asking today of other countries that are hostile toward Christianity,” Ellis said of the parallels between the Jim Crow laws and religious persecution in many parts of the world in the 21st century. “How did a secular America that was founded on Christian principles come to violate God-given inalienable rights?”

Ellis believes that African-American Christians and the European Christians who helped them maintain their humanity during slavery have “given us a legacy that is very similar to the persecuted church throughout church history.”

“A lot of the patterns of survival of African-American Christians in U.S. history echo the underground church around the globe,” Ellis continued. “We used to meet in secret churches called ‘hush harbours,’ because we were legislated against having churches,” she said of African-Americans. “We see that exact same pattern in Communist countries [today]. We see that same pattern where Christians live under Islamic rule, under sharia law.”

Ellis cites the example of imprisoned Christians in North Korea, which is governed by a brutal totalitarian regime, worshipping in latrines, “because it’s the only place where the guards won’t come and restrict them.”

In the days of the Underground Railroad, Ellis explained, African-American slaves used a secret network to escape to Canada. And they used coded language and songs, “indicating when someone was going to run away, or when there was going to be a church meeting that night.” And she said that persecuted Christians living in hostile cultures today often have to resort to similar coping mechanisms to survive and worship.

The experiences of African-Americans “teach us and share with us how to persevere when justice remains elusive,” Ellis said. And she stressed that it is also important to liberate the oppressor from the burden of persecuting or enslaving another group.

The original article can be found here.

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