A month after U.S. bombs first fell on Afghanistan, a widow in western Pakistan opened her door to two men with straggling beards, native clothes and skin streaked orange with self-tanning cream. Three weeks earlier, the woman's husband, a Protestant pastor, had been in church when three gunmen stormed in shouting "Allahu akbar!" and killed him and 14 worshipers.
Soon after, the widow got a message: Some sympathetic Westerners wanted to meet her. Now, standing in her doorway, the bronzed Americans explained that they were members of a U.S. charity called the Voice of the Martyrs, whose members infiltrate some of the world's most perilous locales in support of persecuted Christians. What did she need? If it was money, they could help. If it was prayers, that too. But there was one thing VOM could not—would not—offer Christians like her. They would not try to make the persecution stop.
The Voice of the Martyrs is an Oklahoma-based evangelical group that started as an obscure Cold War charity and now commands a $28-million budget and operations in more than 40 countries. It offers conventional aid, such as money to the Pakistan widow, and everything from blankets and cooking implements to Christians in other countries. Less practical but even more important, VOM executive director Tom White says, is the organization's offer of spiritual solidarity. Whether it's praying with the persecuted in their underground churches, or setting up printing presses to produce illegal Bibles, or documenting and publicizing abuse, the oppressed need to know they are not alone.
Those objectives align VOM with any number of Christian organizations doing similar work around the globe. Yet in one surprising way, the Voice of the Martyrs is unique. The persecution of Christians is something the organization would rather embrace than prevent. It is their suffering, VOM believes, that inspires other Christians and helps the church to grow.
"We don't see [persecution] as a problem that we can protest or help and make it go away," explains spokesman Todd Nettleton. "It is always going to occur, because Christ promised it would. Our mission is to fellowship with those enduring persecution, support them when and where we can, and be a blessing to them. In turn, we are blessed with their testimonies of God's faithfulness."
"i'm surprised we haven't been bombed yet," says ray thorne, one of the two men who journeyed to Pakistan and now a VOM program director, leaning confidentially across his desk at the group's headquarters in Bartlesville, Okla. VOM stands near the town center, in a spruce brick building once occupied by Montgomery Ward. Spotless and flatteringly lit, the office glows with healthy-looking men and women. The more one learns about their goals, though, the more it seems Thorne might be right. The Voice of the Martyrs is no ordinary nonprofit.
Because it's apolitical, Nettleton says, VOM interacts very little with governments, including the White House. Instead, the Voice of the Martyrs operates by sneaking about 20 activists each year into anti-Christian regimes, say Sudan or Malaysia, often in the guise of businessmen or aid workers. A network of local Christians then connects them with secret church communities, or underground churches, which in some countries number in the thousands.
Visiting VOM activists may pray with their fellow Christians to show solidarity, as Thorne did in Pakistan. In nearby Iraq, they are distributing bags filled by donors with clothes and household supplies. In Bangladesh, where caste restrictions ban Christians from using public water supplies, they dig wells. They may secretly build Bible printing presses in underground chambers, as they did in China, or—the closest thing to direct proselytizing—they may launch their signature balloons. Each year, VOM activists travel in the dead of night to the border between North and South Korea. There they prepare 50,000 tangerine-colored balloons covered with scripture verses. The activists then prick a hole in each one, unleashing the balloons across the DMZ and, presumably, into North Korean yards.
The group also has eight full-time overseas workers who establish themselves in or near the targeted country, holding down day jobs as they secretly gather victim testimony. That evidence of Christian abuse is often featured in VOM's elegantly produced magazine. "Credibility is very important to us—we really work hard at that," Thorne says. He smiles slightly.
"He can use undercover tactics. He could be a journalist, or photojournalist," Thorne says of VOM's typical fieldworker abroad. "In an Asian country, for example, a fieldworker works with a humanitarian aid agency." To communicate with operatives, Thorne creates code words. There's no doubt he relishes this cloak-and-dagger style. Sometimes, he confesses, colleagues call him "Raybo," because of his penchant for wrapping his head in a bandanna during missions. Asked for details on other projects, Thorne compresses his lips tactfully. "See, some of this stuff is so top secret, it would be exposing too much," he says.
Of everyone at VOM, White best personifies the group's mix of theater—and religious passion. In the 1970s, while he attempted to hurl religious pamphlets from a plane over Cuba, the pilot of his plane was forced to make an emergency landing. White spent 17 brutal months in a Cuban prison before Mother Teresa arranged his release.
Flamboyant though it may be, White says, VOM's swashbuckling style serves one simple goal: to help Christians in other countries reproduce their faith. Does that mean trying to create a world where everyone is Christian? White pauses half a second. Yes, he answers simply. To accomplish that religious goal, he adds, "You always try to keep an edge, technologically. Today, with miniaturization—well, I'd rather not talk about it."
But he can't resist divulging a little more.
"You just try to make things small," White says. "Like when I was in prison [in Cuba], I would write letters on tissue paper. In Asia, I used to carry film inside my colon.
"I'd seen 'Papillon,' " he says.
It was a particularly dangerous trip to Sudan that introduced Ray Thorne to the Voice of the Martyrs; what happened to Thorne on that trip also put VOM on the map.
A friend had told Thorne, a burly part-time street pastor from Michigan, about a missionary trip that promised to be unlike anything Thorne had done. Intrigued, Thorne signed on, and in the spring of 1997 joined half a dozen other missionaries on a flight to Sudan, where a Muslim government was waging civil war on Christian and animist tribesmen. Arriving in Kenya, the missionaries stocked a World War II-era plane with Bibles and survival goods, then headed for the remote Nuba Mountains. When they landed, Thorne recalls, he wondered briefly why the pilot kept the engines revved. But his attention quickly turned to a stomach-wrenching stench, and a wave of nearly naked, skeletal figures pouring from the nearby trees.
"You could smell them coming," says Thorne, who now works full time for VOM. "They smelled so horrible. Their clothes were just rotting on their bodies. And they began stealing the stuff from the plane and going back into the forest."
Twenty minutes later the reason became clear. Two helicopters, manned by Sudanese soldiers, zoomed over the mountains and fired rockets at the Christian crowd. Two women were hit and flew through the air in spouts of blood. The plane dashed into the sky. Thorne and his friend, Kevin Turner, who had been planning to stay behind to work with Sudanese Christians, threw themselves behind a wall of rocks and prepared to die. Grimly, they assessed their resources: one video camera, one satellite phone. They decided first to film farewells to loved ones. Then they fired up the phone. The number they dialed belonged to a producer at "The 700 Club"—pastor Pat Robertson's TV show, heard by millions of U.S. evangelicals.
Late at night in Virginia Beach, Va., producer Stan Jeter sluggishly picked up the phone. He recognized the voice of Turner, with whom he'd once met for a documentary. "Kevin described the scene," Jeter recalls in a phone conversation from "The 700 Club" studio. "He described their sprint, the hail of bullets and some women behind them getting shot."
Please ask your audience to pray for us, Turner asked the producer. Then he hung up so he and Thorne could flee. Over the next six days, the men called Jeter daily from new mountain hiding places; Jeter broadcast each update live on "The 700 Club" news segment. Viewers couldn't get enough. Years before the concept was commercialized, reality TV was unfolding before their widened eyes.
"They were hiking by night, hiding by day," Jeter says. "Then the [phone's] battery ran out, and we were kind of anxious. They were by no means in the clear. Next we heard they had connected with another flight." In fact, the men had found one of the Sudanese they'd met at the airfield, who offered them a short-wave radio. The Americans sent a distress call, and a few days later, a plane arrived to whisk them both back home.
The experience of facing death for faith, though, stayed with Thorne long afterward. "In America," he says, "the Christianity we know is watered-down and user-friendly. The brothers and sisters in hostile nations who are dying and beaten because they're willing to risk their lives for their faith? That attracts me."
The Sudan encounter also stayed with countless other evangelicals. During the ordeal, viewers flooded "The 700 Club" with phone calls, desperate to know the missionaries' fate. The Voice of the Martyrs—identified in the broadcasts as Thorne and Turner's sponsor—felt the outpouring even more tangibly. Donations to its Sudan project leaped almost 500%. In the years that followed, the Voice of the Martyrs grew wildly, crediting the Nuba odyssey in large part for catapulting it from fringe group to the leader in the new movement of U.S. evangelical charities devoted to aiding oppressed Christians.
It's no accident that Ray Thorne showed up in Sudan when he did. Ever since the Cold War ended, human rights specialists had grown increasingly troubled by assaults on religious freedom around the world. VOM actually got its start in Communist Romania, where founder Richard Wurmbrand once spent 15 years in prison for preaching Christianity. Wurmbrand, who died in 2001, was Jewish; he often said he was converted by a Christian carpenter who had prayed ardently to meet a Jew whom he could lead to Jesus Christ.
Imprisoned repeatedly for preaching, Wurmbrand in 1965 was ransomed by Norwegian philanthropists and fled to California. There he founded Jesus to the Communist World, which focused on smuggling Bibles and other religious materials to the Soviet Bloc. With the Soviet Union's fall, Wurmbrand's nonprofit—like many charities in what became known as the persecuted church movement—turned its attention to the Muslim world. Wurmbrand renamed the group the Voice of the Martyrs and gave the reins to White, who persuaded the pastor to move the group to White's hometown of Bartlesville.
After the Cold War, missionaries had proliferated—attracting enemies as well as converts—in the former Soviet Bloc countries. By 1990, 70% of the world's evangelicals, Pentecostals and similar conservative Christian groups were living in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalism had grown in Africa and Asia, and Hindu fundamentalism in India. The confluence of religious trends led to tensions, including violent clashes, in many of these regions.
In response to these concerns, and to mounting complaints that U.S. foreign policy neglected religious freedom, the United States in 1998 created the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom and the Commission on International Religious Freedom to track religious freedom violations worldwide. Evangelical groups make their own estimates of the carnage: According to the Overseas Ministries Study Center, which VOM cites as a source, some 150,000 Christians worldwide are murdered for their faith each year. One of the founders of the persecuted church movement, attorney and human rights activist Nina Shea, calls Christians the "most persecuted" religious group on earth.
Still, international experts—from aid workers to diplomats—object to what they call distortions about the extent and uniqueness of aggression against Christians. Jeremy Gunn, senior fellow for religion and human rights at Emory University and former research director of the religious freedom commission, says there's simply no way to prove that attacks on Christians are rising. More importantly, says religious scholar David Little of Harvard University's Divinity School, repression of Christians in a given region invariably reflects larger patterns of human rights abuse. In India, for example, Hindu extremist attacks on Christians are on the rise. But so too, in greater numbers, are attacks on Muslims and Sikhs. In some places, even Hindus have been targeted. In such conflicts, Little says, religious minorities attract hostility not for their theology but because they represent foreignness, cultural difference or perceived threats to the power structure.
By the same token, the government of Sudan indeed rates as one of the most brutal in the world—guilty of repeated crimes against humanity, Gunn says. "But the issue is not simply one of a Muslim North versus a Christian South," he insists. "Northern Sudanese typically think of themselves as Arabs, whereas in Southern Sudan their skin is darker. It's often characterized by them as a conflict between Arabs versus blacks." Pivotal in the violence are the oil reserves beneath the regions where non-Muslims live. Angling for access, Sudan's government indifferently massacres not just Christians, but also their neighbors who follow traditional African religions.
By singling out and exaggerating the extent of persecution against Christians, Gunn says, activists lose credibility. They can also endanger Christians living in repressive regimes by giving the impression that it is outsiders who are agitating to advance the cause of Christianity. On a larger scale, lending too much weight to the plight of Christians can suggest insincerity about advancing the cause of religious freedom for everyone.
"If you don't capture these nuances," Gunn says, "you are fanning the flames."
When "the 700 Club" broadcast Ray Thorne's Nuba odyssey, many viewers saw in it a map for their own spiritual quests. Extreme devotion, as VOM called its high-stakes take on faith, could not have been more different from the faith movement that dominated U.S. evangelicals in the past three decades. Also called the "prosperity Gospel"—or "name-it-and-claim-it" faith—it promised earthly rewards for getting right with God. By the 1990s, the approach repelled many evangelicals eager for a deeper way to live their faith. Suffering for it, or at least easing the suffering of others, offered a tonic.
It's probably not coincidence that extreme sports caught fire during the same decade as extreme devotion became popular. Both trends, says William Martin, a Rice University sociologist who specializes in religion, likely stemmed from the same cause: relative absence of danger in daily life in 1990s America. Helping activists aid the Christian underground offered many Christians a longed-for spiritual intensity. "It may have its secular counterparts, but it's doubly meaningful and blessed because you're doing it because of your faith," Martin says. "It's not a fake."
Rejecting the hardball fundraising of TV evangelists, the Voice of the Martyrs lets its magazine speak for it. Riffling through the pages can be shocking. A typical image, from June 2003: a Chinese woman grimacing in pain as a uniformed man grinds an electric prod into her cheek. "The Chinese Peoples' police are 'executing the law,' torturing Sister Aizhen Miao, a house-church believer," the caption reads. "The names of the policemen and the Christians have been independently verified."
It's a bloody iconography, one not often associated with modern Protestant culture. But the images—of bludgeonings, contorted faces, military boots pinioning shoulders—are integral to the persecuted church movement's worldview. Oklahoma Wesleyan University now offers a four-year undergraduate degree in Christian persecution studies. Among teenagers, a book called "Extreme Devotion," written by VOM and featuring a historic description for each day of the year of a Christian being killed, tortured or otherwise persecuted, has sold 73,000 copies.
"People give to what they think is real; they don't want to give to phony baloney televangelists," explains Thorne, poking an index finger in the air. Thorne is an unpretentious man, and he struggles to explain what attracts him to the world of martyrs. What he comes up with is a distaste for artifice. Growing up with brawling, unhappily married parents, Thorne says he found peace by trout fishing and trapping in Michigan's backwoods. Today he doesn't even like churches. Imitating the Christians he's met abroad, he prays instead with friends in a "house church" in his living room.
"My background was the preparation for me to go into these areas now," he says. "Mountainous areas, places where people don't want to be, places with poor food . . . there is an excitement going into a country that hates Christians."
It's difficult, however, to ignore the romantic—even fetishistic—overtones of idealizing victims who have few choices in their suffering. Do starving ethnic Christians in Sudan, for instance, really prefer their martyrdom to, say, more aid or a refugee visa to America? Thorne and others who have worked with underground church members abroad maintain they do. In the Nuba Mountains, when Thorne asked the tribesmen how he could help them, he says they begged him to tell their story. Gary Lane, VOM's former spokesman, recalls a pastor of a harassed underground church once asking, "Brother Gary, what are we doing wrong?"
"You're doing everything right," Lane says he replied. "Look at America. Why aren't we being persecuted in America? What are we doing wrong? I would maintain the reason why we're not being persecuted in America is because we're not doing the job Jesus wanted us to. If we did, we'd be labeled intolerant."
What may also be at work, says sociologist Martin, is envy. American Christians have watched other groups—women, Jews, blacks, gays and immigrants—gain attention for their suffering. "I think there is a self-conscious element among Christians who say, 'Look, we are the most persecuted people and we never get any credit for this,' " Martin says. "Though they have considerable clout nationally and internationally, evangelical Christians often seem to feel they are just hanging on."
Modern evangelicals are not the first religious group to tap the power of martyrdom. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, wrote Christian philosopher Tertullian in the 2nd century. During the early days of Christianity, Rome's persecution of believers was key in spreading the new religion. Martyrs became heroes, prompting curiosity, and envy, at a faith that inspired such courage. And while reverence for martyrs is popularly linked with Catholic culture, "Foxe's Book of Martyrs," a catalogue of Christian sufferings, influenced Protestantism immensely in the 16th century.
But today, outside the persecuted church movement, the group that idealizes martyrs most is the extremist fringe of Islam. To be sure, a giant chasm lies between the two religious definitions. For the persecuted church movement, martyrs are by definition victims of others. At the far margins of interpreted Islam, meanwhile, martyrdom is something to be achieved by suicide as part of a terrorist act. Distinct as these two conceptions are, though, the ideal of suffering for faith appeals to evangelicals and some Muslim groups for similar reasons. For both, narratives of martyrdom deliver an impressive dose of awe and inspiration. They unite straying believers. And they display reassuring strength to groups preoccupied by being overwhelmed by outsiders. The question, on a planet occupied by roughly 1 billion Muslims and 2 billion Christians, is whether any one theology truly can or should prevail.
To Thorne, the answer is clear. In a few days, he will head off to Afghanistan. Precisely where he'll go or what he'll do is, naturally, a secret. But as he always does, he'll prepare meticulously. He'll grow his beard, assemble native clothes. He'll dye or tan some brown into his skin. Then, when he arrives, he'll do his best to blend into the hostile throng. Or risk becoming a martyr.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times