By Beth Westwood 6 December 2021 7 MIN

THE CHRISTMAS STORY AND THE PERSECUTED CHURCH

Christmas looks different this year. Having spent so much of 2021 unable to meet together, we can identify, as never before, with persecuted Christians who can never openly celebrate Christmas in their own communities.

In this blog, there are five Bible verses that explore the Christmas story. A story not so different from the experience of the persecuted church today. There is a family – a mother, a father, a newborn child – visited by shepherds, discovered by wise men, and hunted by the authorities.

In the persecuted church, there is also a family of believers rejected by their community and oppressed by the authorities. As we read through the scriptures this Christmas, let’s remember our brothers and sisters in Christ and pray together as one Church family.

“In my family, my father was the first believer,”

Badol*
Children celebrating Christmas in Bangladesh.

PART ONE: FAMILY ROOTS

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no guest room available for them.”
LUKE 2:4-7

Badol* and his family are among only a handful of Christians in their village in Bangladesh. In this nation, Christians face intense pressure in their community and private life.

“In my family, my father was the first believer,” Badol says. “Then my brothers became believers, and after that, I accepted Jesus Christ.”

But not all his family welcome Jesus. His wife’s parents are Muslim and, after she came to faith, they cut off all ties.

“People don’t want to talk to us,” Badol says. “I have to go everywhere alone – it’s very lonely.”

Our family roots are important. Yet many persecuted Christians around the world are excluded from their families because of their faith. There is no room for them in their communities.

Pray with all those believers whose families do not welcome Christ this Christmas. That the Lord will help them to be aware that they always have a home with Him.

“People don’t want to talk to us… I have to go everywhere alone – it’s very lonely.”

Badol
A portrait of Badol.

PART TWO: THE OUTCASTS

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
LUKE 2:8-12

Badol’s wife, Maya*, says “In the village, Muslims are the majority. They tell us, ‘Go away, you are Christians, you should not mix with us.’ They drive us away.”

Badol and Maya’s children struggle to find friends.

Their 10-year-old daughter Bijli* has her five-year-old brother Mohon* to play with. But she can’t play with the Muslim children.

A girl at school told Bijli, “My mother says that your family are infidels.”

The shepherds were outcasts, viewed as impure and unclean. And yet they were chosen to hear the Good News. Many Christians are also pushed to the fringes of their communities as well; they are seen as dirty, infectious, even toxic.

Pray with the outcasts this Christmas. Lord, be present with them and show them signs of good news.

“We have joy and peace, we sing songs and dance”

Maya
Bijli stands with her parents, Badol and Maya.

PART THREE: UNDER THREAT

“Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” … Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.'”
MATTHEW 2:1-2, 7-8

Sometimes Bijli comes home crying from school.

“At school, some friends push me and make me cry,” she says.

When her mother asks her why they do this, she says, “Because I am a Christian.”

The family live their lives against a backdrop of threats and suspicion. It makes celebrating Christmas in their village impossible.

“We can’t celebrate in the village because of the restrictions and fear of persecution,” Badol says.

Herod wanted to kill Christ, not to worship Him. Many Christians live their lives under the threat of violence and intimidation.

Pray with those who are threatened by rulers and authorities. May they be free to follow their faith without fear.

PART FOUR: FINDING JOY

“They went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
MATTHEW 2:9-12

Badol, Maya, and the children go on a journey.

Open Doors’ local partners have arranged a Christmas celebration for them in a safe place. There, they find around 100 Christian families from isolated rural communities.

For some, it is the first time they have ever properly celebrated Christmas – and the first time that they have met with so many other believers. It is good to find out that they are part of a much bigger family. There is a Christmas dinner of daal, chicken curry, and rice. Everyone is dressed in their finest. And Bijli and Mohon have other children to play with.

“We have joy and peace, we sing songs and dance,” says Maya. “We do not get to celebrate like this in the village.”

It was a long journey for the Magi to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Many persecuted Christians must make long, risky journeys to worship with others. And many more are unable to celebrate openly and must worship secretly in their houses.

Pray for safety for all those who celebrate Your birth this year, Lord Jesus. Protect them from harm and give them a time of joy and peace.

“…we are followers of Jesus Christ, and we went to celebrate the birthday of Jesus.”

Badol
A children's program at a Christmas conference in Bangladesh.

PART FIVE: RETURNING WITH THE GOSPEL

“They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them… The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
LUKE 2:16-20

Soon it is time for the family to go back to the village. Their absence will attract attention from their community.

“They will ask many questions,” Badol says.

So, was it worth the risk to come to this event?

“Yes. I will give them our answer, that we are followers of Jesus Christ, and we went to celebrate the birthday of Jesus.”

Despite the difficulties and the danger, millions of persecuted Christians around the world still dare to follow Jesus. The child laid in the manger is much more dangerous than we realise. How far are we prepared to go to be identified as a follower of Jesus?

Pray with all those who risk their lives in following Jesus and for their courage.

ONE FAMILY IN CHRIST

For Badol, Maya and their children, being able to celebrate with others was a wonderful gift – made possible by your prayers and support.

As Bijli says, “I want to give thanks to all of my ‘uncles and aunts’ around the world who organised this programme.”

During lockdown, Badol lost his job. Because of his faith, he and his family were overlooked when government aid was distributed in their village. But his Open Doors family stepped in to provide emergency aid.

Being able to gather and worship together means the world to persecuted Christians. This Christmas, as we reflect on our own struggles to meet as a church, please remember those who cannot meet together at any time due to both pandemic and persecution.