Christmas is different things to different people it seems, and that’s no surprise. For most, if recent surveys are correct, it’s just a wonderful time to reconnect with family and friends, exchange presents, and, perhaps, consume too many calories. This week, the District-based Public Religion Research Institute reported “more than one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans celebrating Christmas this year will do so largely as a non-religious holiday.”
For those who do believe, Christmas is first an occasion to commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the long-promised Messiah of Israel (Isaiah 7:14) and the savior of the world. While the actual birth of Christ most likely did not take place on Dec. 25 — differing scholars have said either the spring or the early autumn — the date has become a time when the majority of Christians mark the occasion.
It won’t be a “Merry Christmas” for many Christians, however, and not solely those afflicted by poverty, ill health or other adverse circumstances. Persecution of Christians is rising globally, and the attacks are taking a higher and higher toll.
This week, the Britain’s Prince Charles, poised to succeed his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, as monarch, told a reception of religious leaders at Clarence House that the situation for Christians facing Islamism is quite grim. He made his remarks after visiting Egyptian Coptic and Syriac Orthodox congregations in and around London.
“For 20 years I have tried to build bridges between Islam and Christianity to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding,” the Prince of Wales told the audience, according to a BBC report.
“The point though, surely, is that we have now reached a crisis where bridges are rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so. This is achieved through intimidation, false accusation and organized persecution including to the Christian communities in the Middle East at the present time,” he added.
Such problems are not only afflicting Christians in the Middle East — particularly in Syria and Egypt — but also in Africa, most notably perhaps Nigeria and Sudan. The terrorist attack at the Westfield Shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya, in which the shooters reportedly singled out non-Muslims, suggests the problem is spreading.
At the same time, it isn’t just Islamist terror that concerns Christians.
North Korea remains the worst place in the world in terms of danger in just being a Christian, according to OpenDoors.org, a group serving the persecuted church. The group notes, “There is a system of labor camps including the renowned prison No. 15, which reportedly houses 6,000 persecuted Christians alone.” Despite this, there are believed to be 400,000 Christians in North Korea, a number said to be growing.
Then there are individual believers in places such as Iran who are also facing death for their religion. Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, was arrested in Iran on Sept. 26, 2012, as this newspaper reported a week ago, while he was visiting the country with government permission to work on an orphanage. He’s been in jail ever since and his health is in danger. Naghmeh Abedini, his wife, testified before a House Foreign Affairs joint subcommittee last week to try and keep world attention focused on her husband’s case.
I also know of two separate cases involving Seventh-day Adventists — members of my own religious community — who are also in jail this Christmas time. Sajjad Masih, 29, is serving a life sentence in a Pakistan jail after he was convicted last July of sending blasphemous text messages to a member of a religious extremist group in 2011. The verdict came despite his accuser’s subsequent retraction and prosecutors’ failure to produce any evidence of his involvement, the Adventist News Network reported.
Also in jail, in the west African nation of Togo, are Adventist pastor Antonio Monteiro and local church elder Bruno Amah, held since March 2012 without trial on charges of “blood trafficking” that were later recanted by his accuser. No evidence was found linking the men to the purported crimes, but the wheels of justice apparently turn very slowly in some places.
So as you sit down to whatever holiday feast you may enjoy, spare a thought — and perhaps a prayer — for those whose lives are less concerned about what present they received, but rather whether their precious faith might cost them their lives.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.