Christmas is a time of joy for Christians and, for multitudes around the world, a time of suffering. Last Wednesday, under the auspices of Senator Rick Santorum and the Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom that he cochairs with Congressman Roy Blunt, some of the world’s foremost defenders of persecuted Christians gathered in the U.S. Capitol to draw attention to this suffering.
Over Christmas 2000 in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country and one traditionally renowned for its religious toleration, terrorists bombed churches in 18 cities, killing scores and wounding hundreds. At Wednesday’s forum, Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver observed that “violence against the Christian minority has steadily continued over the past decade.” As an example, he cited the beheadings of three Christian teenage girls in Sulawesi in late October. International Christian Concern’s Jeff King brought photos of the incident; the girls’ heads were left at a church, each with a note that vowed, “We will murder 100 more Christian teenagers and their heads will be presented as presents.”
Last Christmas in Iraq, St. John’s Church near Mosul was attacked. Assyrian cultural expert Eden Naby described the scene: “The Mass begins. It is cold inside the stone church. Suddenly you hear automatic fire. The doors fly open. The Christian guards are shot, and in march armed Kurdish Peshmarga who shoot up the church, beat up the priest and drive the parishioners cowering home.” In prior months, other churches in southern Iraq had been bombed by Islamic militants, some during worship services. Though the terror came from two different sources, in each case the purpose was the same–to intimidate and force out the ancient Chaldo Assyrian Christian community.
In Saudi Arabia, Christians, a large percentage of the foreign workers making up a quarter of the population, will not be able to find any churches whatsoever to worship in this Christmas–churches are forbidden. Dozens of those who pray together in private houses were arrested and jailed earlier this year. This fanatically intolerant kingdom even forbids Muslims, under threat of death, to wish a Christian “Happy Holidays,” much less “Merry Christmas.”
Christians face similar repression in Iran. Episcopal priest, Rev. Keith Roderick, representing Christian Solidarity International, reported that as the Christmas season got underway around the world last month, Tehran’s tyrannical President Ahmadinejad met with 30 provincial governors and reportedly declared, “I will stop Christianity in this country,” avowing to shut down the country’s growing house-church movement.
Egypt had been a place of refuge for the Holy Family fleeing Herod’s wrath. Today, however, Christians are fleeing Egypt itself. As Fr. Roderick attested, Christians are treated as “second-class citizens” under state-sponsored discrimination and actively persecuted by Islamic militants apart from the government. He cited the week-long riot in October against St. George’s Coptic Church in Alexandria by a 10,000-strong mob incensed by rumors of blasphemy.
Christians in Pakistan will be wise to keep their Christmas celebrations low-key this year. One of them, Yousaf Masih, a 60-year-old illiterate janitor from northwestern Pakistan, is among those under arrest for “blasphemy” because he allegedly burned a Koran. As Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom recounted, three weeks ago in Sangala Hill, after word of his case got out, mobs destroyed three churches, a convent, a Christian school, and Christian homes. Last week a militant mob rallied to demand Masih’s public hanging and the eradication of the entire Christian community there.
And while China manufactures and exports Christmas lights and ornaments, it arrests and imprisons Christians who lead worship services, preach, or minister without state approval. Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, gave as an example Catholic Bishop James Su Zhimin of Hebei, who on December 25 will be observing his 27th Christmas in confinement. Cai Zhuohua, a Protestant pastor in Beijing, was sentenced in early November to three years in the gulag, or laogai as it’s called in China, for printing and distributing Bibles. His defense lawyer, the prominent civil rights attorney Gao Zhisheng, also a Christian, has been disbarred and now worries he may become his own next client.
Christmas has been banned in North Korea for half a century. Land reported on a new study conducted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom–”Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung”–based on dozens of in-depth interviews with North Korean escapees. All of them said that there is absolutely no freedom of thought, conscience or belief in North Korea. All report, in fact, that such liberties are explicitly and actively prohibited. None had ever seen churches in North Korea. Most did not know of the three state-controlled churches in Pyongyang, the country’s only churches. None of the interviewees was aware of any authorized religious activity inside North Korea. Two interviewees provided graphic and detailed eyewitness testimony of the summary executions of individuals accused of engaging in unauthorized religious activities. Another interviewee said that her brother was executed for involvement in such activities. One additional interviewee had heard of executions of North Koreans involved in unauthorized religious activities, and, as a police official, had been involved in two separate cases resulting in the arrest of eleven individuals accused of involvement in such religious activities. Of the eleven arrested, two died during interrogation; the interviewee believed that the other nine had been executed. Others mentioned executions they had heard about but had not witnessed themselves.
Vietnam, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, Cuba, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan were also among the countries cited for violent anti-Christian persecution. And, as the panelists remarked, this list could be extended.
One mark of hope for genuine religious freedom was offered by Marshall at the forum’s conclusion. He noted that,this Christmas, many churches in Indonesia will be surrounded by the uniformed Muslim Banser group, a wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization. The Bansers will not be there to attack the churches but to help protect them from extremists, to prevent any reprise of the Christmas 2000 bombings. Nahdlatul Ulama has done this for several years, in cooperation with the police and the Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist communities.
Christmas is a time of great suffering for these communities. But as these persecuted Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus from their jail cells, within their house churches, or silently in their hearts, it is also a time of joy. For them, truly, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
–Nina Shea is the director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom.