Imagine not being able to meet with your mates, not being able to visit your local park or café with them for fear of drawing attention to yourselves. Imagine having to meet in secret, in the dark, reading by candlelight in case harsh electric light gives you away. Imagine having to memorise phone numbers, in case the police confiscate your mobile.
That is what life is like for millions of Christians around the world. In many countries, Christianity is forbidden and freedom of religious belief simply does not exist. Being found with a Bible can lead to imprisonment or execution, and being a Christian is literally a matter of life and death. In these places, the Church has been forced underground – to become secret.
For 60 years, Open Doors has been helping persecuted Christians around the world. In 1955 a young man called Andrew went behind the Iron Curtain to discover hidden believers in communist Europe. Very few of the Christians in these places had Bibles, so Brother Andrew, as he became known, started smuggling copies across the border. He was running a huge risk: his car – a blue VW Beetle – drew a lot of attention in lands where Soviet cars were generally the only ones on the road. Gradually others joined him. Today the organisation he founded, Open Doors, supports persecuted Christians in over 50 countries around the globe.
Bible-smuggling remains a core part of Open Doors’ work. Last year, millions of Bibles in many languages and forms were smuggled to dozens of countries.
Take Pablo,* in Colombia. As a teenager, Pablo did a different kind of smuggling: he drove a truck around Colombia, smuggling cocaine and delivering propaganda for FARC, the communist guerrilla army. Then he was captured by enemies of FARC. To save his own life, he told them everything he knew. Pablo escaped, but he was now on the run.
In this hour of need, he met some Christians who told him about the hope he could find in Jesus. Pablo realised that God had spared his life for a purpose. Pablo gave his life to Christ and promised to serve him.
How, though? The answer came through a pastor who was also an Open Doors volunteer. He encouraged Pablo to take up smuggling again – not smuggling drugs, but Bibles. Since then, ‘Brother Pablo’ has worked with Open Doors, taking shipments of Bibles into the most hazardous regions of Colombia.
It is dangerous work. The gospel message he delivers stands in stark opposition to the violent political doctrines of the guerrilla leaders. For them, Christians are enemies, pastors are military targets, and the Bible is a lethal weapon. There is a price on Pablo’s head, and several times he has had to go into hiding.
But he remains undaunted. “God wants fighters to know and accept him,” he says. “For that I was called – to bring the Good News to people who need the light of the Word.”
As Eddie Lyle of Open Doors says: “We are hiding hope, smuggling it into countries in suitcases, in clothing, in the backs of vans and in other ways I can’t talk about. Many of these places are where the Bible is banned or burned. Places like North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Maldives and Yemen. Yet these places are where the Church continues to grow and the Bible continues to be read. Our smugglers continue to get their cargo through.”
Last year alone, Open Doors distributed 3.1 million Bibles and Christian resources. These are often smuggled across borders into North Korea, Afghanistan and other countries where such things are prohibited or difficult to obtain. In North Korea alone, Open Doors distributed over 21,000 Bibles and pieces of literature (usually smuggled) and also increased special radio programmes for secret believers.
Han-Mei,* is a North Korean Christian. One night he was so engrossed in reading his Bible that at first he didn’t hear the knocking at the door. It became a loud thumping. Hurriedly, he hid his Bible and opened the door. Three members of the security forces burst in, demanding to search the house. To his horror, Han-Mei saw one of the men go straight to where his Bible was and pull it out of its secret place. He thought he was going to be killed, but the man just hid the Bible in his own clothes and said to his colleagues, “There’s nothing here.” The three men left. But then the man who took the Bible returned, alone. “Because of the current situation I’m keeping my faith to myself,” he said. “But God the Father guided me to your house yesterday and gave me this opportunity. I’m so grateful for it. I have brought your Bible back.”
Open Doors is about more than Bibles. They train and equip Christians to face persecution and attack. Their staff work with local churches and partner organisations to provide, food, shelter, medical care and trauma care for victims of persecution. They help persecuted communities become self-sufficient through drilling wells. They offer microloans to help Christians forced out of business or jobs to build a sustainable future for themselves and their families.
The most urgent need at the moment is in the Middle East. Open Doors supports some 10,000 families in Iraq. There, families who have been driven out of their homes by Islamic State (IS) are trying to rebuild their lives, to build a future for their children, or even trace loved ones who have been taken captive.
Open Doors works with church leaders like Martin. Martin is a refugee himself: he left the village of Karamles, near Mosul, when it was overrun by IS. He and many others from his village found refuge in Erbil, in Kurdistan-controlled Iraq. Despite being just 24, he now helps to look after hundreds of families from his village, all living in exile. He oversees the distribution of the food Open Doors provides through local partners, as well as providing pastoral care.
The bishop who encouraged Martin to become a leader in the church was among the many clergymen killed in Iraq for their faith. Martin knows the path he is choosing to follow is dangerous – but this hasn’t stopped him. In moments of doubt, he says that he imagines that Jesus is standing with him. “I remember that I am called to serve as he has served.”
Open Doors has just launched a £10m appeal worldwide to support these families for another year. If you want to help, go to opendoorsuk.org.
Sixty years on, the issue of persecuted Christians has not gone away. Communism has crumbled, but in its place, militant Islam is threatening to wipe Christianity from the Middle East. There are many challenges, but with the help of its supporters around the world, Open Doors remains committed to supporting the right of individuals to worship freely and openly. Throughout the world, the organisation dedicates itself to supporting Christians to remain in the places where faith costs the most.
There were originally 800 Christian families in Martin’s village. Around 250 of them have left Iraq – and Martin could do the same. But he remains devoted to the people of Karamles. “How can I leave them in this time of crisis?” he asks. “I have decided to follow my calling and stay in Iraq, with them … I am needed here at this moment to feed my people with hope.”
*Names are changed to protect identities.
Why not travel with us and see what we do? Help us with our work
Each year Open Doors organises trips for supporters. Some are to see our work and meet people that our supporters have fundraised for. Others are to smuggle Bibles and resources into areas of need.
For more information, call 01993 460015
From issue 49 – October 2015