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 co-chairs 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.