On February 23, 303, the day before the Roman feast Terminalia, an edict was posted that ordered all copies of Scripture to be burned, all churches destroyed, their property confiscated, and Christian worship forbidden. Additional measures were decreed the next day: Christians who resisted no longer had legal recourse. Christians were deprived of any honors and public office, and Christians in the royal household would be enslaved if they did not recant. Thus the Great Persecution began, although it was not uniformly enforced. Many Christians first learned of the edicts as they watched their churches go up in smoke.
A third edict, ordering Christian clergy arrested, resulted in a state crisis when the prisons filled, crowding out real criminals. To deal with this problem, the next edict stated that Christian prisoners would be released if they sacrificed to Roman gods. The prison guards could compel them by any means possible to make these sacrifices. But the proclamations didn’t stop there. In early 304 another edict insisted that everyone in the Roman empire—clergy and laity alike— sacrifice to Roman gods. Every Christian was now in jeopardy.
Flash forward several hundred years…
Youcef Nadarkhani is an Iranian Christian pastor. He was arrested back in 2009 for protesting compulsory Islamic religious instruction in the public school system. Although initially charged with protesting, an illegal act, the charges were amended to apostasy and evangelizing Muslims.
When asked by a judge to “repent” of his behavior, Pastor Nadarkhani’s response was blunt:
“Repent means to return. What should I return to?” he asked. “To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?”
The judge replied, “To the religion of your ancestors, Islam.”
To which the imprisoned Christian replied, “I cannot.”
What courage! What boldness!
To most Americans, this story seems to be half a world away, and not only geographically speaking. And although we’re saddened and startled by it, we’re not necessarily shocked. After all, it’s Iran. Religious freedom is a foreign concept in a nation where government oppression is the standing order of the day.
But I wonder if the news of Pastor Nadarkhani’s arrest isn’t closer to home than you think? All throughout America secularists are committed to controlling Christian speech and even criminalizing behavior.
You might recall that on two separate occasions, in Arizona and California, individuals were fined and threatened for hosting Bible studies in their respective homes. In both of the situations officials cited them for violating local zoning regulations. In Virginia, five men were ordered to stop sharing their faith on a Richmond sidewalk. Several public officials in North Carolina have been told they’re prohibited from praying before meetings. New York City officials have just announced that 68 churches who rent public school space over the weekends will no longer be allowed to do so.
I’m not suggesting the oppression that some believers are experiencing in the United States is on par with what’s happening in Iran. But the common denominator is the loss of religious freedom. And when it comes to our religious liberties, to lose even a little is to lose a lot.
Rarely do free societies and cultures collapse overnight in some single stroke. Freedom is often dismantled one right at a time. Here at Focus on the Family, we’re watching and working to help ensure that the basic rights of religious freedom for individuals and families are preserved and protected. They are among our first principles. Of our pursuit and mission we are confident regardless of what the evolving culture may bring. We can and must act with confidence and boldness.
It is in times of trial and testing when our faith is strengthened most. As believers we have solid confidence that even though things are difficult, God is in full control of all time and space.
We don’t know what will come of Pastor Nadarkhani’s short-term fate. We need to pray for him. I hope you’ll join me in doing so. Thankfully, we do know of his ultimate fate because his eternal future is safe and secure in Jesus.
UPDATE: Media outlets are now reporting that a trial court in Iran has ordered the death of Pastor Nadarkhani. At this hour it’s unclear if he is entitled to an appeal.
I posted an urgent report on this Pastor over a year ago with two subsequent posts (here and here) updating his lack of progress in Iranian courts. The situation is now critical. Read this report from Focus on the Family and see the similarities between what’s happening in Iran to what’s happening in America in regard to loss of religious freedom. Addition material is also from The Year Book of Christian History.