(Photo: Open Doors USA/File)
For most Christians, Easter is much more than Easter egg hunts and new Sunday clothing to wear to church. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. For the most part, Christians in the West flock to churches in safety.
But for Christians living in countries like Iraq, Nigeria and Algeria, Easter takes on additional implications. It remains a precious and holy day, but one that also carries extra risk and danger.
In many countries around the world, Christians are an embattled minority. In fact, Christians are the largest persecuted religious group in the world today with at least 100 million Christians living in countries or regions where they are pressured, oppressed, imprisoned or even killed because of their faith. In a recent global survey from the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of the world's people live in countries with high levels of religious hostility.
Last Easter 80 Christians living in Nigeria were killed and many were injured in a series of attacks on predominantly Christian villages in Plateau and Kaduna states.
The attackers were heavily armed, and most of their victims were children, women and elderly people. Many villagers fled to the nearby hills, and some who returned later were murdered. Christian leaders reported the destruction of 234 homes, the burning of eight church buildings and the displacement of as many as 4,500 Christians.
Already this year's Holy Week in Nigeria was marred by explosions at a crowded bus station on the outskirts of Abuja on Monday morning. Over 70 people were killed and 125 injured. The blasts followed grave instability in the northeast area of Nigeria since last Wednesday during which at least 135 people were killed in three separate attacks. Several women were abducted by terrorists, believed to be Boko Haram Islamists.
Nigeria is but one place this year where Easter will be celebrated with the potential for violence against worshippers.
Last year Christians in Iraq celebrated Easter under heavy security with armored vehicles and armed guards protecting them. Such is the danger posed simply by attending church to celebrate the day of Jesus' resurrection. Each holy day is a renewed threat to Iraqi Christians. Several church bombings marked last Christmas in Iraq, so Iraqi faithful will be on alert as they attend services this week. The constant pressure on Christians is the reason there has been a mass exodus of Jesus followers from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.
Nevertheless, Christians in dangerous countries are determined to celebrate the Risen Savior this week.
"We have our festivals given by God; we must celebrate!" a Christian in Algeria says when he explains the importance of Easter to him.
Another believer, Abdul from Kabylia, Algeria says: "The church should not neglect the celebration of the biblical holy days, particularly Easter, when we remember the work of salvation accomplished through Jesus Christ."
Besides meeting in the church, Abdul's congregation encourages the members to celebrate Easter at home, too. "They could, for example, prepare a special meal. Let's make the celebration of Easter enter into our culture.
"The key is that people understand what Easter means for them today," Abdul adds. "They are freed from the bondage of sin through the death of Jesus Christ to a new life to live in holiness."
For some followers, Easter will be recognized privately in their home as it is too dangerous to celebrate publically or attend a church service. They make certain that no displays of faith are visible in their Muslim neighborhoods, so that they will not trigger an attack.
The dangers and risks faced by Christians in the Middle East should be a sobering reminder to us of the precious freedoms we have, and renew our determination to celebrate Easter to its fullest.
For those who recognize the spiritual significance of Jesus rising from the dead after his crucifixion on the cross, there should be no more meaningful day on the calendar.
The gratitude and faithfulness with which persecuted Christians honor the Lord on Easter, even though they often do so under heavy pressure, should be an example to those of us who are free to celebrate Easter. In addition, it should also prompt us to pray throughout this Holy Week for our brothers and sisters around the world who face attacks for their faith in Jesus Christ.
Let's not forget them at this very special time of year…..at our church gatherings, in our homes and in our hearts.
Dr. David Curry is President and CEO for Open Doors USA (www.OpenDoorsUSA.org, based in Santa Ana, California), the American arm of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry supporting and strengthening persecuted Christians for almost 60 years.