*Representative photo used to protect identity
Christians throughout the West celebrate the Christmas season with door-to-door caroling, special church services and family gatherings to share the joy of the birth of baby Jesus.
The freedom to openly celebrate the birth of Christ is a joy denied to believers in many restrictive and oppressive countries around the world, including Iraq. The risk of making themselves a target for Muslim terrorist groups by participating in public Christmas celebrations is too great for many believers. Iraq is No. 4 on the 2013 Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks countries that are the worst persecutors of Christians. It is estimated that only 330,000 Christians remain in Iraq as many have fled the country due to violence and persecution.
Pastor Tariq* tells Open Doors that “churches are targets for terrorists, especially on Christmas Day. Many Christians stay home because they are too afraid.”
Time-honored Christmas traditions are still important to Iraqi believers. In the past many families would reportedly purchase a Christmas tree, decorate the house and make special food. They would also buy new clothes and visit relatives and friends. However, because the situation is worsening in Iraq, they cannot always take part in these activities anymore. The pastors tell Open Doors that believers enjoy celebrating the Christmas feast because it reminds them of God’s love and His promises. “But because security is limited, the freedom to celebrate Christmas is growing less and less,” explains Tariq.
This year, an Open Doors field worker writes, “In Slemani (a city in northern Iraq) there is a mullah who speaks out strongly against Christianity. He even stated in the last few weeks that Muslims should not participate in celebrating in the Christmas season. He says that wearing the red Santa hats is the same as being converted to Christianity; this is a conversion ceremony introduced secretly by the Christians. His sermons are stirring hatred towards Christians and have been recorded, and have been reported to the government. The waiting is now what the government will do with the mullah.”
Speaking about the nearness of God in their difficult situation, Tariq adds, “As believers, we can see the hand of God with us while we are passing through everyday situations, and every day we feel His protection and love. But some people who are far from God feel that He does not take care of them.”
In addition to the ever-present threat of persecution, many Iraqi Christians are also facing the hardships of job loss and poverty. An Open Doors co-worker states, “Many Christians are very poor. So they cannot give gifts or new clothes to their children.”
The Open Doors ministry in Iraq includes trauma counseling, biblical training for church leaders and Muslim Background Believers, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, community development projects and working with Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) in northern Iraq.
Father, on this Christmas Eve as we gather with our families, we remember fellow believers in Iraq, our brothers and sisters in the faith, who will be celebrating, without festivities, the birth of Christ into the world. We pray that Your presence would be especially sweet, that they would be filled with peace, even in these violent times. We pray that their joy and peace would be observed by those who do not know You and that there would be opportunities for believers to share the good news, the gospel of Christ, with them. We pray for a lessening of bombings and threats, and that the exodus of Christians from Iraq would decrease. We are praying also that the bold witness of Christ in this nation would remain strong. In the name of Jesus who came into the world out of His deep and abiding love, Amen.
*Name has been changed for security purposes