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Our Suffering Sisters

A close-up look at the female face of the persecuted church—and what you can do to help.

Every day tens of thousands of women worldwide are abused, tortured, withheld employment and education, and killed because of their Christian beliefs. As we observe the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church this November 13, TCW shines the spotlight on the religious persecution affecting many of our sisters in other countries, highlights Women of the Way, a five-year-old ministry that's doing something about this widespread problem—and reveals ways you can be part of the solution.
—The Editors

Three Indonesian women—Dr. Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti, and Ratna Bangun—currently sit in Indramayu State Prison in West Java serving a three-year sentence. They're there because of "Happy Sunday," the program they launched for schoolchildren at the invitation of a local public elementary school. The program included Christian songs, games, and Bible study, and students attended with the full consent of their parents. Regardless, when some of the children began to sing the Christian songs they learned at "Happy Sunday" at school and at home, Islamic elders took notice—and filed charges against Rebekka, Eti, and Ratna. In July 2005, at the third of their many court appearances, truckloads of angry Muslim demonstrators showed up at the courthouse to harass and threaten the women.

In Columbia, Angela Ballesteros was forced to watch a death squad murder her husband, Pastor Euclides Ballesteros, who had converted many revolutionaries. Ordered to remain silent, she and her four children left their hometown and moved to another region of the country, where she barely makes a living working occasionally as a seamstress at the shop of Miriam Amador, the widow of another murdered pastor.

"Anna," a young Pakistani girl, assisted her Muslim father in his job as a professor. She converted to Christianity after reading one of his research books that explained Christian beliefs. But when she told her father about her conversion, he beat her. When she went to school and told her teachers she wanted to know more about Jesus, they beat her in front of her classmates. She kept asking—and being punished for her quest for spiritual answers. Eventually, "Anna" had to run away from home.

"In the Bible, God tells us our faith will separate us from our family," says Jane Huckaby, national director for Women of the Way, a division of Open Doors USA that focuses on women in the persecuted church. "Anna—and so many women like her—knows firsthand what that means."

The Female Face of Persecution

These women are the hidden face of the persecuted church. When most people think of those persecuted for their faith, they think of imprisoned pastors and tortured evangelists. But according to Open Doors International, a ministry launched 50 years ago by evangelist Brother Andrew to provide Bibles and other support for persecuted Christians worldwide, women far outnumber men in the persecuted church today. In many cultures, simply being born a woman means a denial of basic human rights. When one of these women converts to Christianity, it only compounds her problems.

"Christian men in oppressive countries are often jailed, tortured, or killed," Jane explains. "But in several countries, women aren't considered important enough to warrant that kind of treatment. Instead, they're often denied housing, jobs, literacy training, and education. Many are beaten not by their government, but by their family members."

Open Doors estimates 200 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest, and death for their faith in Christ, and another 200 to 400 million face discrimination and alienation. When the ministry's workers began to notice a distinct female face to this issue, they launched Women of the Way (named for Acts 9:1-2) in 2000.

Who are the women of the persecuted church? Some are Egyptian wives legally abused at the hands of their husbands. Some are widows of martyred husbands, such as Angela and Miriam. Others are those left to fend for large families while their Christian husbands are imprisoned for years. Many of these women face great economic hardship because, due to the fact they're women or Christians or both, they're denied access to housing or employment. In many countries, acts of violence or discrimination against Christian women are legal, leaving them powerless to fight back or flee from persecution.

While the women in the persecuted church may have very different lives from those of women in the U.S., Jane Huckaby asserts there are core similarities as well. "They want to make a difference in their world," she explains. "They want their children to grow up godly. They want friends. They want to look nice for special occasions."

To illustrate her latter point, Jane tells the story of when Anneke Companjen, wife of Open Doors International President Johan Companjen, went to Sudan to visit a woman named Mona, who had a husband in prison and six children to care for. They lived in a structure with a dirt floor, had to walk miles for water, and all slept in the same bed. After a long, difficult journey, Anneke finally got to Mona—and noticed she'd painted her toenails bright red. "Mona wanted to be presentable. That was important to her," Jane explains. "Some people might think that was a waste of money, but most women get it. It's that desire to look good for your guests, an appreciation of beauty. And it's universal among women—even in the midst of such poverty and hardship."

Women Helping Women

While the issue of religious persecution can seem too big to tackle, Jane is quick to point out women in the U.S. wield more power and influence today than women have enjoyed at any other time in history. "The key question is, what are we doing with that power?" she asks.

Through various ministries, Women of the Way empowers American women to alleviate the pain of our suffering sisters overseas. Utilizing Open Doors workers in other countries and key relationships with nationals, Women of the Way delivers Bibles, children's Bibles, and Bible study materials that focus on how Jesus showed and taught respect for the women of his day. These workers and nationals also teach literacy courses, thus enabling many women to read God's Word for the first time. In countries where women are unemployed or underemployed, Women of the Way teaches vocational skills. For example, Open Doors workers taught some persecuted women in Vietnam to make purses and in Mexico to make bracelets. Open Doors USA purchased these items and sold them domestically to help fund further projects.

On a more grassroots level, Women of the Way has 200 members in seven chapters throughout various U.S. cities and churches. These women are provided videos, books, a monthly newsletter full of updates and prayer requests, and ideas for raising awareness and funds for the persecuted church. As they meet, Women of the Way members focus on six goals outlined in the acronym LISTEN. At each meeting they Learn more about the problem through the testimonies of persecuted women provided by Open Doors. They Intercede for suffering women. Whether it's out of their pocket or through fundraising efforts, they financially Support countless material needs for these women, as nearly all of Women of the Way's work is funded through donations. Members are committed to Tell others of the problem, whether that's their daughter, Sunday school class, local newspaper, or politician in Washington, D.C. They also Encourage the women of the persecuted church with letter-writing campaigns and greetings cards, which often are delivered by hand. Finally, they Network with other ministries to maximize their reach.

"This year our group is learning about the persecuted church in China," says Roxanne Bushen, facilitator for the Women of the Way chapter in Holland, Michigan. "It's been a blessing to pray for, support, and learn what the Lord's doing around the world. Godly sisters in countries like China can teach us so much about faith in Christ and perseverance in suffering."

Being Part of the Solution

Women of the Way sponsors a few trips yearly so women can see firsthand the breadth of the problem and offer encouragement through hugs, personal prayers, and shared tears. "We know how much touch means to hurting women," Jane Huckaby says. "And when we give them an opportunity to share about their suffering, it's pure therapy for them."

Women of the Way works with a country's nationals to ensure the safety of the women visiting, as well as that of the women being visited. Small groups of women—who are screened and trained—stay for only a week or two at a time so they don't garner attention from officials.

A dozen women from Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, for a Women of the Way-sponsored trip in June 2005. "God broke my heart for persecuted Christians on this trip, and that will have a lasting impact on me," says Darlene Gee, one of the participants. "I now share as much as possible and try to raise awareness of persecuted Christians not just in Mexico, but everywhere."

While in Chiapas, where 35,000 Christians have been driven from their homes over the years and others have been beaten or killed by religious fanatics and mafia-like groups, the women were granted entry to a prison where 34 evangelical Christians have been imprisoned for more than seven years. "Visiting those men in prison was about the most humbling experience of my entire Christian walk," says Karen Spain. "I couldn't help but be reminded that could be any one of our husbands, brothers, or fathers. We need to continue to pray for these men and their families."

The women also met with the wives and families of the prisoners, delivering toys, books, food, and other supplies. Open Doors provides ongoing support for these men and their families by providing legal assistance, food, cooking essentials, and transportation for the wives to visit their husbands in prison.

"These are women with the same longings, desires, and fears as you and I," Anneke Companjen writes in Hidden Sorrow, Lasting Joy. "They are mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts. Some are young, some are old; others are aging too quickly for their years. Some are rich in hope; others contend with relentless depression. Above all else, they very much need our prayers."

In fact, prayer is the most prevalent request Open Doors and Women of the Way workers hear when they visit people in persecuted areas. "We often sit with families who live on dirt floors with a well in the middle of their living space, and we ask them, 'What can we do for you?' The first thing they ask for is prayer," Jane Huckaby says. "While it's not the only thing we have to offer, it's often the best thing. Prayer changes lives, it changes nations, and it changes us. It's the number-one ammunition against this battle of persecution.

"There's so much that needs to be done and that can be done for the women of the persecuted church," Jane adds. "We'll do it one country at a time, one city at a time, one chapter at a time, one woman at a time—whatever it takes to bring hope and freedom to our sisters."

For more information on Women of the Way and Open Doors USA, go to www.opendoorsusa.org.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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