On the night of 22 January 1999, Graham Staines (an Australian missionary who had been working among the tribal-poor and leprosy patients in the Orissa region of India since 1965), was traveling home with his two sons (aged 10 and 6) from an annual gathering of Christian workers, and decided to spend the night in the village of Manoharpur, sleeping in their vehicle because of the severe cold. His wife and daughter had remained home.
According to reports, a mob of about 50 people, armed with weapons, attacked the vehicle while Staines and his sons were asleep. The car was set alight, and Graham, Philip and Timothy Staines were burnt to death.
Staines was known to the people of Manoharpur, and in the trial that followed the attack it was discovered that Staines was killed because of his religious activity in the region, “as a warning to others” not to attempt converting tribal-Indians to Christianity.
The Staines family was also known in my hometown back in Australia, and I remember when the news of this tragedy reached us. The (relatively small) Christian community was devastated. Many people had known either Graham or his wife Gladys personally, and we were shocked at the brutality of their deaths. Gladys, and her remaining child Esther, stayed in India for many years after the incident to carry on with the work Graham had started.
When Gladys did eventually resettle in Australia, she came to live in my city. Occasionally I would hear of Gladys speaking at various Christian events around town: she would talk about her grief, her struggle to trust in the goodness of God, and deciding to forgive those who had murdered her husband and two young sons: something she had chosen to do almost immediately.
During the trial, Gladys said:
"The Lord God is always with me to guide me and help me to try to accomplish the work of Graham, but I sometimes wonder why Graham was killed and also what made his assassins to behave in such a brutal manner on the night of 22nd/23rd January 1999. It is far from my mind to punish the persons who were responsible for the death of my husband Graham and my two children. But it is my desire and hope that they would repent and would be reformed."
The awe-inspiring forgiveness Gladys offered to those who killed her husband and young sons, is a testimony to the grace of God. Could I have said something like this, were I in her shoes? I hope so, but I also hope I never have to find out. Yet, as I sit in my safe environment writing this blog, free from the threat of violence because of my faith, I must remind myself that I am the minority. Not because of my faith, but because I live in a country where it is safe to practice my faith openly. Most Christians around the world do not have this luxury: from Indonesia to China, India and Pakistan, the Middle-East, North and Central Africa, and many other places, it is dangerous, and deadly, to be a Christian. The situation is so bad in fact, that Pope Francis recently declared the global church is experiencing “world war three.”
In addition to the well publicised atrocities being committed against Christians and other minorities by ISIS, there is today’s horrifying news from Pakistan of a young Christian couple in their 20’s, who were accused of blasphemy, tortured, and then thrown into brick-making kilns and burned to death. They leave behind four young children.
When we think about the difficulties we sometimes face because of our faith - and let’s be honest it often isn’t very much more than the threat of social shame, perhaps being considered “weird” at school, or losing some opportunities in the workplace if we can’t go with the crowd on various unethical practices or after-work adventures - it pales in comparison to the kind of threats our brothers and sisters around the world face on a daily basis.
This Sunday is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. We will be setting aside time in our services to pray for our family around the world who are “carrying about in their bodies the dying of the Lord Jesus”, and we will be asking along with Paul, “that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in them.” (2 Cor 4:10) It is a sacred day; a day to look beyond ourselves and remember what it often costs others to follow Jesus. It will be a day to “weep with those who are weeping.”
It is also a day to be challenged. It is tempting to feel “guilty” when we compare how safe we are in the West with those in anti-Christian nations, but I think that would be the wrong response. We have no need to repent or apologise for where we were born. On the other hand, we should feel deeply challenged by our indifference, our lack of concern, and the feebleness of our prayers. We should feel challenged by the lack of courage we can often demonstrate in our own lives, or in the public sphere, when it costs us relatively little to stand up and be counted. We should feel challenged by our misplaced use of the term persecution when we talk about the “war on Christmas” or the fact that Halloween is now a bigger deal than Easter.
That is not persecution. Persecution is being told to renounce my faith or I will be decapitated. Persecution is having my daughters kidnapped and sold at a slave market because they are Christians. Persecution is having my home taken away, having no access to employment, and being denied basic human rights because I call Jesus my saviour and my Lord.
This Sunday is a day to regain perspective, to pray for those who are suffering, and to ask the Lord to help us follow their example in a faithful witnesses of the gospel where he has placed us.
- Tim Horman