As Christmas approaches on Thursday for the majority of Christians, persecuted communities continue to demonstrate their survival and resilience.
In a letter released on Sunday, Pope Francis called the hardships that face Christians in the Middle East “a powerful summons to holiness of life,” affirming that “the greatest source of enrichment in the region is the presence of Christians themselves.”
The year 2014’s most prominent persecution news came from Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State terror group targeted Christians, Shiites, and other religious minorities for elimination. Christians from both countries have fled their homes, seeking refuge in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region, and in neighboring Jordan and Turkey.
Earlier this month, Catholics from Lyon in France brought their traditional December “Festival of Lights” to Erbil, the Kurdish capital, a hub of Christian refugees trying to survive the winter in flimsy tents. Lyon’s archbishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, said French Catholics “didn’t want to simply send a message to the Iraqi Christians saying, ‘We’re praying for you,’” but rather to meet them in person and affirm that they had not forgotten their brothers.
In a video for the occasion, Pope Francis told Iraq’s Christians, “I wish I could be there with you,” thanking them “for the witness you are giving.” (RELATED: These Three Charities Are Helping Christian Victims Of ISIS)
Outside the Middle East, Christians in India have faced a much less publicized threat: forced conversion at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists. An influential Hindu movement called the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) had planned a mass conversion of Christians on Christmas Day until Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party is aligned with the RSS, urged the group to cancel.
The RSS has also targeted Muslims in a campaign to ensure that Islam and Christianity “cease to exist” in India. Since being canceling the conversion ceremony, the RSS announced plans to protest baptisms on Christmas instead.
In neighboring Pakistan, 2014 has been a landmark year for persecution. The country has some of the world’s most rigidly enforced laws against insulting Muhammad and defiling the Qur’an.
Several lawyers defending Pakistani religious minorities were assassinated this year, and in November a mob burnt a Christian couple alive, with allegations of blasphemy against Islam. Despite these difficulties, in protest of last week’s Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar, Christians and Muslims took to the streets of Karachi on Tuesday in a Christmas parade featuring 800 men in Santa Claus costumes. (RELATED: Why Did The Taliban Kill 130 Schoolchildren?)
In China, the officially atheist Communist regime has forced many Christian groups to operate underground for decades. This year, Chinese officials have tended to favor legal restrictions on church construction, and reports from China show that the trend has escalated in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday.
The Pew Research Center, which has tracked government and society restrictions on religion since 2007, reported earlier this year that 76 percent percent of the world’s population live in countries with restrictions on religious freedom — a record high. Of these, Christians were the most widely persecuted religious group, being especially targeted in 110 countries.
Most troublingly, while government-led persecution remained relatively stable, Pew’s data reflects a significant rise in social hostilities. In other words, pressure on believers is increasingly likely to come not from one’s government, but one’s neighbors.
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