(Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Malik)
Christian leaders from around the world are asking for prayers and government protection for Christian minority communities, following threats of attacks during the Christmas season this year.
Christmas holidays are the most dangerous time of the year in predominantly Muslim countries where Islamist extremists have been known to launch attacks on religious minorities in the past–most infamously in Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria.
But Hindus have also threatened anti-Christian attacks during the Christmas season in the past, according to a statement from International Christian Concern (ICC), a persecution watchdog agency based in Washington D.C., on Thursday. Christians living in Orissa, India are reportedly "on edge" due to fears of attacks by Hindu radicals.
Orissa was the scene of anti-Christian violence during Christmas 2007. More than 100 Christians were killed and over 55,000 displaced in 2008 following Hindu radical violence.
“Hindu radicals are rallying on December 24th and 25th to stop Christians from celebrating Christmas," an Indian church leader told ICC. "The only churches that will get protection from the attacks are registered churches. Churches which are not registered will not have the protection. Christians from unregistered churches may not celebrate this year’s Christmas at their churches.”
"We are extremely concerned with the impending anti-Christian violence during this Christmas. We ask Christians around the world to pray for their brothers and sisters who face death simply because of their faith in Christ," said Jonathan Racho, ICC's Regional Manager for Africa. "We urge government officials in the Middle East, Asia and Africa to step up protection of Christians and their properties.”
Some countries known to have experienced intensified violence against Christians during the holidays have stepped up to provide necessary protection.
Pakistan will deploy extra police forces and snipers to protect churches in the eastern city of Lahore, according to reports. Each church there will be assigned seven policemen and a sniper, and traffic will be banned in front of the buildings, Agence France Press reported this week. Police will also install walk-through gates at the entrance of all church buildings to be operated by security staff.
Iraq authorities will also provide some additional security checks in Baghdad churches, according to a recent report by The Telegraph.
Last October, 58 died in the siege of Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church, followed by what witnesses described as a grim Christmas season filled with mourning and fear.
Some Catholic officials in the region have already canceled traditional Christmas Eve midnight Masses because of security risks, according to the Catholic News Service.
Of Iraq's 1.4 million Christians before the U.S.-led attack against Saddam Hussein’s regime, about two-thirds have now reportedly fled the country, and the Islamist radicals are warning of new attacks. There have been threats posted on graffiti on Baghdad walls reportedly warning the remaining Christians that by staying, they will be risking their lives.
This week a group of religious leaders staged an event in front of the Iraqi Mission to the United Nations, trying to raise the officials' awareness of the problem.
In Nigeria, 38 people were killed in bomb attacks last year at Christmas time, according to ICC. Members of the Islamic radical group, Boko Haram, took responsibility for the attacks. Currently, pamphlets are circulating in the city of Jos, warning of attacks to come this Christmas, the agency reported. The Nigerian security forces were reported to be taking the threats seriously.
“The rumor of possible attacks on Christians during this year's Christmas celebration is gaining more momentum," a Nigerian church leader said in a statement to ICC. "The Christians are calling on the government of Nigeria to ensure the protection of lives and properties, and we call on the church worldwide to bear up the church in Nigeria on the wings of prayer.”
However, Islamist extremists are not the only ones known to persecute Christian minorities. In Iran the Christian community is persecuted year-round by the regime, and the crackdown intensifies around the holiday season, Issa Dibaj, a Bible translator for Elam Ministries, an organization uniting Iranian Christians, told CP recently.
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.
"The timing of the arrests could not have been a coincidence. Most were released after a few months, although some are still in prison," Dibaj said.