For many people 1968 will be remembered as the year of worldwide protest against oppression. In what was Czechoslovakia the ‘Prague Spring’ protests for greater citizens’ rights were eventually suppressed by Russian tanks. In France student protests sparked mass strikes against the government. Even at the Mexico Olympics of that year athletes used the medal podium to register protests about civil rights.
In the UK 1968 was the year the Revd. Stuart Harris, General Secretary of the European Christian Mission, established a Christian organisation geared towards responding to an altogether different form of oppression – the persecution of Christians behind what Winston Churchill had famously dubbed ‘the iron curtain’.
That organisation was called Christian Mission to the Communist World. In the mid-1990s its name was changed to Release International and its work has since spread to many more countries and parts of the world. So what was it that prompted Harris to set up CMCW? Well, not so much ‘what’ as ‘who?’
Harris met a man called Richard Wurmbrand
Richard Wurmbrand was born in Romania, in 1909. He was from a Jewish background but, by his own admission, lived virtually as an atheist until his conversion to Christ in 1938. By then he had married Sabina Oster, also from a Jewish background. Wurmbrand quickly became involved in Christian ministry and evangelism and was ordained, first as an Anglican and later as a Lutheran.
His story – and its relevance to Release International – really begins after the Second World War when Eastern Europe, including Wurmbrand’s country of Romania, was engulfed by Communism. An outspoken and uncompromising person, who avowedly put Christ before any political institution, Wurmbrand was arrested in 1948. Click here to see Richard’s timeline.
He would go on to serve a total of 14 years in Communist prisons (in two spells, with a brief period of freedom in the 1950s).
During that time he was frequently tortured, in attempts to force him to abandon his Christian faith. He later told of his experiences in his moving book, Tortured for Christ.
Wurmbrand was released as part of an amnesty in 1964 and quickly resumed his underground church ministry. Concerned that he might be arrested a third time, a group of Norwegian Christians negotiated his emigration, paying the Romanian authorities a $10,000 ransom. Although warned before his departure to remain silent about his time in prison, Wurmbrand travelled extensively, testifying to his treatment as a Christian by the Communists.
Before the Wurmbrands left Romania they met Stuart Harris at a Christian meeting in Bucharest and arranged for him to visit their flat where, later that evening, Wurmbrand shared his story. Harris would later write: “We were appalled by the evidence of such bitter suffering – as a result of violent persecution and imprisonment. As we listened to the Wurmbrand story we felt that we could never be the same again.” The following year the Wurmbrands visited the UK and met with Harris again.
As a result, Harris established Christian Mission to the Communist World. CMCW had humble beginnings, being run from a hut in the grounds of Elmstead Baptist Church, near Bromley, a large town in Greater London. However, the work quickly grew and new offices were found.
A newsletter, called Jesus to the Communist World, was published before the end of the year. It stated, “Through the ministry of Pastor and Mrs Wurmbrand, it has been clear that the growth of this specialized ministry to the Communist World is of such timely and significant interest, that it calls for the formation of a Mission entirely dedicated for this purpose.
“The Church and Nation appear often to be unaware of the menace of atheistic Communism, and the Mission to the Communist World provides the ways, and is a channel for increasing help to those who suffer under Communism, especially the friends and relatives of Christian martyrs. The Mission also provides literature to spread the gospel among the Communists and to encourage believers to love the Communists, as we are commanded to love all men.”
Through the 1970s and 1980s the focus of work was Communist Eastern Europe but the magazine, known as Voice of the Martyrs from 1972, also featured stories of persecution further afield, such as in China and parts of Africa.
During this period the stated aims of CMCW were:
- To provide help to persecuted believers and the friends and relatives of Christian martyrs;
- Winning of Communists to Christ;
- The exposure of the polices and methods of atheistic Communism;
- The arousing of Christian churches throughout the world to action in gospel witness to the Communist world.
The 1990s was a decade of massive change, beginning, as it did, with the fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The world was also becoming more aware of Islamist fundamentalism.
In the light of this it was announced, in 1994, that Christian Mission to the Communist World was being renamed Release International. The regular newsletter was given the new title of ‘Release in Action’. By the end of the decade Hindu nationalism was beginning to be a threat to Christians in India. A similar phenomenon of Buddhist nationalism would follow in Sri Lanka. As a new millennium dawned, opportunities to support persecuted Christians began to open up in different countries.
Sabina Wurmbrand died in August 2000. The following February Richard Wurmbrand died. Their later years had been spent in California. Stuart Harris died in October 2001.
Over the past two decades Release International has continued to love and serve persecuted Christians around the world and is now active in around 30 countries, working through Christian partners on the ground to strengthen and encourage those who suffer for Christ, providing both material and spiritual support. In 2018 Release International celebrated 50 years of serving the persecuted church. The contexts and the needs may have changed since 1968 – but the faith and motivation hasn’t. Still the ministry seeks to help persecuted believers and the families of martyrs and prisoners, and to further the Christian gospel.
This is the first logo of Release International
This is the current logo of Release International