The Persecution Gospel | Nations


22nd April 2024

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The Persecution Gospel

Imprisoned in Sudan and tortured by ISIS, Petr Jasek knows the cost—and hope—of persecution

Growing up in the underground church in communist Czechoslovakia, Petr Jasek became intimately familiar with persecution for his faith at an early age. His father was a pastor, and his parents organized secret discipleship meetings in their house and helped distribute Bibles and funds smuggled in from the outside world. 

One day in high school, Jasek came home to discover that both his parents were missing—arrested by the secret police and hauled in for interrogation. When they eventually returned home, Petr’s father went into his library and brought out a book. 

“Read this,” he told Jasek. “It will encourage your faith.”

That book, In God’s Underground, chronicled the imprisonment and torture of Voice of the Martyr’s (VOM) founder Richard Wurmbrand by Romanian communists. It became one of the most important books in Jasek’s life, second only to the Bible.

“When I read about how the Lord supported Richard Wurmbrand in prison, even as he was brutally beaten and brainwashed, I stopped being afraid of any persecution that could come for our family,” Jasek told me. 

When the communist regime fell in 1989, Jasek and a fellow believer wrote a letter to the VOM office in Germany—using an address they had found on the book’s cover—and invited them to come to their country. By 1992, VOM had officially established an office in Czechoslovakia and Jasek had found his calling.

For ten years, Jasek built a career as a hospital director while simultaneously volunteering with Voice of the Martyrs. By 2002, he had been appointed the full-time regional director for VOM, visiting churches to share stories of persecuted Christians and encourage them to pray, and overseeing the ministry’s work in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

In the years to come, Jasek traveled the globe to countries where Christians were persecuted for their faith. Harnessing the skills he learned as part of the Czech underground church, he smuggled Bibles to Iran and Algeria, delivered aid to war-torn villages in South Sudan, and documented atrocities against Christians all across Africa—photographing bulldozed churches and the maimed bodies of believers and recording testimonies of persecution.

Strict security regulations are enforced at all times.

Over the years, his tradecraft developed. He would sneak into countries on a tourist visa so as not to attract attention, always spending his first day site-seeing to fill his camera up with tourist photos that supported his cover story. He learned to stay in hotels for only one night at a time, constantly staying on the move to make it more difficult for secret police or hostile religious extremists to monitor his activities. He learned how to communicate with encrypted email addresses and overwrite the never-quite-empty space on hard drives and camera cards. “Any deleted file can be restored,” he explained.

Clandestine meetings with local Christians were often held in crowded, public places—too loud for the secret police to easily eavesdrop. Other times, he met with contacts in the dead of night, confirming identities with coded phrases before handing off funds for the families of imprisoned Christians. Whenever he met these persecuted Christians, he could encourage them as one who truly understood how they felt. Back in Czechoslovakia, he himself had been one of them.

In 2015, Jasek traveled to Sudan to secretly verify and document reports of persecution. It was supposed to be a quick trip to gather photo evidence and interviews—in and out in four days. Instead, on his way out of the country, Jasek was arrested by the Sudanese secret police, falsely accused of espionage, and thrown into prison for 445 days.

It was a harrowing, life-changing experience for Jasek. For the first two months, he shared a cell with six members of ISIS, who beat and tortured him. He endured months of solitary confinement, sickness, malnourishment, and horrific living conditions in overcrowded prisons. And yet, through it all, Jasek remained faithful—praying for his ISIS tormentors, leading dozens of fellow prisoners to faith, and preaching prison sermons that helped spearhead a small-scale revival behind bars. What man meant for evil, God used for good. 

In February 2017, diplomatic intervention finally secured Jasek’s release. Today, he continues to work with Voice of the Martyrs, sharing his story with churches and inviting them to advocate for persecuted Christians around the world. This March, Nations had the opportunity to speak to Jasek about the lessons he learned in prison about faith, suffering, the power of prayer, and the sovereignty of God.

Sudanese death row inmates returning to their cells. Image Source: Fernando Moleres.

Though I was weak, the Lord gave me strength

“I reached the bottom of my physical and emotional strength in prison. In the first three months I lost 55 pounds of my bodyweight. At the same time I suffered some internal bleeding which resulted in me losing almost half of my blood. I was extremely weak, both physically and emotionally.

At the same time my faith was tested by my ISIS cellmates. In the past, there had been some cases where ISIS members that were released from prison got their revenge—killing guards who had treated them badly. There were so many ISIS members in this prison that the guards were afraid of them and let them do whatever they wanted.

The first morning when I didn’t join my ISIS cellmates for prayers they asked me, ‘Are you a Christian or are you a Muslim?’ When I told them that I was a Christian, they started to treat me badly, limiting my freedom of movement, slandering me with bad words, and limiting my food and drink. They beat me and tortured me. I never knew from what direction they would come: slapping my face or hitting me with their fists, beating me with a wooden stick or kicking me with their legs.

I was not worried that I would die in prison. I worried that I would lose my mind. I was literally asking the Lord to keep my mind sound.

The ISIS members did not allow me to speak unless they spoke to me first, so my only chance to share the gospel was when they asked me a question. I prayed that the Lord would give me the right words to say. They often asked me about my faith, and though I was very weak the Lord gave me strength.

Christianity is the only religion that teaches its followers to love their enemies. When we go through persecution we should pray that Jesus would reveal himself to our persecutors as their Lord, Savior, and God. That can be difficult. Sometimes I challenge people to join me in prayer for the six ISIS members that were imprisoned with me, that the Lord would let the seeds of the gospel that I was able to sow into their hearts grow that they could also find Jesus.”

“In 2015, Jasek traveled to Sudan to secretly verify and document reports of persecution. It was supposed to be a quick trip to gather photo evidence and interviews—in and out in four days. Instead, on his way out of the country, Jasek was arrested by the Sudanese secret police, falsely accused of espionage, and thrown into prison for 445 days.”

Our omnipotent God wants to hear from us 

“As much as [the ISIS members] beat and tortured me, they were never satisfied. Eventually they came up with the idea to waterboard me. I knew that if they did, it could [kill me] because I was so weak.

The night before the waterboarding, they decided to ask me questions. And if they didn’t like my answer, which was in most cases, they beat me with a wooden stick. Most times when they beat me, I was only aware of the pain. But on that particular night I was on my knees and I experienced a deep peace. I was able to pray for them as they beat me. And I wondered, ‘Where is peace coming from?’

It was only much later, after I had been released, that I was sitting with my wife in our living room and we were telling each other what we each experienced on each day of my imprisonment. We realized that the night [of my beating] my wife had been with a Bible study group. And at one moment, the elder who was leading the study closed his Bible and said, ‘I believe that the Holy Spirit is leading us to pray for Petr and for the situation that he now finds himself in right now in his cell.’ It was exactly the same night. Seven or eight people in that Bible study went to their knees and started to exalt the Lord’s victory in the cell where I was. It was just like in Romans 8:27 where we read that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God. To me, that was a confirmation of the power of prayer.

The next morning, as they were almost ready to start the waterboarding, they showed me the piece of cloth that they would use to cover my mouth. They had plenty of water ready.

Inside the prison, there was one Sudanese guard who was especially hated because he was known for secretly listening to prisoners’ conversations and reporting back to the interrogators. He was on duty that morning and heard that something was going to happen, so he opened the cell door and commanded me to take all my stuff and go. As I was walking out in the midst of them, I felt like Daniel when he was taken out of the lion’s den. The only difference was that the Lord kept the mouths of Daniel’s lions shut, but mine had their mouths hanging wide open.

After I was released, I became convicted about how often someone asked me for prayers and I just said that very simple Christian social phrase, ‘Yes, I will keep you in my prayers.’ But I never really consistently would pray for them. I made a commitment that I would take prayer seriously and really encourage other people to pray as well.

We serve the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God who could save persecuted Christians on his own. He doesn’t need us, but he wants us. He wants to hear from us and he wants to answer our prayers.”

Who could have thought up this plan of God’s?

“After two months, I was transferred to a second prison where the conditions were much worse than the first. I realized that my first prison, the prison of the secret police, was actually considered the best prison in Sudan. Now I was squeezed into a crowded cell with 40 or 50 other men. Sometimes there was not even enough room for everybody to sleep at the same time. We were released only twice a day to go to the toilet. I doubted that I would survive.

One evening they brought 12 Eritrean refugees to our cell, and I sensed the Holy Spirit telling me to go sit beside them and share the gospel. They were so touched by the message of the gospel and I asked them, ‘Do you also want to commit your lives to Jesus?’ And all 12 of them said yes. They prayed with me, and we spent the rest of the night in joyful conversation. In the morning they were transferred to a different prison and I never saw them again, but my spiritual eyes were opened in that moment. I said, “Lord, now I know why I had to be in prison for these past four months, because these people needed to hear the gospel!” 

Immediately, I started to share the gospel even with the Muslim prisoners. Sharing the gospel with Muslims is illegal outside of prison, so of course it is also illegal inside the prison. About a week later, I was put in solitary confinement. This was meant as a punishment, but for me it was a liberation.

A week later, a consular officer from the Czech Embassy brought me the most precious gift I could ever receive in prison—a Bible. I was so thirsty for the Word of God that I started reading immediately. In the darkness of solitary confinement, I could only read while standing at the window, and in this standing position I read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation in three weeks. I continued to read it again and again for the next three months, and the Holy Spirit started to give me new insights.

Sudanese inmates hold Christian service while in prison. Image Source: Fernando Moleres.

After eight months in prison my court case finally started. I was transferred again to a different prison, this time in the middle of nowhere in the desert. It’s a huge prison, with capacity for up to 10,000 prisoners. We had 100 people all in the same cell—real criminals this time, fighting each night. Sometimes people were seriously injured or even killed.

But this prison was unique in that they allowed the Muslims to go to mosque outside of the prison. And for the non-Muslim prisoners, the prison authorities turned one of the cells into a small chapel. On my first day there, elders from this prison chapel heard there was one European and two Sudanese pastors that had arrived at the prison so they came and asked us, ‘Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement, please tell us.’ The two Sudanese pastors pointed at me. They knew that I had had the Bible for three months, just my own private Bible study with the Holy Spirit in solitary confinement. So I started to preach. 

Soon, the elders increased the number of chapel meetings from twice a week to five times per week, and I was able to preach once or sometimes twice a week. I realized that the Lord had prepared me for this by allowing me to study the Scriptures so closely. Now, together with the other pastors, I could preach prison sermons to absolutely hopeless, desperate, and forgotten people who were so thirsty for the Word of God. Every week we witnessed people giving their lives to Christ, so that in six months the number of chapel attendees grew up from 20 to more than 200. This was the best time of my prison life. I stopped being worried and instead became joyful. Every day, after the guards would count us at morning attendance, I rushed to the chapel and spent the whole day talking to people who had decided to follow Christ.

One afternoon I was sitting with the two Sudanese pastors and we all agreed that we had stopped worrying about how much more time we would spend in prison, because every day was filled with joy of sharing the gospel and seeing that the Word of God will never come back empty. 

Isaiah 55:9 says, ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ And tell me, who on earth could have thought up this plan of God’s? He strengthened my faith through persecution from ISIS. He strengthened my prayer life—I remember whole days that I prayed while walking from dawn to dusk. Then He gave me three months of private Bible study with the Holy Spirit. And all this was preparation for six months of wonderful, fruitful prison ministry. That was a confirmation to me of the sovereignty of the Lord, that he’s in control.”

“I often tell young people that you can easily measure how much you seek the face of the Lord versus the face of this world—just measure it by time. Of course we have our jobs, studies, families, we have to do certain activities, but we still have a lot of free time. How much of our free time do we spend with the Word of God, with prayers, with seeking his face?”

Refined by affliction and purified like silver 

“Isaiah 48:10 says, ‘Behold I have refined and tested you in the furnace of affliction.’ When we Christians go through persecution it refines us like metal through fire. The main point of putting precious metals like silver and gold through the refining process is obvious—it is to get rid of everything that is not genuine. That’s how I describe how my life was changed by my prison experience.

When you want to purify silver, you need to do it really carefully. You can’t leave silver in the fire for too long, otherwise everything will get burned or oxidized. Someone once asked the silversmith, ‘How do you know when the silver is ready to be taken out of the flame?’ And the silversmith smiled and said, ‘That’s the easiest part. When I start to see my face being reflected in the surface of the silver, that’s the moment when I know I should take it out.’ 

I think that’s a wonderful picture. When you think about our lives being purified by the Lord, he wants his image to be reflected in us. One of the things that I can clearly say is different for me is how my prayer life has changed, how much time I spend in the Word of God. Maybe I don’t spend as much time as I did in prison when I didn’t have to do anything else, but when I’m traveling, when I’m standing in a line, I can read my Bible on my iPhone or listen to it on audio. I can use any opportunity to seek the Lord’s face.

I often tell young people that you can easily measure how much you seek the face of the Lord versus the face of this world—just measure it by time. Of course we have our jobs, studies, families, we have to do certain activities, but we still have a lot of free time. How much of our free time do we spend with the Word of God, with prayers, with seeking his face?”

Petr reunites with Sudanese boy after being released. Image Source: Courtesy; Voice of the Martyrs.

A gospel of persecution, not prosperity

“I think there’s a danger with ‘instant Christianity.’ We sometimes hear that when you become a believer in Jesus you should become healthy, happy, you should receive everything that you ask for right now. But that’s not the gospel. The gospel that I find in the New Testament, I would call a ‘persecution gospel.’

Persecution is an essential part of the Christian life. The Lord Jesus said to his followers, ‘They have persecuted me, so they will persecute you also.’ Paul goes even further. He says in 2 Timothy 3:12 that anyone who wants to live life according to the teachings of Jesus, anyone who wants to take the gospel seriously and apply it to his or her life, will experience some form of persecution. 

Of course, I’m not saying that everyone will be persecuted the same way. I’ve met heroes of the faith who have lost not only their material things—houses looted and burned, cars destroyed—but who have lost also their loved ones or even parts of their own bodies because they would not deny Christ. But we are the body of Christ, and every part of the body has a different role to play. As long as we Christians in Europe or the United States live in freedom, we can be the voice of the voiceless. We can cry out in our prayers for those who are going through persecution.”

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Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy is a freelance writer based out of Portland, Oregon. He has lived and worked in England, South Sudan and India, honing his craft with a focus on non-profits, business, and international affairs. When he’s not writing, you can usually find him with a book in hand, drinking local coffee, or biking and climbing in the mountains.