As Pope Francis travelled to Myanmar this week the international community watched to see if he would say "Rohingya" in his key note speech. The local Church advised him against it, fearing a nationalist backlash against the minority Christian population, while human rights groups understandably saw it as an opportunity to denounce the horrific ethnic cleansing which has driven over half a million Muslims into neighbouring Bangladesh.
Pope Francis chose the perhaps more diplomatic option in his speech, avoiding the term Rohingya and instead demanding 'respect for each ethnic group.' Seen as a failure of nerve and a missed opportunity by some, it was perhaps more compassionate to speak carefully, wary of the consequences, to avoid further persecution for minority communities who are already suffering.
The majority of Myanmar's people are of Burmese or 'Bama' ethnicity – and that means being Buddhist. As has been all too evident from our television screens, the Rohingya Muslim minority have faced appalling persecution. For those who convert to Christianity, there is extreme pressure too (Myanmar is 28th on the Open Doors World Watch List of Christian persecution). There are a number of Christian converts among the Rohingya people, and they are reviled by their own community – the outcasts of outcasts, they are the 'inner core' of concentric circles of persecution.
Therefore, many Christians in Myanmar are forced to keep their faith a secret, living in a manner which will not arouse their community's suspicion. Sadly, this is also the case for many Christians all around the world.
Christians are worshipping in secret under their hijabs in the Middle East. In North Korea parents daren't tell their young children about their faith; age 14 is generally accepted to be the earliest that believers will share the beautiful truth about Jesus with their children. Before then, they just tell 'stories' that have biblical truths hidden in them, hoping and praying that the Lord will be preparing the children's hearts to recognise the truth when they finally hear it.
Around the world our family is suffering. 1 Corinthians 12:26 speaks of what it means to suffer with one another, "since we know that when one part of the body suffers the whole body suffers". Just as a headache can make you feel rubbish all round and a blocked nose has you wrapped in a duvet on the sofa, so it should be for the body of Christ – that the well-being of the whole is dependent on the well-being of the respective parts.
Because being a body means being connected. And, of course, that's not just so we can 'look after our own'. Far from it. A healthy, resilient Church is one which is serving its neighbour, is first to speak up, care for and reach out to other communities in need. In Syria in recent years we've seen so many examples of churches providing their whole communities with food, medicines and trauma care. Hungry North Korean Christians have revived the ancient concept of holy rice, where they give away a proportion of their meagre food supplies to their neighbours as a way of wordlessly sharing the love of Jesus.
As our Christian family are beaten, tortured and killed for their faith, let's stand with them, holding up their arms where they are in the centre of the battle, doing everything in our power to strengthen them. So that they can hold onto hope and have the courage to remain in their situations, bringing the love and hope of Jesus to some of the most hostile places on earth. Let's treat our family as we would our own body, nurturing and protecting, not bringing to harm. That means taking notes from the Pope and not losing sight of the individuals who are suffering and could be put in danger, while still speaking up for justice.
This article was written by Lisa Pearce, CEO of Open Doors and first appeared in Evangelical Alliance's Friday Night Theology