It rankles me when Christians pray only for persecuted Christians.
I don’t disagree with praying for persecuted Christians, to be clear. I pray for them. They need help, as a global pandemic of persecution confronts believers daily with violence on account of their faith.
However, to truly follow the Bible’s teachings I believe we shouldn’t exclusively pray for our fellow Christians. Rather we are called to pray for all who suffer violent persecution, Christian and non-Christian alike.
When the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP) arrives on November 6, many activists will pen articles about Christians being the “most persecuted” faith in the world. And certainly, persecuted Christians face severe problems worldwide.
From my 20 years of international work on religious freedom, I know Christians suffer violent persecution from governments like China or terrorists like Boko Haram. I’ve personally met such believers, advocated for them, and prayed for them.
Yet, while such “most persecuted” claims may be true, definitional problems with what constitutes persecution make such assertions hard to assess.
But more importantly, we are not in a competition. Christians are part of a fellowship of suffering, sharing in persecution with other faith groups. Many overlook or forget how in every context where Christians suffer, others also hurt. In fact, the severity experienced by other minority groups often surpasses Christian persecution.
Followers of Jesus certainly suffer in China and Burma (Myanmar), but Uyghur and Rohingya Muslims are victims of outright genocide by those nations’ regimes. While ISIS indeed targeted Iraqi Christians, thousands of Yazidis were murdered, sold into sex slavery, or disappeared.
Scores of Afghan Christians were forced to flee the Taliban’s return. Yet the 5 million Hazara Shia that remain face continued terrorist attacks, with a recent suicide blast murdering 50 children at school. Boko Haram has devastated churches in Nigeria’s north, while the majority Muslims that resist the jihadists’ theocracy risk death or jail for blasphemy.
Christians need not feel insecure if our suffering is less than others. However, some advocates draw false equivalencies with religious liberty limitations in North America and Europe to actual persecution abroad. Conflating violence with pandemic restrictions or other domestic debates reduces the veracity of the word persecution and kills its credibility.
Some governments act similarly. For example, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán often boasts about defending persecuted Christians and traditional Christian values. His diplomats speak about the twin threats to Christians of “persecution and aggressive secularism,” conflating a supposedly “dangerous” liberal elite with ISIS atrocities. Orbán’s government has indeed provided helpful money to churches in Iraq, Nigeria, and elsewhere, yet while ignoring other suffering groups next door.
Christians only helping Christians is not “Christian.” Troublingly, this exclusive Christians-first approach seems unique to the international religious freedom sphere.
In other contexts, believers have heroically demonstrated Christ’s love to a hurting world by feeding the hungry and assisting those in need, regardless of faith. Their generous approach reflects the best of Jesus’ message. If Christian aid groups acted otherwise, we would recoil in horror.
Imagine World Vision only providing food to starving Christians, World Relief only assisting Christian refugees, Samaritan’s Purse only helping evangelicals, or Catholic charities only assisting those looking to Rome for guidance.
The narrow focus on Christian persecution is a jarringly contorted approach to Christian charity. And practically, our exclusionary self-focus creates distance between Christ and nonbelievers.
From my time working in multifaith environments, I can attest to how outsiders find Christians’ self-promotion of Christian persecution puzzling, if not outright off-putting. They know enough about Jesus’ compassionate message that this doesn’t seem to fit. They wonder how Christians—supposed followers of a movement whose founder stressed the love of everyone, enemies included—can seemingly ignore the persecution of their non-Christian neighbors.
There should be no spiritual litmus test for helping those suffering violent persecution because of their beliefs. I’ve appreciated how David Curry of Open Doors USA and Merv Thomas of CSW have spoken out for groups as distinct as Muslims and atheists. The Southern Baptist Convention has also led, last summer becoming the first denomination to condemn the Uyghur genocide. Following these examples, Christians should lead the charge in helping everyone. Any individual persecuted on account of their beliefs is a tragedy worthy of prayer and advocacy.
The Bible is replete with calls to help regardless of race or creed. For example, the prophet Micah called God’s followers to “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly”—without caveats or exclusions. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he explained how we should love God and our neighbors through the example of the Good Samaritan, a hero who crossed religious and ethnic lines to help a stranger. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he gives this dual charge: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). As Paul instructs, we must do better at helping our own, but we must also improve how we do good to all.
In response, IDOP presents an opportunity to live out Christ's commands to pray for our own and for others. Let’s remember our persecuted brethren, but let's not only pray for persecuted Christians but for everyone suffering for their beliefs. We can shift to an International Day of Prayer for All the Persecuted, making it a second Holy Week of sorts.
Loving God and others summarized Jesus’ message during his earthly ministry. The body of Christ should be known for our concern for all, both Christian and not. Christ-followers beseeching God to assist anyone victimized for their faith (or non-belief) would be a powerful testimony. Doing so would improve our witness and build bridges between religions, helping minority Christians secure a brighter future in their communities.
In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never spoken to a mere mortal.” Our global neighbors, all bearing the image of God, suffer in a hurting world that needs our help.
If we truly believe God loves everyone and made everyone in his image, we must pray and advocate for all who suffer. Yes, we should pray for persecuted Christians, but also for the persecuted from other beliefs.
Knox Thames served as the State Department’s Special Adviser for Religious Minorities during the Obama and Trump administrations, and is writing a book on ending religious persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.