Christians all over the world will celebrate Christmas—the birth of Jesus, who came to save the world through His redemptive work on the cross. But the way that Christians celebrate Christmas looks very different in various parts of the world. For Christians living in countries like Iraq, Syria and other places on the Open Doors World Watch List, Christmas will be marked in secret. The countries on the World Watch List have the ignominious distinction of being the most difficult places on earth to proclaim and practice faith in Jesus.
Hanna, a Christian from Damascus, Syria recently said, "What kind of Christmas can we have? Before the war, we had the best Christmas in the world. We had freedom. But now I think no one is in the mood for singing in the streets. In most of the Christian houses there is sadness… many lost people."
Added to the sadness of losing loved ones to the attacks of the Islamic State and the effects of the civil war, many Christian churches are overwhelmed by the need to serve those displaced by war. Of the 1.8 million Christians before the war, at least 40 percent have left Syria. Even more have evacuated Iraq where there was once a population of more than one million Christians just a few years ago. Only thousands remain in Iraq now, the country emptied of Christians due to the genocide of Christians at the hands of the Islamic State.
Yet in the midst of war, persecution and heartbreak, there is hope. First, in the spirit of Christmas, followers of Jesus remain resilient and resolute. Churches—many of them meeting in secret—are full, often with people of other faiths who have been touched by the love and compassion of Christians. They come seeking to know where they get their strength. Churches are centers of compassion, reaching out to serve, whether by providing children with a small gift to celebrate the birth of Christ, or providing food, water and care for refugees and displaced people.
Despite the grim situation in her country, Hanna sees God at work in Syria. "God is with us all the days of this war. God hears our prayers. God is good; that doesn't change during shooting and bombing."
As we ponder how we will celebrate the birth of Christ here in America, let us not forget the example of those in the persecuted church. Focusing on the things that are eternal, on those that are hurting and in need around us, and on modeling the love of Jesus to all in our spheres of influence. After all is said and done, when the presents have been opened and the children tucked into bed on Christmas night, the hope of the world remains in the One who was born in the manger. Let us not forget to pray and support those around the world for whom Christmas is a very dangerous time of year.
On January 7, Open Doors will announce a new World Watch List at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. On that list will be countries and regions of the world where people are regularly imprisoned, tortured and executed for the crime of owning, reading and believing in the Bible…and in the baby born in a manger. Pray for them on Christmas, and every day thereafter, with the hope that, one day, they will celebrate Christmas in freedom.