International (MNN) — In years past, a hanging Christmas Day threat against Christians emerged in countries like Nigeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, and India.
Todd Nettleton, a spokesman with Voice of the Martyrs USA, says it's the one time of year Christ is openly part of community celebrations. "In a lot of those countries, a Christmas morning worship service is a very common thing. It's a part of the Christmas festivities; it's a part of the Christmas morning." It's also a time of increased threats, harassment, and fear, he explains. "You have the church gathered together; http://www.biblegateway.com/they have a worship service. The challenge is: that can become a target."
For example, the Nigerian church bombings carried out by the Boko Haram (an Islamist group linked to al Qaeda), the church bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, and the attacks on church gatherings in India were all meant to disrupt services and create enough fear to keep people away. It makes perfect sense to Islamic militants, says Nettleton. "If you don't like Christians, and if you want to make a statement about that, Christmas Day–a holy day, a day when the world is talking about Christmas, is talking about Christians, what could be better than to target Christians on that day and to generate a lot of attention to that?"
However, rather than engender people to the cause, it has sometimes created the opposite effect. "I think the folks who are attacking are very much in the minority, even within their own countries, within their own cultures. These are radical Muslims who want to strike out at Christians. In many cases, they would like to see Christians eradicated from their country. "
In fact, the paradox of persecution has driven many people into the church to understand the God Christians are following. "For outsiders looking in, they say, ‘Wow! Those Christians are able to love the people and forgive the people that attacked them. How do they do that?' That obviously is an open door to say, ‘That is the holy spirit. That's Jesus working through me.'"
Nettleton notes that in the last two years, warnings and threats were on the rise in the days approaching Christmas. And yet, in a year of uprising and frequent attacks on Christians, there has been silence.
It's an eerie stillness, like the calm before the storm. Nettleton offers a theory on that: "It may be that these countries are already on high alert, they're already watching out. That's one possible answer to that, but I don't know if that's the correct answer, and I don't know how to interpret that exactly." It also doesn't mean that there won't be attacks coming. Regardless, "There are faithful believers who are meeting every Sunday. They will meet on Christmas." Nettleton says believers are undeterred. A VOM team recently bet with Christians in Northern Nigeria who had survived their church being burnt down. Asked if they would leave, the Christians made this statement: "They will have to kill all of us if they want this church to stop being here."
Increased security is already in place at some Christian churches around the world, given past threats and current hostilities. What can you do? Nettleton says, "What I hope American Christians will remember during this Christmas season, is to pray for the protection of our brothers and sisters who are celebrating Christ's birth in countries where they don't have the same freedoms and they don't have the same protection that we have here."
For the majority of the persecuted church, rather than be silenced, they will use this time to proclaim the peace of Christ, as do the Nigerian believers. Nettleton was touched by their dauntlessness. He shares their sentiment. "As long as we're alive, we will meet. We will continue to be the church. We will continue to meet together for worship. So the threats obviously make people concerned. They make people nervous, but in the vast majority of cases, the Christians say, ‘This is our home. This is where God has placed us. We will gather together, and we will worship.'"