Gary Stagg is executive director of Open Doors Canada, an organization that serves persecuted Christians in the world’s most restrictive countries. He spoke to Karen Stiller about what it means to be persecuted and what it means to be one Church.
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Faith Today: Tell us about the work of Open Doors (www.OpenDoorsCa.org) for people who might not be familiar.
GARY STAGG: In the world’s most dangerous places, we come alongside Christians who are being persecuted. We provide discipleship, safe houses, trauma support, job training – we equip and train leaders. We still also distribute Bibles and Christian literature. When the need is there, we provide to help meet basic human needs.
FT: You’re also known for the World Watch List that each year ranks the top 50 most dangerous countries to live in as a Christian. Where are the hardest places right now to live as a Christian?
GS: The hardest place for the past 18 years is North Korea. If you’re found to be a Christian, you and your whole family will most likely be sent to a brutal labour camp. If you are found in possession of a Bible, you quite likely will be put to death. So that’s a very brutal place.
I encourage people to go and look at the World Watch List. It is ranked according to severity and the level of persecution in the countries. There are countries that are really escalating up the ladder as well, in particular India. India is seeing a lot of persecution arising since 2014 with the election of a new government sympathetic to Hindu extremists. The government really has declared that by the end of 2021 they want to see India reverted to a completely Hindu nation. So, in their minds, to be Indian is to be Hindu, and so they turn a blind eye to anybody that will put pressure on Christians to convert to Hinduism.
FT: Does persecution always look the same in different countries? Or does the nature of it really depend on the place?
GS: It really depends on the place. And there are different drivers of persecution. A misunderstanding people have is equating persecution with violence. We do see violence. I just mentioned India, which is seeing a lot of violence toward Christians. Pakistan and places like that, that see a lot of violence. In Nigeria we recently saw horrific things happening.
But for the most part, across the spectrum, the biggest thing is the daily pressure and the daily squeeze on Christians. We use the words smash and squeeze. In some areas it’s the smash, and those are the violent areas. But for the majority it’s the squeeze. They’re being discriminated against. They’re marginalized. They’re made to wait at the end of the line and always they’re relegated to the lowest jobs in society. Their children can’t get into proper schools all because they’re Christians, and so they feel that constant pressure and squeeze all the time.
The squeeze would be a pressure to give up their Christian faith because life is so much harder with it. A lot of persecution is driven by a religious nationalism. They’re told that if they will recant, then things will be different for them.
FT: You’ve done work to shine the light on that double kind of persecution that women can undergo. Can you explain that?
A lot of persecution is driven by a religious nationalism. They’re told that if they will recant, then things will be different for them.
GS: Women are definitely doubly vulnerable because in these societies they’re not always viewed as equal to their male counterparts. And so they live with the stigma of being female. But then on top of that, of course, there is the persecution. And so they are what we call doubly persecuted, just because they are women.
The type of persecution as well is a lot more severe. It’s a pretty horrific thing for women in a lot of these countries.
FT: It must be hugely important for Christians who are in persecuted countries to know the global community is there for them.
GS: We have what we call a presence ministry. So for instance, when we do a mission trip, our mission trips would look quite different from other mission trips where people would go from Canada to countries that are relatively safe to go and build buildings, and help to do all of those kinds of things, and maybe even help to evangelize and start a church, and so on.
When we take mission trips, we go with the intent of encouraging these believers, to let them know there are people out there that know they exist and that are standing with them in prayer and support.
I just heard of a girl in North Africa who converted to Christianity through reading things online. She was very curious, and she found an online Bible and then she prayed a prayer to ask Christ to come into her life. For the longest time she thought she was the only Christian in North Africa. Of course, she found out that online there were other people. And so she reached out to them and joined this online church. Wow. That is so encouraging.
There are many people like that. And our job is to let them know that they’re not alone. And I think that’s the greatest thing. We’re not an organization that sees ourselves as having the role of removing people from persecution. So we see our job as coming alongside people who are living in persecution. Not so that they can get out of it, but rather so that they can actually stay and be the salt and light of Christ, right where they are.
We see our job as coming alongside people who are living in persecution. Not so that they can get out of it, but rather so that they can actually stay and be the salt and light of Christ, right where they are.
FT: But what if they want to leave?
GS: You know, I’m sure that there are many, many people that if given the opportunity would leave, but overwhelmingly what we see is that they have a heart for their country. And they have a heart for the gospel and so they, for the most part, want to stay.
Now there are cases like in Syria when it becomes just so difficult and everything is taken away from them. We’ve seen so many refugees from Syria. But in most of these cases, and in most of these countries, they don’t think so much in terms of getting out because they don’t see that as an option. But they see they have a part to play in the gospel, that they are called to be the salt and light of Jesus right where they are.
So how can they effectively do that? How can they safely do that – and in a way where they’re not going to create more persecution, but rather be the salt and light, and people can see that there’s a difference there and be attracted to the gospel? So we see our job is helping them to stay to be salt and light right where they are.
FT: I’m sure you hear and tell stories that are disturbing and sad, but I know you must also hear wonderful, joyful stories that deeply encourage you and your team, even in your own faith. Can you share a little bit about that?
GS: It can be kind of depressing work, to be honest, because we hear so much. And sometimes it can get you down. There’s a lot of good news as well because that World Watch list also represents those who have made that firm commitment to Christ and who have said that no matter what comes, I will follow Christ. And so we see amazing things happen. I think of Iran.
Missiologists tell us now that Iran has the fastest-growing evangelical church in the world. We have a lot of brothers and sisters in Iran who are in prison, but at the same time we see such amazing things happen in that country where so many people are coming to faith. Many missiologists are saying that there are over a million Christians in Iran today. So that’s an incredible story that’s amazing to see what God is doing.
FT: Gary, what is it about persecution that helps the Church grow?
GS: Oh, I’ve asked myself that question so many times because it seems that the Church actually does not do well under prosperity, but it certainly does well under persecution.
When I work with people, and when I visit them in the field, there’s an absolute pureness to their faith. It’s not tainted by any politics or any of the things we often get caught up in Christianity in the West. It’s a pure faith in Jesus and following the ways of Jesus. That’s still attractive. The pureness of following and doing what Jesus asked us to do, there’s still power in that.
FT: So how has this encouraged your own faith?
GS: It is humbling. Because when we go and meet with these people, and meet with their leaders, and they look at us from the West, and they have this idea that we’re giants of the faith. And you know, they want us to pray for them because they think that we’re so strong. And actually inside I’m feeling like, actually, "Can you pray for me?" Because in light of what I’m seeing, I feel like my faith is weak. So that’s very humbling and very challenging for me. And in my own life, to make sure that my life lines up more with following the pureness of Christianity to get back to what’s truly important, and just following Jesus, no matter what.
FT: When you hear North American Christians use the word persecution for themselves, how do you respond?
GS: I try to be very diplomatic and say that there’s a difference between secular intolerance and persecution. I guess it could be what we would consider a mild form of persecution, but it’s nothing compared to what these brothers and sisters have to go through on a daily basis.
The Bible does say that all those who live godly lives will suffer persecution. There’s going to be pushback. But it’s hard to compare the pushback we get in a free society to the pushback our brothers and sisters get in a country where they’re persecuted. They’re not free to practise Christianity. They’re not free to change their religion. We can still do all of that. I can walk across the street and speak to my Muslim neighbour, and have a great conversation with that person and not have to worry about being reported to the authorities. But I do understand also that we are seeing more and more secular intolerance, and I’m not sure where that will lead to. As an organization, we are trying to monitor that as well.
"There’s not the free Church and the Church under persecution. The Bible says that there is only one Body, and when one part suffers, every part suffers."
FT: We can learn from the example of our sisters and brothers around the world.
GS: I do feel they need us to support them, but I am also quick to point out that we need them as well. We need them because we are all one Body. There’s not the free Church and the Church under persecution. The Bible says that there is only one Body, and when one part suffers, every part suffers.
They are speaking volumes to us, if we will listen to them, about what it means to live that pure faith under difficult circumstances.
FT: Thank you, Gary.
Listen to our full interview with Gary Stagg at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts.