Celebrating Christmas: a matter of life and death

“Why don’t terrorists attack churches?” I asked my dad – a church leader – one rainy autumn day in my early teens. Needless to say I was much younger then, far more interested in what my friends were up to than in global politics, and had not started working for Open Doors – an organisation that supports persecuted Christians in over 50 countries worldwide.

Since working in this field I quickly learnt that the answer was ‘they do’. Only this month, on 11 December, 27 Christians were killed and over 60 more injured in a bomb blast in Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral in Egypt. All but three of those killed were women and children. This has shaken the Christian community in Egypt and around the world. But this tragedy is not unique.

The reality of global persecution

Christmas, Easter and other high points in the Christian calendar are symbolic times to target Christians – as indeed is the case with high points in the calendars of all faiths, as we see in the dreadful attacks on Baha’is, Ahmadis, Shi’a pilgrims and others.

This year, more than 70 people were killed – again, mostly women and children – and hundreds were injured when they celebrated Easter in their local park. The attack was claimed by a Pakistani Taliban faction: ‘The target were Christians’, their spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, told Reuters.

On 13 November a bomb was thrown into a Sunday school in Indonesia, killing a two-year-old child and injuring three others aged two, three and four.

Individuals are also vulnerable. Samari Kasabi, a 55 year old woman from Chhattisgarh, India, was dragged from her house on 16 October by a mob, stripped naked, beaten to death and her body burnt because she and her family had become Christians. Eunice Elisha, in Abuja, Nigeria was hacked to death on 9 July while preaching on a street corner. The most terrible thing about these stories is that they are not unique.

Behind this screen of violence, there is also a more subtle form of persecution that is arguably the more effective – the slow but steady chipping away of people’s liberties and self-worth through arbitrary detention and trumped-up charges, to the denial of jobs, education, inheritance, marriage, access to children etc.

Christmas 2016 – a time for rejoicing and a time for mourning? 

As Christians around the world gather together to celebrate Christmas, some will be taking their lives into their own hands. Already this year, a number of Christians have faced warnings about celebrating Christmas.

In Turkey, around 35 German-funded teachers at Istanbul Erkek Lisesi (also known as Istanbul High School) received an email on 13 December. On the authority of the National Ministry of Education, it ordered “No more Christmas celebrations and/or lessons… including carol singing.”

On 17 December, vandals pelted Manipur Baptist Church, in north-east India, with stones causing significant damage to the property. They left a sign which said “No one is allowed to worship and celebrate Christmas without prior permission.” On the same day, Tangkhul Baptist Church in nearby Imphal was told by a group of attackers that if they conduct worship services their church will be burnt down.  

On 6 December in Indonesia, a Christmas gathering approved by the local mayor was interrupted and stopped by a local Islamist group who protested that such services should take place in a church, not a public space.

It goes without saying that you can’t even think about celebrating Christmas in North Korea, Somalia and a number of other countries!

Yet, people still gather together to celebrate Christmas because to them their faith is the most important thing. One’s belief system is what directs one’s life. It is a vital part of what it is to be human, and it’s a protected human right under international law. That’s why it’s so important to protect our right to believe – whether it be religious, humanist, atheist or other – here in the UK and through our country’s influence overseas.

The Christmas message

The injustice of persecution resonates with the darker side of the Christmas story. A long-awaited saviour is born but, instead of rejoicing, the local ruler orders the murder of all boys under the age of two.

And yet, there is such hope in the Christmas story. That a baby can be born to save the world –strength in weakness. This is personified in the story of those facing persecution today, and verbalised by Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, who released a statement following the recent atrocity in Cairo, which read:

“Our prayers are with those whose lives have been so senselessly ended, those who have been injured, and every family and community affected. We share in this tragedy, but are encouraged by the strength and resilience of our brethren in Egypt that we have grown accustomed to and learn from. We pray God's peace and protection upon the Christians of Egypt, the broader Egyptian society, Christians around the world and all faith communities that fall prey to similar attacks.”

So let’s remember and stand with those persecuted for their faith – because for many around the world, Christmas really is a matter of life or death.

Zoe Smith is head of advocacy at Open Doors UK & Ireland 

Every year Open Doors publishes research into the 50 worst countries in which to be a Christian, and assesses the trends and dynamics of persecution. Look out for it on 11 January, and email advocacy@opendoorsuk.org if you would like to attend the parliamentary launch.