Picture this: You are celebrating Christmas with your family or loved ones, food on the table, laughter all around. There is a knock on the door. Who is it? Friends? Neighbours, who want to wish you a merry Christmas? No. The police are outside, here to arrest you for celebrating Christmas, for living out your Christian faith in the privacy of your own home. Albeit not during the festive season, this was the reality for Shamim Bibi in Pakistan – a young wife and mother, falsely imprisoned for 8 months because she refused to convert to Islam. Her neighbour accused her of blasphemy, and she was treated as a criminal and arrested because of her faith.
There is no doubt that Christmas across the globe will look different this year. The various lockdown restrictions have had a particular effect on churches and faith groups across the globe, as they have forced many churches to shut their doors. This has pushed religious freedom into the limelight of public debate throughout 2020. Reports indicate that even apart from the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, the persecution of Christians had reached the highest level in a decade.
This is a very real threat which many Christian minorities in particular face daily simply because of their faith. Christianity has long since been reported to be the most widely persecuted religion globally; Christmastime merely highlights the reality of persecution that is faced all year round. Some of the highest levels of persecution are faced at times of celebration for Christians, such as Sri Lanka’s Bloody Sunday in 2019 which saw hundreds killed at an Easter Church service. Christmas for minorities is sadly shaped by such atrocities.
Across South-east Asia and the Middle East, persecution is a daily burden. A recently published report by the USCIRF outlines the drastic problem that blasphemy laws and religious persecution present across the globe today. Over 80% of cases of state enforcement of blasphemy laws took place in only 10 countries which have criminal sanctions for blasphemy. These sanctions are often compounded by laws stipulating wider religious freedom restrictions. These blasphemy laws are steadily being implemented in more countries and expanded in their scope; some countries continue to utilise the death penalty for those convicted.
One of the most dangerous countries for Christians is Pakistan where persecution, criminal blasphemy charges, and harsh sanctions mark the experience of many Christians’ walk of faith. Take Maira’s story – a young Christian girl who was forced to marry into Islam at the age of 14, just months ago. In neighbouring India, Ruben, aged 6 was forced to watch his father being stripped, beaten, and accused under anti-conversion laws, because he is the pastor in a small village. Omar*, from Egypt, is still imprisoned for posting about Christianity on Facebook, which was considered an insult to Islam. He has been subjected to multiple hearings, and his family has been threatened. All of these people, and many more whose names and stories remain anonymous and often silenced, will be celebrating Christmas in hiding, secrecy, or jail – not to protect beloved people in one’s living room from a dangerous virus, but because their lives are in immediate danger.
Christmas is the season of hopeful expectation – for many this means living in the ‘hope’ that they will not be arrested for their faith, in the ‘hope’ that justice will be served for their family or for loved ones wrongly imprisoned for their faith. The fight for justice for Omar and countless others is one that has to be fought collectively by governments and international bodies, to protect the fundamental right for everybody to live out their faith freely.
The crux of the matter is that no one should have to choose between their freedom and their faith. No one should have to hide their faith publicly or even fear for their privately held faith – at Christmastime or otherwise.
*name changed for security purposes