God brings light and hope to those in darkness
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As Advent winds to a close, Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of God. Every human heart should be gladdened by the tidings of comfort and joy that were revealed to poor shepherds two millennia ago. But some are particularly in need of hope and cheer. For persecuted Christians around the world, 2014 has been a trial by fire.
This is by no means a new problem. Christ’s followers have been persecuted since the time of the Apostles, but here in the West, we are sometimes inclined to forget that Christian martyrdom is not only (or even primarily) a historical phenomenon. Christians are being tortured and killed for their faith right now, on a daily basis. This happens across the Islamic world, from African countries like Somalia, Eritrea and and Sudan, to the Maldives, a chain of Pacific Islands in which Christian worship (including weddings and funerals) is forbidden, and Christians are afraid to discuss their faith even with their own spouses and children. Secular dictatorships can also be brutally repressive, as in North Korea, where tens of thousands of Christians are held in labor camps for such “crimes” as owning Bibles and going to church. Survivors report that prisoners are frequently tortured or killed, and fed so little that nearly half die of malnutrition.
Most horrifying of all has been the treatment of Iraqi Christians. Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled in terror in front of ISIS militants with definite intentions to “cleanse” Iraq of Christianity. In a matter of weeks, the millennia-old Christian population of Iraq was decimated, and their prospects of return are bleak. Many centuries-old churches and places of pilgrimage have also been destroyed by ISIS. Many children are included among the Christians martyred by ISIS.
Reading these stories gives us a crippling sense of powerlessness. Persecuted Christians are spread all across the planet, and their social and political circumstances are widely diverse. How much can we really do? “Raising awareness” seems wildly inadequate to these dire circumstances, but there is no easy fix for the political circumstances that make life so unbearable (and violent death such a perpetual threat) for many of the world’s Christians.
There are, perhaps, a few things we can do. There are organizations that make efforts to help persecuted Christians. In some cases, applying political pressure may also do some good. North Korea may not take calls from the US State Department, but India does. Staying informed really can help, insofar as it enables us to understand when Western pressure might make a difference.
Realistically though, we are frequently powerless to help those who suffer the most. Especially at Christmas, when we recall how God brought light and hope to those who dwelt in the darkness, we should embrace that helplessness in the face of evil by showing solidarity with Christians around the world. Don’t stop reading just because the news is grim. Persecuted and murdered Christians should be remembered with honor, especially when they willingly give their lives as a witness to Christ. We should feel humbled to have such courageous co-religionists, and it should be our privilege to pray for these Christian communities in the midst of their intense trials.
This is especially important because, in a very real sense, their struggle is also ours. It’s easy to feel removed from the problem of religious persecution abroad, given that the most egregious instances are far away and politically complicated. We shouldn’t oversimplify, but we also should not allow specious secular reasoning
to obscure the real spiritual and religious dimension of this conflict. Christians aren’t the only ones who are persecuted; Jews, for example, have long faced intense persecution abroad. But it isn’t random happenstance that puts Christianity in the sights of tyrants and oppressors. Christians are hated for reasons that are central to the faith itself: their eagerness to evangelize, their refusal to deny Christ even in the face of extreme pressure, and their insistence on the intrinsic dignity of even the meanest human life. Militant Islamists don’t appreciate that kind of resistance. Neither do secular despots.
That’s all the more reason why we should. As we here in the West struggle to keep the faith in a hostile secular culture, Christians abroad are making much greater sacrifices. These souls truly understand what it means to “lift high the cross” in the face of brutal and often violent opposition. When circumstances prevent us from offering temporal relief, we can still acknowledge and broadcast the true spiritual dimensions of their struggle, which we also in our own way share. We know from firsthand experience how closed our world is to the angel’s message of peace and love. Especially at Christmas, we should remember those who give up their livelihoods, their homes and even their lives out of fidelity to the truth.