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The Blood of the Lambs

Members of the Voice of the Martyrs Sneak Into Perilous Regions to Aid Persecuted Christians. Not That They Want the Suffering to End.

March 28, 2004|Claudia Kolker | Claudia Kolker is a Houston-based freelance writer.

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.

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