An iPad, an Xbox, whatever our most desired shiny object under the Christmas tree on Sunday morning happens to be, is not as precious as the ability to celebrate Christmas freely and openly — with Santa at Macy’s or Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s, as casually or as devoutly as we wish.
Not so for Christians throughout the world this Christmas, and for those who did not live to see the day, precisely because they lived its meaning.
When I see images of a young Virgin Mary in our Christmas Nativity displays this Christmas, I can’t help but think of her “yes,” and that of a young girl in Pakistan who was killed right after we celebrated Thanksgiving here in the U.S.
Amariah Masih was 18 years old when she was murdered for refusing to give in to a Muslim man’s advances. A Catholic girl from a small village near Faisalabad in the Punjab province of Pakistan, she was on a motorbike fetching drinking water, not available within the village, for her family.
Typically, a rape victim in Pakistan will be imprisoned for unlawful sex and released on the condition that she marry the rapist, explains Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. And since a Christian cannot be married to a Muslim under sharia law, the woman would be forced to convert to Islam.
The homilist at Amariah’s funeral called her “a martyr.”
Young women in Pakistan are far from the only Christian martyrs of 2011. Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities there, was assassinated for having the high-profile courage of his convictions. He was Pakistan’s sole Christian parliamentarian when he was shot multiple times outside his mother’s house in Islamabad in March.
In an undated interview obtained by Al-Jazeera after his death, Bhatti was asked about threats on his life: “Your life is threatened. By whom? And what sorts of threats are you receiving?”
“The forces of violence, militant band organizations, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda,” Bhatti responded. “They want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan. And whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them. When I’m leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of the blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christians and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me.”
Chillingly, he said: “But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of cross, and I am following of the cross, and I am ready to die for a cause.”
He explained: “I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles. I prefer to die for my principle and for the justice of my community rather than to compromise on these threats.”
It was, in fact, the Taliban and al-Qaeda who took credit for the assassination.
Christian martyrs abound. As we continue to cheer on a messy “Arab Spring,” there have been attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt. Earlier this year, I was visited by Cardinal Joseph Zen, the Chinese-born Catholic bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who carries a desperate plea that the world not look away as Christians in his homeland continue to be oppressed if they dare to worship as they choose — as will anyone who shines a light on China’s 31-year-old brutal one-child policy, as Batman actor Christian Bale experienced when he tried to visit blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng only days ago. It’s far from only Christians who suffer religious persecution. Try being a Sunni Muslim teacher in Saudi Arabia who discusses the Bible in class or makes favorable comments about Jews — prison terms and lashes for “mocking religion” should not be unexpected.
Christians believe that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) on that first Christmas Day. “The Incarnation of the Son of God is an event which occurred within history, while at the same time transcending history,” Pope Benedict XVI recalled in his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” address from Rome last Christmas. “In the night of the world a new light was kindled, one which lets itself be seen by the simple eyes of faith, by the meek and humble hearts of those who await the Saviour. If the truth were a mere mathematical formula, in some sense it would impose itself by its own power. But if Truth is Love, it calls for faith, for the ‘yes’ of our hearts.”
That “yes” may ask us to give up a comfort, rise to a challenge at the office, sacrifice time or money, or put our very lives on the line. For most of us, it won’t be as dramatic as it was for Amariah or Bhatti or the late Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, who was killed for standing up for Christians and others, calling for the repeal of Pakistan’s harsh and vague blasphemy law.
This Christmas season we might all spare a prayer for young women like Amariah and brave men like Bhatti, and give thanks that we can enter our houses of worship without the fear too many around the world live in, that their “yes” may be their last. And when we sing “Joy to the World,” be inspired that it was because of their love for that child who was born in Bethlehem that they could do no other.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.