From the recent attacks on churches in Indonesia, to alarming developments in China, to the ethnic cleansing of Assyrians, it’s clear that Christians are being persecuted for their Faith all over the world. But religious liberty analyst Elizabeth Kendal says religious freedom isn’t a high priority for Australian politicians and officials.
Kendal is the director of advocacy for Christian Faith and Freedom, an organisation working to alert our government to the plight of persecuted Christians. Talking to 20Twenty’s Neil Johnson, she explains how churches can help motivate governments to take action, and talks about her role as a missionary to politicians. Read on for all that and more, or listen to their conversation below.
As Kendal explained, Christian Faith and Freedom focuses on advocacy, rather than aid. She pointed out that no one organisation can do both of these things, because governments are unlikely to collaborate with groups that openly criticise them.
While aid helps persecuted people on the ground, advocacy is equally necessary to raise awareness of these problems. But Kendal says CFF’s work is unique in Australia. ‘There are lots of ethnic groups who are raising their issues, but there’s actually no one else who’s really devoted to raising the plight of persecuted Christians globally,’ she said.
A large part of CFF’s role is keeping these issues in front of our representatives, to prevent them from slipping through the cracks. ‘It sounds like a shocking thing to say, but religious freedom, and the persecution of Christians, is not really high on the priorities for a lot of our officials.’
At the beginning of her career, Kendal remembers attending a human rights forum organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. One speaker, describing a year’s work in Southeast Asia, didn’t mention Christian persecution at all in his presentation.
‘I put my hand up,’ Kendal said, ‘and I said you never mentioned religious freedom, but I’m sure you’re well aware that the majority of refugees who come from Vietnam and Laos are from the ethnic minorities who happen to be Christian.’
The speaker responded by highlighting some recent lobbying in that area, and Kendal believed the work he described was genuine. ‘But I thought to myself, why didn’t he tell us that in the first place?’
He just assumed that no one in that room, of 60 human rights workers, would give a damn. And I think that was essentially the truth.
So why this disinterest? It may be partly thanks to stereotypes about Christians which many of these people accept as truth. ‘A lot of them are biblically illiterate,’ Kendal said. ‘They really actually don’t know much about Christianity at all.’
‘And when you say the word missionary, I’m absolutely positive that they think of this white Western missionary, who’s going to go in and tell people what to do, and ruin their culture.’
While a large part of her advocacy is providing advice on contemporary issues, Kendal also sees herself as a missionary to our representatives, breaking down those stereotypes, and educating them about what Christians believe and work for.
People who work in our government departments think that Christians are white, Western, middle class people.
And they don’t seem to realise that the majority of the church is coloured, non-Western, and poor, and persecuted.
In 1979, there were only around 500 Christians in Iran. Now, the Iranian government recognises more than 200,000, but experts believe there are likely more than a million, with many too fearful to declare their Faith. This massive revival movement is proof of how the face of Christianity is changing.
Kendal says Persians are adopting Christianity not because of Western influence, but because of their artistic and creative culture, which sits far more comfortably with the Christian worldview than with fundamentalist Islamic rule. ‘this is why there is so much tension in Iran,’ she said.
‘Persians are wanting to break out of that straight jacket of Islam. And the clerics realise what a threat this is, and this is why persecution and repression is escalating.’
By telling the story of these people who choose to live in fear and endure suffering, Kendal hopes to encourage human rights workers to reconsider their assumptions about Christians. ‘they can go home and think why are Iranian intellectuals converting from Islam to Christianity? Why would anyone do that? And they start thinking, maybe this is not a religion for silly people, not a religion for people who don’t know any better.’
In her submissions, Kendal always points out how the Church is working in these countries, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, building schools and medical clinics, and defending the abused and the oppressed. These stories are nothing like the child abuse scandals and identity politics debates which make headlines in Western media.
The church is actually something completely different from anything they’ve ever thought about before.
‘It is Iranians going to prison. It is Nepalese climbing every mountain to take the prospect of a new life to remote regions. It is Vietnamese church leaders putting their lives at risk to speak up for justice and human rights.’
Kendal is working hard to change attitudes within the government. But she feels strongly that to bring about real change, the Australian Church must also speak up. She says the government receives plenty of information about human rights issues. ‘Our officials are not ignorant,’ she said, ‘but they make political decisions.’
If they think that the population doesn’t care, then it’s not going to be high on their priorities.
‘The arch bishops and the heads of denominations need to be sitting down with some of our political leaders, and saying look, you really need to do something about the erosion of religious freedom in the world. But there’s basically silence coming from the churches.’
Kendal says our Church leaders often fail to see the value of engaging with the persecuted church. They think it’ll be too much work. It might cost them money. People might send their money somewhere else. But actually it makes people generous, and sympathetic, and loving of the body, and I think it has value that is just immense, beyond measure.’
‘I often say to people that the Bible tells us to share one another’s burdens, and in this way to display the law of God, which is the law of love. And by taking on the burdens of the persecuted church, we do not compound our burdens. We actually displace them.’
She describes how when believers become aware of the suffering of their brothers and sisters, it reminds them that they’re part of a global and historic spiritual conflict. ‘As soon as we start to really engage with Christianity at a global level like that, our perspective on our faith and our place in the world, it all changes.’
‘All of a sudden, your life can take on a renewed meaning. I’m not just this little ant on the ground. I’m actually engaging in an amazing spiritual battle, and I’m going into fight for Christians who are on the frontline, and to support them.’
Kendal also reminds us not to trust in human effort or political process to bring about change. ‘I can lobby and advocate all I like, but unless God builds the house, I labour in vein. And this is why we really need people to be praying for this work. Because nothing comes of it if god doesn’t bless it.’
Christian Faith and Freedom is eager for new prayer partners. To find out how you or your church can get involved and support them through prayer and donations, visit their website.