- (Hadi Mizban / Associated Press)
While Americans on both sides of the debate are fired up about the "War on Christmas," which has been increasingly dominating public discourse, reports from countries where Christians are a minority tell of a literal war where followers of Christ face increasing violence and greater restrictions on openly practicing their faith.
In countries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea, Christians risk their lives on a daily basis, but persecution in some countries tend to intensify during the Christmas season.
The discourse about the so-called war on Christmas involves protests on public displays of religious symbols, store employees being instructed to wish customers "Happy Holidays" and anti-Christmas advertising campaigns calling for a boycott of the Christian holiday.
Christians in Texas, for example, fed up with the efforts by atheist groups to remove Christmas nativity scenes from public areas, united recently to defend their manger display on a courthouse lawn from a potential lawsuit.
Meanwhile, popular evangelists have been speaking out against removing the word "Christmas" from stores and public places, and some churches and faith-based organizations have launched counter-campaigns to remind the public that "Jesus is the reason for the season" and that it is okay to say "merry Christmas."
However, what seems to put the entire conversation in a broader context are the difficulties Christian communities around the world face this time of the year. Christians living in countries where they are a minority -- and not a particularly welcome one -- often risk their safety and lives in order to be able to celebrate Christmas, according to reports.
For one, North Korea has threatened to use violence against South Korea over a 100-foot-tall Christmas tree near the two countries' contentious border this week, making it known that it has a large stock of artillery, which is already aimed at South Korea, that is fully capable of taking out the tree.
According to Open Doors USA's World Watch List, North Korea is the severist out of all countries in its persecution of Christians. In the communist country, only former leader Kim Il-sung, and his son, Kim Jong-il, may be worshipped.
In 2010, hundreds of Christians were arrested for various reasons. Some were killed and others sentenced to detention camps, according to the World Watch List. There have also been reports that the treatment of Christians at these camps are compariable to the atrocities carried out in concentration camps during World War II.
In Iran, where Christians often cannot raise church buildings and where the Christian community is persecuted year-round, the regime’s crackdown intensifies around the holiday season.
"In the past year, more than 130 Iranian Christians have been arrested and interrogated," said Aidan Clay, Regional Manager for the Middle East at the International Christian Concern, in an email to The Christian Post. "There is also concern that, like last year, mass arrests will again be carried out this Christmas season. As long as Christians are viewed as a threat to Iran’s Islamic regime, they will continue to be persecuted. They need all the support we are able to give them and are comforted to know that Christians around the world are standing with them in prayer."
Issa Dibaj, a Bible translator for Elam Ministries, an organization uniting Iranian Christians, agrees that persecution of Christians in Iran does seem to intensify around Christmas.
"As an example, last Christmas, on Dec 25, 2010, nearly 70 house church leaders and members in different cities of Iran were simultaneously arrested in a coordinated attack against the church," she told CP Monday via email. "The timing of the arrests could not have been a coincidence. Most were released after a few months, although some are still in prison."
In a Dec. 2 attack in Iraq, at least 25 people, many of them Christians, were wounded when a group of Kurds in the Duhok Governorate in the north of the country attacked local businesses.
Last year in Iraq, an October attack on a Baghdad church killed nearly 60 people. Due to that horriffic event and other forms of persecution, churches remained closed or radically altered their worship schedule during Christmas for fear of further attacks.
Persecuted Chrsitians in that country reportedly have been forced to flee en masse in fear of persecution. An estimated 500,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from an estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million in 2003, according to a report from reasearch body Minority Rights Group International. Persecution makes the Christian community smaller each year, with churches as well as households being targeted and causing worshippers to flee.
The Middle East-North Africa region has the most government and social restrictions on religion, according to a 2009 report from the Pew Research Center. Among the world's 25 most populous countries, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and India stand out as having the most restrictions when both measures are taken into account, according to the report.