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Some Christians Under Siege In ‘Season Of Hope’

  • Jeffrey Donovan

An Indian Christian prays on Christmas Eve in New Delhi

An Indian Christian prays on Christmas Eve in New Delhi

On the snowy outskirts of Moscow, beneath a tent awning flapping in the freezing wind, Pastor Bakur Azaryan is preparing for Christmas service at Emmanuel Pentecostal Church. He's got all the essentials: Bibles, hymnals -- and electricity generators to power portable heaters to warm his flock of 700 faithful.

It will be a cold Christmas, for sure. Over the years, Azaryan's church -- part of a Protestant movement with 130 million global followers -- has faced such hostile red tape from local officials that worshipers have been forced to pray in a tent next to the church building, which was also hit by arsons last year.

"They cannot use the building for worship because bureaucrats won't complete the paperwork on it to allow it to be used," says author Felix Corley, the news editor of Forum 18, a Norway-based religious rights news service. "So they've got to set up a tent. They've got to bring in benches. They've got to bring in portable heaters and generators. It's expensive. And a lot of people don't want to come because it's cold."

While perhaps faithful to the Christian notion of redemptive suffering in the image of Jesus Christ on the cross, such subfreezing worship is more than uncomfortable, activists say. It violates basic rights, including the freedom of conscience, thought and belief enshrined in Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Challenge To Faith

But this holiday season, others are faring far worse than Pentecostals in Moscow. From Iraq to India, thousands of Christians around the world are struggling to celebrate Christ's birth while under extreme duress, including civil war, political repression, exile, and sectarian strife.

Recent months have seen an exodus of Iraq's historic Christian community. Last fall, after scores of reported killings of Christians in Mosul blamed on Islamic terrorists, hundreds of families fled to villages or abroad. Some estimates say up to half of Iraq's prewar Christian population of 800,000 has now fled overseas.

Zakaria Iwas, a Mosul priest, told Radio Free Iraq's Samira Mendi that Christmas celebrations are muted. "The same traditions are being maintained but there are no festivities, considering the unfavorable situation," Iwas says.
We will never permit tricks or the vagaries of history to wipe us out from this land

"Any celebrations will be restricted to mass and prayers to God that the country as a whole will come through the present crisis. To rejoice on Christmas and New Year is to hope that all Iraqis will share this joy -- Muslims, Christians, and other confessions."

In India, where Christians number about 24 million, violence in the northeastern state of Orissa has devastated the Christian community. It began in late August, when the killing of a local Hindu leader was blamed on Christians but was later attributed to Maoists. It touched off pogroms that, according to the All India Christian Council, have left 50,000 Christians homeless and 59 dead.

But there's not much news on it, particularly since the recent Mumbai terror attacks, says Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago scholar. "It's surprising that the ongoing killings of Christians in Orissa doesn't make it on the front page of American newspapers," says Nussbaum, author of "The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India." "You would think that this assault on Christians would get a more attention."

In Central Asia, meanwhile, all countries are cracking down on freedom of worship and belief. In a region where the threat of Islamic militancy is high, tough measures are being passed in the name of counter-terrorism. Bu they affect Christian minorities as well.

Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses Targeted

In Kazakhstan, where tough amendments were recently made to the religion law, Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses are frequent targets of state action. Recently, Aleksandr Kerker, a Baptist leader in northern Kazakhstan, told Forum18 that authorities had notified him that they would have to confiscate his means to support his family because he had led worship sessions without state permission.

Among the items threatened with confiscation include one of Kerker's two cows, which he uses to feed his wife and 10 children. Activists say the threats violate Kazakh human-rights commitments as Astana prepares to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010.

On the other end of the former Soviet world in Belarus, four Catholic priests and three nuns have had their permits to preach revoked starting in 2009. The religious, apparently from neighboring Poland, have worked in the area for years. It's unclear why they were banned but one official told Belapan news agency that it was because they did not speak an official state language. Catholic church officials deny this.

President Alyaksandr Luksashenka has a long history of religious repression in Belarus, parts of which once belonged to Poland. "The government is afraid of the rise of Polish nationalism, of the Catholic Church gaining ground against the Orthodox," Corley says.

"Also, the government itself has inherited many of the impulses of state atheism from the Soviet period. So they don't like any faith: They don't like the Moscow Patriarchate. They don't like Catholics. And they especially don't like Protestants."

Meanwhile, in Turkey, which aspires to join the European Union, Christians continue to complain about official harassment.

Bartholomew I, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, is the "first among equals" of Orthodox leaders worldwide. But in a recent report, the Turkish Foreign Ministry reiterated its view that the patriarch's authority extends only to Turkey's 3,000-strong Orthodox community.

In the name of secularism, the report also again refused the church permission to reopen its age-old seminary on Halki Island off Istanbul, where generations of patriarchs have been educated. (Critics note that official secularism somehow does not prevent Ankara from financing mosques and schools for imams.)

With Christmas hope perhaps in mind, Bartholomew has vowed that the historic seat of Eastern Christianity, which thrived for centuries under the comparatively tolerant Ottomans, will continue to survive. "We will never permit tricks or the vagaries of history to wipe us out from this land," he said earlier this month.

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