It's becoming more and more dangerous for Christians to practise their faith. And Christmas, like Easter, can be a time of increased peril.
Millions of Christians will put their own lives at risk in order to mark Christ's birth. Some are considering cancelling their traditional Christmas programmes for the safety and security of their community.
Egypt – high alert
It was Advent three years ago, when a suicide bomber attacked Cairo’s St Peter and Paul church, detonating a bomb strapped to his chest in the women’s section of the church. The bomb attack claimed 27 lives and badly injured 49 more. While churches in Egypt continue to conduct Christmas celebrations as normal, people have become more and more cautious. Christians from Muslim background also have to worry about pressure from the authorities.
“We are celebrating Christmas alone. Me and my wife,” says Magid*, a former Muslim Egyptian. “We are not able to celebrate it in the church. Especially at Christmas, the police are guarding the churches and they also check to which religion the visitors belong.”
Kenya – secret celebration
The fear of attack in Kenya is so bad that, for the most part, Christians avoid festive gatherings altogether. One Kenyan Christian tells us about an incident a few years ago when a small Christian community came together to pray for the birth of Jesus - they were attacked and severely beaten. The house they had gathered in was burnt down.
“We now don’t celebrate Christmas as a group but everyone on their own, hidden and in secret,” says Kiano*, a Kenyan Christian. “How can you express your faith in a place where what you do can cost you your life?”
North Korea – happy birthday to… Jesus
It’s not just Christmas: Christians in North Korea have to keep their faith a secret all year around. North Korea is currently the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. If a Christian is discovered, they will be arrested and imprisoned in one of the country’s notorious labour camps. There, Christians are worked like slaves and often tortured; most never escape.
In fact, the word ‘Christmas’ doesn’t even exist in North Korea, according to believers who have escaped the country. North Korea’s Christians secretly gather in small groups. For additional security, they prepare another ‘official’ reason for their gathering
“Because Christians cannot be seen to mark Jesus’ birthday, they often celebrate their own birthdays instead around Christmas time,” In-sik*, a North Korean explains.
India – Christmas erased?
India isn’t a nation that people associate with Christian persecution. However, with the rise of Hindu nationalism in the country, minority religions are tolerated less and less, as are their holy days.
“The Indian government is trying to turn Christmas into a day of celebration for the birthday of a leading political figure who passed away a few years ago,” says Arjun*, Indian Christian. “It is the government’s plan to have all schools, universities and offices open on the day and make it compulsory for everybody to attend and talk about the greatness of that leader. The main purpose is that we will be busy and so won’t be celebrating Christmas.”
Christians expect that the present government will gradually remove Christmas Day from the Indian calendar. However, Christians continue to celebrate the day and they carry on sharing their faith fearlessly all year round – that’s something unlikely to change, with or without a Christmas day to celebrate.
Libya – the Christians who don’t exist
The Libyan government claims that all Libyans are Muslims. While it’s not true, the indigenous Christian population is tiny – an estimated 150. While the more sizeable Christian migrant population is allowed to worship in private, it’s not a freedom extended to the few Libyan Christians.
“Christians here don’t even dare to dream about celebrating Christmas,” says an Open Doors’ fieldworker in regular contact with isolated Christians across the country.
“Christmas isn’t a special day in Libya,” he adds. “You won’t see any Christmas trees there; life just continues as usual. In day-to-day life, Christians are already very alone with few connections. At Christmas, this is even more apparent.
"For Christians who have connections with other Christians – for example, extended family members – there may be discreet Christmas celebrations such as a nice meal on Christmas Day."
While it’s impossible to wish most of these believers a happy Christmas in person, one thing we can and should do this Christmas is to remember them in our prayers. Suffering and persecution aren’t things we naturally like to dwell on over Christmas. But the truth is that our brothers and sisters need our prayers more than ever at this time of year.
Let's ask that they will stand strong and continue to be salt and light in their communities, despite any rise in persecution. And pray that whatever opposition they face, they will never lose hope. Christmas is a time of great hope, and hope, most of all, is what they need to keep going.
Zara Sarvarian works for the Christian charity Open Doors UK, which supports persecuted Christians around the world
*Names changed for security reasons
Photo (c) Open Doors International