Encouraging Insomnia and Saving Oaks: The Story of the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Encouraging Insomnia and Saving Oaks: The Story of the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

“No Christian should sleep well at night while our brothers and sisters are being martyred,” said the late Charles Colson. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and former “hatchet man” to President Nixon, was one of the top Christian leaders who in 1996 committed to promoting a worldwide day of prayer specifically to pray for persecuted Christians. 

November 2, 2014– and November 9 for those who cannot participate on November 2– marks the 19th commemoration of the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.  

In fact, once Colson learned the depth and extent to which his fellow Christians were being persecuted by their own governments or by non-governmental actors, he did not rest. Those of us who provided him with the facts that cold January only hoped and prayed that other Christians, once awakened, would suffer similar sleeplessness over the martyrs.

I was part of the coalition that created the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP). Christian organizations (including the one where I work), the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), the World Evangelical Fellowship, and the National Association of Evangelicals, along with Southern Baptist and Catholic leaders, and tireless advocates like Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom (then at Freedom House, now at The Hudson Institute), Colson, and former Reagan Administration official, Michael Horowitz, first met on January 23, 1996.

We were convicted, knowing that more people had died for their Christian faith in the twentieth century than in all the previous centuries combined. We also believed that not only was persecution of religious believers – particularly Christians – a shockingly overlooked human rights issue, but that Western Christians had a Biblical mandate to be a voice for their suffering brothers and sisters.

In an age before internet use was common and before social media was created, many church members were unaware of the extent of the persecution of their fellow believers around the world. They needed information about persecuted Christians and then they needed ideas about what they could do and how to pray. A special day of focus on the persecuted church would give structure to their prayers and advocacy.

After the inaugural coalition meeting, a smaller team of us began to meet regularly to plan the first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. IRD’s late president, Diane Knippers, was the Day of Prayer’s liaison with the mainline church denominations. We didn’t want this observance viewed merely as an activity for the “religious right” or “Evangelicals.” (In 1996 the Religious Left had not yet been recast as “Progressive Evangelicals,” thus broadening the definition of “evangelical” beyond any actual meaning!)

Mainline leaders were noticeably absent from the inaugural meeting (although they had been invited). Knippers wrote and telephoned them, requesting endorsement of IDOP from leaders in such denominations as the United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., American Baptist, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, as well as from organizations such as the National Council of Churches (NCC).

The mainline church leaders chose not to participate. Most protested that “we should not pray just for Christians,” but should include all other people who are persecuted for any reason. It did not occur to them to create their own day of prayer for all those other unfortunates, however. They preferred to dilute the prayer focus from persecuted Christians. Thousands of local mainline churches joined IDOP, nevertheless. The difference in priorities was just one more demonstration that the people in the pews and the pastors in the local churches frequently think about things far differently than the denominational leaders.

As we organized for our first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, September 29, 1996, I helped to create resource materials that were distributed to thousands of churches. I also drafted language for a resolution on the worldwide persecution that was passed in both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate on September 17, 1996. The resolution encouraged stronger U.S. government advocacy and encouraged the President to appoint a special advisor on religious persecution. In addition, both House Resolution 515 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 71 endorsed IDOP.

Outside of the political realm, we all worked to encourage churches – not just in America, but all over the world – to commit to participating in IDOP. By early September, churches in 110 countries had signified that they would be actively taking part in the Day of Prayer. Christians in nations such as Sudan, China, Pakistan, and Iran – some of the most repressive and dangerous places to be a Christian – pledged to pray others who were being persecuted. Humbling. 

Two years later, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law, the International Religious Freedom Act. It was a watershed moment, the first time religious freedom was enshrined in U.S. foreign policy. IRFA has also provided tools for advocates that ask the question, “What can I do?” Once someone became aware of the overwhelming reality of global religious persecution, we did not want them to be paralyzed by helplessness. 

But with all those accomplishments, the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church may still be the biggest global event of which you have never heard. After the 1997 commemoration, when 50,000 churches participated, IDOP was still all but ignored by the news media. One key member of the media did not ignore the issue. And he excoriated his fellow journalists for their neglect. The late, great former New York Times editor, A. M. Rosenthal, called the plight of persecuted Christians another “Kitty Genovese” story, a story of keeping silent in the face of evil that had haunted him for years. 

I wish I could say that eighteen years of intentional prayer for the persecuted church around the world have stopped, or even lessened, persecution. That is obviously not the case. Laws are not always implemented, religious freedom continues to be neglected in much of U.S. foreign policy and in the mainstream media, and persecution continues and seems to increase every year. But there have been some miracles, only attributable to Divine intervention. And there have been triumphs of the human spirit along the way in both those who are prayed for and those who pray.

Not many of those who pray, just pray. Christians who pray believe that if God is God, He is quite able to change situations without their prayers. It is they themselves that are changed through prayer. (If they don’t treat God like a vending machine or a magic genie, just putting in their requests.) They are filled with compassion; they are convicted to speak out in every way they can; and, as Isaiah 58 says, they begin to “spend” themselves on behalf of the oppressed and persecuted. 

The theme for IDOP 2014 is “Don’t Stand in Silence.” It echoes the command in Leviticus “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Even if you miss this year’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, and even if you are not a person who prays, don’t stand in silence. Don’t sleep too well. Help save some oaks of righteousness.

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).