It's been said that more Christians were martyred for their faith in the 20th century alone than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. The 21st century too is off to an inauspicious start. And there is no indication that things will soon improve. The full implications of the "Arab Spring" (or "Arab Winter" may more aptly describe the resulting violence, instability, and uncertainty facing ancient Christian communities throughout the Middle East) are not fully known, but the early signs for Christians are not promising. The Chinese Communist Party, already gripped by paranoia in the face of a coming leadership change later this year, is tightening its grip. Similarly, with the passing of North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il, and the ascension of his son, Kim Jong Un, the regime is reportedly imprisoning and even killing up to three generations of family left behind by attempted escapees regardless of whether they are successful or not.

These geopolitical realties—and the list above offers only a snapshot—are sobering. But human suffering, viewed through a spiritual prism, is often far more complex. I am reminded of a comment I once heard from a Chinese pastor to a group of American Christians: "Do not pray for our persecution to stop. Pray that we would be strong in the face of persecution." Such is the fabric of the persecuted church, a rich tapestry of courage and devotion with eternity in view. 

Last spring, the already beleaguered religious minorities of Pakistan lost a champion—and Christians gained a martyr. 

Shahbaz Bhatti was Pakistan's Federal Minister of Minorities Affairs, and the only Christian member of the cabinet. He was an outspoken critic of his government's blasphemy laws, bravely advocating for Asia Bibi, a young Pakistani Christian mother accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death (to this day she languishes in prison awaiting her appeal). On March 2, 2011 he was brutally gunned down in his car leaving his mother's house for work. In an eerily prescient video filmed shortly before his assassination, Bhatti appears to sense that his days on earth are short. When asked about the threats against his life, this soft-spoken man boldly states, "I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of [the] cross. And I am following the cross. And I am ready to die for a cause."

The old English hymn, "For All the Saints," includes a stanza not often sung in churches today: "For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye, saw the bright crown descending from the sky. And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify. Allelulia, Alleluia." Bhatti grasped the crown. Or perhaps more fittingly, he grasped the cross, as have countless others before him. 

As the church in America wrestles anew with notions of religious freedom and liberty, may we find ourselves keeping company with the saints globally who today, and for centuries past, have endured much for the sake of Christ.