The History of the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

No Christian should sleep well at night while our brothers and sisters are being martyred.

Charles Colson, 1931-2022

November 6, 2022, and November 13 — for those who cannot participate on the previous Sunday — mark the 27th annual commemoration of the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. The late Charles Colson, quoted above, the founder of Prison Fellowship and former “Hatchet Man” for President Richard Nixon, was one of the top Christian leaders who in 1996 committed to promoting a worldwide day of prayer specifically for the Persecuted Church.

I was part of the coalition that first met on January 23 of that year to plan the first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP). Our coalition included Christian organizations; Southern Baptist, Evangelical, and Catholic leaders; along with tireless leaders like Colson, Nina Shea, and Reagan Administration official, Michael Horowitz.

We were convicted, knowing that more people had died for their Christian faith in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined. We also believed that not only was persecution of religious believers — particularly Christians — a shockingly overlooked human rights issue, but that Western Christians had a Biblical mandate to be a voice for their suffering brothers and sisters.

In an age before internet use was common and before social media was created, many church members were unaware of the extent to which their fellow believers around the world were being persecuted. A special day of focus on the Persecuted Church would provide Western Christians with both information and ideas for advocacy. Once someone became aware of the enormous reality of global religious persecution, we did not want them to be overwhelmed and paralyzed with helplessness.

After the inaugural meeting, a smaller group of us began regular planning meetings. Sadly, Christian leaders from the mainline denominations, such as the Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians (PCUSA), American Baptists, and Lutherans (ELCA), along with such organizations as the National Council of Churches chose to not participate. Most protested that “we should not just pray for Christians,” but include all people persecuted for any reason.

It did not occur to them to create their own days of prayer for all those other unfortunates, however. They preferred to dilute the focus from persecuted Christians. Thousands of local mainline churches joined IDOP, nevertheless.

As we organized for the first IDOP, September 29, 1996, I helped create resource materials that were distributed to thousands of churches. I also drafted the language for a resolution on global persecution that was passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate on September 17, 1996. The resolution encouraged stronger U.S government advocacy and encouraged the President to appoint a special adviser on religious persecution. In addition, both House Resolution 515 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 71 endorsed IDOP.

Outside of the political realm, we all worked to encourage churches — not just in America, but all over the world — to commit to participating in IDOP. By early September, churches in 110 countries had indicated that they would be actively taking part in the day of prayer. Christians in nations such as Sudan, China, Pakistan, and Iran pledged to pray for others who were being persecuted. How humbling!

I wish I could say that 27 years of intentional prayer for the persecuted church around the world have stopped, or even lessened persecution. That is obviously not the case! According to the most recent studies, over 360 million Christians globally are currently experiencing severe levels of persecution, including imprisonment, torture, enslavement, and death. And while persecution has increased, participation in IDOP is what has lessened.

Additionally, laws, even when they are passed, are not always implemented. Or sometimes they are not implemented in the way in which they were intended! (And that can even be worse than having no law!) Religious freedom, particularly of Christians, is frequently neglected in U.S. foreign policy and in the mainstream media. This is in stark contrast to the nation of Hungary, which takes the persecution of Christians very seriously and refuses to take the politically correct approach to the issue.

There have indeed been miracles, deliverances only attributable to Divine intervention. And there have been triumphs of the human spirit along the way in both those who are prayed for and those who pray. Because. . . here’s a secret: Most of those who do pray, don’t only pray.

Those who pray believe that if God is indeed God, He is quite capable of changing situations without their prayers. But it is they themselves that are changed through prayer. They are filled with compassion; they are convicted to speak out in every way they can; and, as Isaiah 58 says, they begin to “spend” themselves on behalf of the oppressed and persecuted.

Even if you have never observed the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church before, you can start this year to spend yourself on behalf of the oppressed and persecuted.

Join us in an IDOP prayer call on Zoom on the night of November 13, 8PM E.T. This prayer call is co-sponsored by the Anglican Persecuted Church Network and the Anglican Prayer for All Nations Network, both networks of the New Wineskins Missionary Network. But those of every denomination and beyond who care about the persecuted and oppressed are welcome to join by receiving the zoom link as described in the photo above. We will hear an update on global persecution as well as testimonies from Sudan/South Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, and Nigeria as representatives of the global Persecuted Church.

This year, as Chuck Colson said, don’t sleep too well. Instead, spend yourself on behalf of your suffering brothers and sisters.

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