2016-06-30
WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 (RNS)--Oswaldo Magdangal had gradually grown accustomed to his 3-by-4-foot prison cell and the constant presence of armed Saudi Arabian prison guards outside.

More than two months had passed since the country's religious police raided his home hunting for Bibles, Christian videotapes, and anything else that would link the Filipino federal employee to the Christian ministry, banned in a nation where Islam is the official state religion and no others are allowed public expression.

The police found what they wanted. Magdangal had not attempted to hide any traces of his 11-year double life as a missionary in the Muslim nation and minister of a secret Christian church.

Alone in his cell, he steeled himself for the fate decreed by Saudi Arabian officials: death by public hanging.

But then the letters began to arrive.

Thousands of them. From the Philippines. England. Malaysia. The Netherlands. Italy. The U.S. Congress.

Letters that convinced Magdangal he was not forgotten. Letters that persuaded King Fahd to set him free.

The day before his execution.

"Had it not been for appeals from the international community, I would be in heaven right now," said Magdangal, who established Christians in Crisis after he was released in 1992 in an effort to boost awareness about the plight of persecuted Christians. "I completely believe that appeals made all the difference in my case. I would be dead without it."

Christians worldwide are counting on the strength of such appeals and similar efforts to push the issue of Christian oppression center stage Sunday, the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

The event is marked primarily by evangelical Christians, who are often those most persecuted abroad, where their sometimes aggressive proselyzing runs afoul of non-Christian authorities and even established ethnic churches.

An estimated 200 million Christians around the world face persecution. A report released by the U.S. State Department in September paints a dreary portrait of their plight: Imprisonment for evangelical Christians in Greece. Forcible conversions to Buddhism in Burma. Abductions in Sudan. Their churches bombed in India.

"A lot of churches in America don't know about all the persecution Christians face, so when I talk to them it's a real eye-opener," said Magdangal, who said he endured brutal beatings and torture while in prison. "Seeing me in person brings home the message that there is a need out there that is more real than they thought."

Now in its fifth year, the International Day of Prayer is observed each November by some 300,000 Christians in 130 countries, including the United States.

"We need to be aware that America is not the only place where people are trying to honor the name of Christ," said Doug Christgau, pastor of cross-cultural ministries at the evangelical Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Ill. "It's very easy for us to forget what's going on in the rest of the world."

Which is why Christgau marks the day at his church by inviting persecuted Christians to tell their stories to his 2,000-member congregation, as do dozens of other congregations.

Bibles are prized commodities in many of the countries from which speakers arrive, said Connie Reitsma, associate director of project development at the Bible League. The organization is one of many observing the day by distributing Bibles to oppressed Christians.

"People have no idea how precious the Word [the Bible] is to an individual who has never had their own copy before," said Reitsma. "Putting Bibles in their hands is a big part of helping people sustain their faith."

On behalf of oppressed Christians in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, members of the New Life Community Church in Arizona have launched a letter-writing campaign to Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid. The congregation hopes the 200 signatures collected will help persuade Wahid to put an end to more than a year of fighting between Christians and Muslims in the country's eastern Maluku islands. Some 4,000 people -- both Christians and Muslims -- have been killed in the violence.

"We're doing this to say to the president that people halfway around the world have heard about this and want him to go help the people who share our faith," said John Tuitele, chairperson of the church's ministry for the persecuted church and a board member of the Prayer for the Persecuted Church. His organization is among several agencies, including Voice of the Martyrs and International Christian Concern, that are helping to promote the day.

New Life Community Church is also giving congregants prayer cards. Each card features the name and picture of a persecuted Christian and describes his or her situation. A similar effort, in calendar format, is being conducted by the aid agency Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

"Each date lists the name of a persecuted Christian and the details of his or her situation," said Diana Lengkeek, executive director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (USA). "One of the requests we get from people who are being persecuted in their home country is that they don't want to be forgotten. This way they are being remembered and prayed for. That means a lot."

In youth groups and across college campuses, the Christian aid agency Open Doors With Brother Andrew is encouraging young people to mark the day by simulating the experiences of a persecuted Christian.

"Students get to role-play what it's like to be a Christian trying to get to a church meeting in a country like Cuba or Vietnam," said Terry Madison, president of the organization, which has also helped create Day of Prayer resource manuals for Christian bookstores and college campuses. "The students have to sneak to a Bible study class somewhere on campus without getting caught by students pretending to be security forces trying to stop them."

Often denied legal representation or a fair trial, Christians -- often evangelicals -- in many countries find themselves with nowhere to turn when persecuted for their faith, said Samuel E. Ericsson, president of Advocates International.

That's where his organization, a global network of lawyers who help defend people persecuted for their beliefs, steps in.

"A lot of Christians are put in jail on trumped-up charges, so they need somebody there who knows how to protect them in those situations," said Ericsson. "That's what we're there for."

Christians who work to help their persecuted colleagues often find out the benefits "aren't a one-way exchange," said Tuitele.

"These people teach us about faith and trust in God," he said. "They challenge us to be strong because if they can stay the course in the face of opposition, then how can we not be serious about our own faith? They have a faith that holds up when it's tested."

Madison agreed.

"They are not depressed Christians, moping around and dragging their feet," said Madison, whose organization conducts training seminars for those who have no access to Bible schools. "These are people for whom Christ means everything, and they're willing to pay the ultimate price for him. That's a powerful example for every Christian."

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