For Christians, Christmas commemorates a time not only of joy, but also of threat. At Jesus’s birth, Herod conspired to kill him and murdered all the newborn boys in and around Bethlehem. In recounting this, Matthew’s gospel compares it with “Rachel weeping for her children” after massacres by the Assyrians.
Herod has his current imitators. In 1991, China’s state-run press noted the role of the churches in undercutting Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, adding that if China did “not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.” Al-Qaeda has declared that all Middle Eastern Christians should be killed, and many Christians in Iraq have cancelled their Christmas celebrations lest they be targeted.
Others, while less explicit, have similar ends. Iran has passed a death sentence on Yousef Nadarkhani, pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Iran congregation in the northern city of Rasht. Nadarkhani became a Christian 16 years ago and was arrested on October 12, 2009, after protesting a government decision that his son must study the Koran. On Sept. 21 and 22, 2010, the Eleventh Chamber of the Assizes Court of Gilan Province said that he was guilty of apostasy and sentenced him to death for leaving Islam. (Apostasy is not a crime under any Iranian statute — the judges simply referred to the opinions of Iranian legal scholars).
Another Iranian Christian pastor, Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani, may face a similar fate. He was arrested on June 6, 2010, and is still being held even though his detention order expired in October.
In Afghanistan, after a TV program showed video of indigenous Christians worshipping last May, many Christians were forced to flee, and as many as 25 were arrested. One of those arrested was Said Musa, a father of six young children, who had converted to Christianity eight years previous. He had stepped on a landmine while serving in the Afghan Army and now has a prosthetic leg. Musa had worked for the Red Cross/Red Crescent for 15 years, fitting patients for prosthetic limbs — it was after going to their office in Kabul on May 31 to request leave that he was arrested.
The prosecutor, Din Mohammad Quraishi, said Musa was accused of conversion to another religion. In early June, the deputy secretary of the Afghan parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, said that “those Afghans that appeared on this video film should be executed in public.” The authorities forced Musa to renounce Christianity on television, but he has continued to say he is a Christian. In the first months of his detention, he suffered sexual abuse, beatings, mockery, and sleep deprivation because of his faith. He appeared, shackled, before a judge on November 27. No Afghan lawyer will defend him and, in early December, authorities denied him access to a foreign lawyer.
Another Afghan Christian, Shoib Assadullah, was arrested on October 21, 2010, for giving a copy of the New Testament to a man, and is being held in Mazar-e-Sharif. As with Musa, no Afghan lawyer has agreed to defend him, and both will probably face charges of apostasy, a crime that is punishable by death under the government’s version of sharia. As the State Department’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report notes, religious freedom in Afghanistan has diminished “particularly for Christian groups and individuals.”
One of the most ignored stories of 2010 has been the campaign by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab militia in Somalia to kill all Somali Christians on the grounds that they are apostates. They have even beheaded Christians’ children. In one of the latest incidents, 17-year-old girl Nurta Mohamed Farah fled her village of Bardher in the Gedo Region after her parents shackled her to a tree and tortured her for leaving Islam. She went to the Galgadud Region to live with relatives, but shortly after, she was shot in the head and the chest and died.
Not content with killing people, on December 16, al-Shabab destroyed a Christian library they found in a derelict farm in the Luuq district — Christians often bury their Bibles and other books to escape detection. International Christian Concern reports that al-Shabab brought Bibles, Christian books, and audio/video materials to the city center and burned them after noon prayers.
At Christmas, we should remember these churches, each of which continues to grow, and remember these prisoners and others like them. Assadullah emphasizes that he “wants others to know that he is not frightened, and that his faith is strong.” Musa writes that “because the Holy Spirit always with me my situation is not bad until now. I see after what the plan of God is with me.”
– Paul Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. His Silenced: How Freedoms are Curtailed from Cairo to Copenhagen by New Restrictions on Apostasy and Blasphemy, authored with Nina Shea, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2011.