On a nondescript evening in Saudi Arabia, two Indian men furtively walk down a dark street, stopping at an unmarked door. When they’re sure no one’s watching, the men open the door–bright lights from within flickering out onto the street–and shut it quickly behind them.
The decorations inside stand in contrast to the darkness outside. Dozens of fellow Indians mill about the room, standing underneath festive lights, garlands, and stars. This is their Christmas celebration. And it’s illegal in this country.
Every Day Can Be Christmas
For Americans, the decorations in this small room are so ever-present they’re almost invisible, taken-for-granted symbols of the Christmas season. But in Saudi Arabia, they’re a sign of something more: a defiant statement of hope in a spiritually dark country. The pastor of this gathering, a blue-collar worker during the day, stands in front of his congregation and reminds his congregation what Christmas means:
“God wants to use you,” he says. “Now it’s Christmas, but every other day of your life is meant to share His gift of life with the people around you. Every day can be Christmas if you are willing to obey Him when He says: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’”
Decorations Are Homing Signals
This secret Christmas celebration is far more than many Christians will experience this Christmas season. In countries like Syria, Christmas decorations are either illegal or dangerous, a homing signal for terrorists looking to target Christians.
“We will have some special prayers in church, but we don’t have any decorations,” said Hanna, a mother of two living in Syria. “Having Christmas decorations outside the church would provoke the terrorist to attack us. They already send the Christians a message: they have special ‘Christmas gifts’ prepared for us: three car bombs.”
Last year at this time, terrorists attacked a Methodist church in Pakistan, killing at least 11 people. And Cairo residents remember the pain of 2016’s December’s church bombing.
In 2015 Somalia outlawed Christmas in any form, hoping to avoid increased militant Islamist terrorist attacks. In countries like Indonesia, hundreds of thousands of troops are dispatched to guard churches during Christmas celebrations. In Iran, Christians who want to celebrate Christmas find creative ways to subvert the national laws against the holiday. But too many times, police infiltrate these house groups posing as worshipers.
“I started attending a house church, and whenever Christmas would come, I would celebrate in my heart the fact that Jesus was born,” said Mojtaba, an Iranian Christian. “In the house church, Christmas really was an inside celebration. Something that filled our hearts with joy and worship. Of course, we tried to make a little more out of the celebration than usual. We decorated the house with a flag line and shared some food together. The decorations weren’t Christmas themed. Then if the police would raid us–which often happens that time of year–we could say we were celebrating a birthday.”
A Reminder of Pain, a Celebration of Hope
Mojtaba was eventually imprisoned for his faith and spent three Christmases behind bars. He had always felt a special connection to the holiday, but in jail he found an even deeper level of meaning.
“During my time in prison, I could really relate to Mary, Jesus’ mother. Like no other, she must have felt the love of Jesus and the contrast with the pain that comes from following Him. Especially in prison, I learned that contrast belongs to our faith. We read it in the Bible. Like persecution, it brings us only closer to our Lord Jesus. Born on the earth and born in our hearts.”
Throughout this month, pray for our brothers and sisters around the world. December brings increased persecution and requires greater caution.
As Mojtaba teaches us, remember that Christmas is both a reminder of pain, but also a celebration of hope. Pray that the light of Jesus would shine in the darkness and that God would protect his people this Christmas.