From the sands of the Arabian Desert to the shores of the United States, millions of people are prostrating themselves in prayer throughout the month of July.
Ramadan, which started June 28 and concludes July 28, is a holy month for Muslims across the globe. The Islamic observance calls for fasting during daylight hours and for participation in pious activities, including doing good works or giving up bad habits.
At the end of the 30 days, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, or the festival of breaking the fast, that lasts three days.
But prayer and fasting arent just reserved for Islamic followers.
The two sacrificial practices of time and nourishment also are observed by Christians throughout the year. Thats one of the reasons why St. Marys Pastor Ian Dent of Camden Crossroads Community Church, or C4, is working with an international organization to have Christians devote time during Ramadan for their own prayers for Christ believers living in the Middle East.
The prayer schedule devotes each day to a different country and topic, including analysis of the religious parties and situations Christians face living there. One day will be assigned to pray for goodwill in Pakistan or to have a resurgence of Christian believers in Turkey.
While prayer and fasting are a primary focus of Ramadan for the Muslim, in the Christian faith, we typically pray little and fast even less. It still amazes me that we, who say we hold our faith so dear to us, live in such a casual way for Christ, Dent said. We could learn from Muslim discipline and devotion to duty. If church leaders in the U.S. say anything encouraging devotion, discipline or dedication, were often deemed legalistic.
Dent said he reached out to Open Doors, an international organization that acts as a facilitator for helping Christians living in conflict areas under suppression, after his wife, Kari, read a book 15 years ago by the organizations founder, Andrew van der Bijl.
Van der Bijl, known as Brother Andrew, is a Christian missionary who smuggled Bibles into communist countries and started an underground network of Christians living in persecution.
The international arm of Open Doors, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, has grown into a network in 45 countries where Bibles are delivered, theological materials are dispersed and assistance programs are implemented in secrecy.
The more we learned about the treatment and suffering of Christians in countries like North Korea, Indonesia, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a host of other countries, the more determined we were to do something about it, Dent said. In the United States, we call getting a flat tire on the way to church suffering. We get called a name and we conclude were being persecuted for our faith. In North Korea, its illegal to be a Christian and the penalty is death.
Dent hopes his congregation and other Christians will use the prayer campaign from Open Doors to refocus on those who are facing life or death situations because of their faith.
The primary purpose for our participation in the prayer campaign is to get our people doing something to help. 1 Corinthians 12:26 tells us, And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. We pray that our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ remain strong and courageous through their suffering, Dent said.
And the news coming from the Middle East is full of conflict. In the past few months, the story of Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death while pregnant with her second child because she married a Christian, led to large outcries of injustice and pressured international parties to get involved.
Her husband, who has American and South Sudanese citizenships, advocated on her behalf. Ibrahim was temporarily freed, although she was forced to give birth chained in jail, but has since been detained on charges of traveling with false documents, although she denies the charges.
Stories like Ibrahims are coming to light as sectarian violence in the Middle East continues to spiral, making it dangerous to belong to any religion that isnt in control at the moment, said Jerry Dykstra, media relations director for Open Doors.
Dykstra said the organization has been helping deliver supplies of food and water to refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria and the takeover of Mosul in northern Iraq by the insurgent group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The group also has provided trauma conflict support for children who have been born in unstable areas and known violence most of their lives, he said.
At Open Doors, we take a holistic approach and work with churches and organizations on the ground to provide emotional, physical and spiritual needs of Christians facing life and death situations, he added. Whats going on in the Middle East doesnt just affect one group. It is concerning for all faiths.
Raising awareness of the situation facing Christians living in the Middle East or under dictatorships such as Kim Jong-uns in North Korea is equally important, Dykstra said, which is where the prayer campaign during Ramadan comes into play.
We have an extreme respect for Muslims across the world and what they go through, facing the same general violence. And they also make this tremendous act of faith each year by devoting an entire month to prayer and fasting. So we want to do our own thing and use this time to pray for Christians living in these conflict areas. Its not meant to be a competition but sharing to bring about peace, he said.
Dykstra said he hopes the Middle East will once again become a place where Muslims and Christians can live together in peace.
There have been long periods where weve lived in peace next to each other. But unfortunately this level of general violence by extreme groups has dramatically risen. And it seems that Christians are always caught in the middle because they have no support or protection by the governments. Thats where Open Doors comes in, he said.
With all the violence and persecution that are facing Christians around the world, prayer becomes a powerful tool Americans should be using, Dent said.
From visiting with those of faith from the persecuted church, numbering about 100 million people around the world, their primary request is for those of us in the body of Christ to pray earnestly and consistently for them. While some people can do more, praying for our brothers and sisters in Christ is something all people can do, said Dent.