Writer Harry Genet gives insight into why praying for foreign rulers is an essential component of any global prayer ministry.
When the apostle Paul urged that prayers be made for all those in authority (1 Timothy 2:12), the brutal Nero was empire of the Roman Empire. But Paul’s instructions to Timothy for the church were in line with Jesus’ own Sermon-on-the-Mount teaching to “pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). As we intercede in prayer for our gospel-sharing partners worldwide, do we also pray for those who have the power to persecute or protect the church where they are placed? Paul implied the strategic nature of such intercession when he requested prayer that God might “open a door” to him (Colossians 4:3) for proclaiming the gospel.
During Israel’s captivity in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). The positive results are recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah as pagan kings financed the return to Jerusalem of large contingents of exiles, returned the looted temple treasures, and even requested prayer (as Darius did in Ezra 6:10) for their own regimes.
The potential power to persecute has begun to surface in India after the inauguration of Hindu nationalist Marendra Modi as prime minister last May. In a December 24 New York Times article, Gardiner Harris wrote that now hardline Hindu groups have begun a long-dreamed campaign to claw back some of their losses to what they call proselytizing by non-Hindus, particularly foreigners. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological wing of Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party reported converting nearly 200 Muslims en masse in Agra in December and announced plans to convert thousands of Christians to Hinduism on Christmas day. Some recent converts reported being tricked into the ceremonies with promises of economic benefits. RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat has promised to press ahead with what his group is calling homecomings. “We will bring back those who have lost their way,” he said. “They did not go on their own.”
Also in December a spokesman for Vishna Hindu Parishad (VHP), another Hindu nationalist group, promised that Hindu converts will be allowed to choose their caste or social class, an extraordinary offer that would seem to overturn thousands of years of a system in which birth determines caste. On December 21, a VHP chapter In Kerala state, where Christianity arrived early and is widespread, conducted a conversion ceremony in a village temple for about 30 Christians. In an interview at his rectory, Cardinal George Alenchery of the Syro-Malabar Church noted that the conversions were unusual and divisive in a state in which different religions have long lived in harmony. “Why do they do it now, which they did not do one year back?” he asked.
The stance of the political leadership in Turkey is more nuanced. Recep Tayyip Erdogan— elected president last year, but prime minister since 2003—is said to back a campaign to convert Istanbul’s Aya Sofia, originally a Christian cathedral, from a museum back into a mosque. His Islamist Justice and Development party (AK) also has ignored repeated appeals to allow the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary to be reopened.
At the same time however, the January 10 Economist reports, the AK continues to win praise for its treatment of Christians, unlike previous governments that confiscated properties and did little to prevent pogroms. Recently Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced plans for a new church to be built in Istanbul—the first since the founding of Attaturk’s republic in 1923! This church will serve 25,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians who once flourished along the border with Syria. Last year the Syriacs were allowed to open a primary school where pupils are being taught in Aramaic—the language Jesus used--for the first time. And thousands of church properties pinched by the state are being returned.
Authoritarian leaders often grant leniency to Christian minorities to win their backing as a counterweight against major opposition groups. President Abdel Fattah al Sissi of Egypt has depicted the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists and largely purged its preachers from the country’s mosques. At the same time he has called for religious toleration, and on December 31 became the first Egyptian president to attend the Coptic Christians’ Christmas eve mass. This was a popular move among Christians—including the Coptic Church’s evangelical wing, the Salvation of Souls Society—to whom Sissi’s authoritarianism represents a bulwark against the return of the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, Christians in Syria mostly support strongman Bashar al Assad for similar reasons.
A prominent current example of a change in leadership that provides protection for the church is in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Back in 2005, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was a mining consultant on his native island of Belitung, off the southeast coast of Sumatra. He was approached to run for local office in a district where 93 percent of the voters were Muslim. Mr. Basuki asked why they wanted him to run, since he is of Chinese descent and a Christian. “We don’t care,” they said. “We know who you are. We know your character.”
In 2012 Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, ran for governor of Jakarta, the capital megacity of 10 million people, and chose Basuki as his running mate because of his “get it done” reputation. They won, and Basuki became deputy governor. Now, with Mr. Joko’s election to Indonesia’s presidency, Basuki has become Jakarta’s governor.
Besides intercession for current national leaders, prayer should be a priority where leadership change appears to be imminent. An area to which this currently applies is the Arabian Peninsula. In Oman, the 74-year-old Qaboos bin Said al-Said has been under the care of doctors in Germany for six months for colon cancer. Sultan Qaboos has served as Oman’s absolute but benevolent monarch since overthrowing his father in 1970. He is seen as a visionary who has both unified and modernized his country. But he is single with no heir or designated successor.
Saudi Arabia’s 90-year-old King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud was admitted to hospital with pneumonia on December 31. Although now able to meet visitors, this benevolent father figure remains frail. His brother Salman, the crown prince, is himself 78 years old and said to be suffering from dementia. And under the kingdom’s complicated system, power is handed from brother to brother among the founder’s 45 or so sons. Inevitably power will soon pass to one of the hundreds of grandsons of the third generation.
Could God, responding to persistent prayer, open this hermetically sealed nation to gospel inroads? As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote,
More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.
Wherefore, let thy voice rise like a fountain . . . night and day.