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A Life or Death Choice

from the July 13, 2015 eNews issue

ISIS army

Some of the news coming out of the Middle East carries the same thread; Christians have to renounce their faith or die.

One article in this newsletter titled “Peace vs. Terrorism” demonstrates this choice clearly. One of the twenty-one Egyptian men beheaded on a Libyan beach last February, Mathew Ayairga, was asked the question, “Do you reject Christ?” In that brief moment, Ayairga had to make a choice, the result of which could have meant the difference between life and death. In this case, Ayairga chose death. Ayairga, who was not even a Christian up until then, saw the peace and tranquility of the others in his group and sought that same peace. His reply to his captors was, “Their God is my God!” As was the thief on the cross, so too that man was saved in the last hour by the example of others.

Not everyone has made the same decision.

In this month’s issue of Christianity Today there is an article titled When Christians Say the Shahada.

The question the magazine article asks is, What is a person’s status as a Christian, if they do recant? Can they be recognized as Christian again once they renounce their faith? Many Christians are trying to answer that same question.

One case the article mentions involved Christians in Kenya where al Shabaaba gunmen attacked a mall in Nairobi and said all the Muslims could leave. One man, an Indian, tried to leave and was asked, “What is the name of Muhammad’s mother?” When he couldn’t answer, they shot him.

As a result, some Kenyan Christians have been exchanging information on how to “pass” as Muslims. Some have gone so far as to recite the Shahada in Arabic.

Reciting the Shahada, or testimony, is all one needs to enter Islam. It is the most important of all the Five Pillars of Islam.

The Shahada

Figure 1: The Shahada

In English, the Shahada is:

“There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”

All it takes for a person to convert to Islam is for them to recite the Shahada. Most Islamic sources say this statement needs to be freely given with conviction, but many groups, such as ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, do not bother with such niceties. They think a person just has to say the words and they become a Muslim, even with a gun (or knife) to their head. Once they say those words, they are also subject to death as an apostate if they recant their profession of the Muslim faith.

Besides the view of many Muslims that just saying the Shahada makes one a Muslim, there is a deeper issue. Is saying, “There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”, make one a Christian apostate, even if it is said under duress?

What Makes an Apostate?

Leaders in Kenya and elsewhere are divided on the issue. One group believes saying the Shahada does separate oneself from Christianity. As David Oginde, head of Christ is the Answer Ministries, one of Kenya’s largest Christian organizations said, “A true Christian must be ready to live and to die for the faith.”

However, Samuel Githinji, a theology lecturer at St. Paul’s University, a conservative Anglican institution in Nairobi, says this is not the case. Githinji makes his case saying:

Christians are obligated to save their lives and others’ lives as much as possible. Denying the faith is more subtle than the mere voicing of certain words.

Some are quick to point out that renouncing your faith is not an unforgivable sin. They note that even Peter denied Christ not once, but three times.

It is easy to consider the matter in hypotheticals, but when it happens to you, one may reconsider.

This author knew Harold Rigney, a Roman Catholic priest and the rector of Fu Jen Catholic University in Peiping (later Peking, then Beijing) when Mao Zedong’s Communist guerrillas took over mainland China.

Rigney spent over four years imprisoned in Beijing and was subject to constant torture. He was forced to squat for hours at a time, starved, beaten, exposed to frigid temperatures with only a thin cotton blanket, and made to wear cast iron shackles for weeks at a time. (He suffered constant pain from the restraints after his release, requiring a cane to walk. Eventually he was confined to a wheelchair due to the pain.) He was also forced to endure mock executions, all in an effort to get him to renounce his faith.

Under duress, Fr. Rigney made numerous confessions and renunciations only to recant them later. Rigney once confided:

It is strange how one can be tortured for a long time and lose the sense of the duration of time.

He also confessed to being a Nazi spy during World War II (his religious order was founded by a German national named Arnold Janssen). Rigney also confessed at various times to being both an FBI and a CIA agent.

However, it was his multiple renunciations of Christ that was his worst torture. It would haunt him the rest of his life.

What does the Bible have to say about this?

In the book of Hebrews, there are repeated warnings against spiritual unbelief. The readers of this epistle were on the verge of renouncing the Christian faith and returning to their Jewish ways. Paul urged his readers not to retreat from persecution (10:32–39), but to hasten to the front lines. He tells them not to “draw back” (10:39), but to “… go to him outside the camp and endure the insults he endured.” (13:13).

In Laos, if someone became an evangelical Christian, they would be “asked” to fill out and sign a form, which says, in part:

I, [name], who live in [location], believe in a foreign religion, which the imperialists have used for their own benefit to divide the united front and to build power for themselves against the local authorities. Now I and my family clearly see the intentions of the enemy and regret the deeds which we have committed. We have clearly seen the goodness of the Party and the Government. Therefore, I and my family voluntarily and unequivocally resign from believing in this foreign religion.

If one would sign the form, there is an implied promise not to participate in Christianity under punishment of law. If the form was not signed, one could expect humiliation, harassment, and persecution, including probable imprisonment and torture.

Hundreds of rural Christians had been forced to sign the form in public, then compelled to participate in animistic sacrifices.

This pattern of persecution is occurring all over the world.

Worldwide Persecution

According to Open Doors, 2014 saw a huge increase in violence against Christians. Researchers for the group found that 4,344 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons between Dec. 1, 2013 and Nov. 30, 2014 — more than twice the number killed during the same period the previous year. Those numbers are a low estimate, as the group only counts incidents in which the victim can be identified by name and an exact cause has been attributed.

In its annual “World Watch” report, which ranks the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe, the group said the past year “will go down in history for having the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era” and suggested that “the worst is yet to come.”

Given the current trend, Christians of today are suffering under more persecution than at any time in modern history. Whether one believes they need to stand up for their faith in the face of persecution or “live to fight another day”, may be a point of contention, but the Bible is clear as to what a Christian should do.

In the book of Timothy the following passage is found:

Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in union with the Messiah Jesus will be persecuted.

2 Timothy 3:12, ISV

The author of Hebrews also admonishes:

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. … Bless those who persecute you. Keep on blessing them, and never curse them.

Romans 12:4, 14, ISV

Jesus spoke several times of persecution. The book of Matthew records Jesus saying the following:

How blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, because the kingdom from heaven belongs to them! “How blessed are you whenever people insult you, persecute you, and say all sorts of evil things against you falsely because of me!

Matthew 5:10–11, ISV

One thing that is clear is that the notion that one can compromise their Christian values in little things, but can stand for them when it becomes a life or death choice is operating under a delusion. If one compromises their beliefs under “soft persecution” (government fines, isolation, ridicule), they will compromise them when that soft persecution turns hard.

Where will you draw the line and defend your faith in Jesus Christ?

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