Secret Church: Christmas with our persecuted brothers and sisters

While we celebrate the birth of our Savior with decorations, songs, good food … and complete freedom of worship, let us remember and pray for our brothers and sisters who may not have the same experience.

It’s illegal to celebrate Christmas in Saudi Arabia. The tightly monitored Islamic Kingdom is home to Islam’s two holiest cities – Mecca (the birthplace of their prophet) and Medina (the location of his burial).

According to the ebook Secret Christmas, by Open Doors, Christianity is tolerated among foreign workers and visiting business people, but it is not tolerated for citizens. Conversion from Islam and public worship are illegal and (in most cases) impossible.

But that doesn’t stop everyone. At night in one of Saudi Arabia’s cities, the streets are nearly empty. Two Indian men walk down the sidewalk and knock on a nondescript door. It opens and immediately closes behind them. They take off their shoes and join a room decorated in Christmas stars and garland. They join the handful of worshippers who are already there. Over the next hour, more than 100 others join them, Indian believers in Saudi Arabia, celebrating Christmas in hiding.

Most of them have low-paying jobs in large Saudi companies or households; they are construction workers, stone cutters, electricians and cleaners. But tonight, there are no differences between them; these men and women are followers of Christ about to be encouraged and then sent back into the world with a calling to spread the light of Jesus everywhere they go.

Churches, crosses, and Christian meetings of any kind are illegal all over Saudi Arabia. But when they don’t draw attention and don’t cause disturbance, migrant workers organizing services for their own community in non-public places are mostly left unbothered. Still, there is always the risk of being raided by the police, which can lead to imprisonment and forced expulsion from the country. Feels a lot like being in India. 

When the celebrations begin, there’s no doubt that this is an Indian celebration. The instruments, the music. Worshipers sing songs in their mother tongue, glorifying God who sent his Son into the world. In the corner of the room a modest Christmas tree decorates the stage. Then it’s time for the sermon. The preacher, a daytime worker himself, confronts his congregation and digs a little deeper.

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“Are we limiting Christmas to four weeks a year? Is it only about the Christmas tree and the Christmas party?” That’s not the true meaning of Christmas, he emphasizes: “How do you celebrate Christmas? Do you acknowledge what it is really about? Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, about Mary who was blessed with a child, about the shepherds who came to worship him. Let us circulate those things instead of the useless stuff about Christmas.”

The pastor prays that all those gathered in this secret location may understand the true meaning of Christmas in their lives. “God wants to use you,” he says. “Now it’s Christmas, but every other day of your life is meant to share his gift of life with the people around you. Every day can be Christmas if you are willing to obey him when he says: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.‘”

When the pastor concludes, the Christmas cake is cut, and the children play out the narrative of Jesus’ birth. All dress as biblical characters from Luke 2 while singing a traditional English Christmas song: “Good tidings we bring to you and your kin; we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!”

Christmas in secret

Other believers don’t have even this much freedom. Christmas for secret believers can be a time of loneliness. “We can’t celebrate Christmas openly like other believers here. We can’t go to church and join in the celebration,” shares a secret believer from a Muslim background, living in a country in Southeast Asia. “We are wanted by the government. Some of us can’t even tell our families that we are Christians.”

To encourage them, Open Doors started a Christmas Gift project. A month before Christmas, their staff bought gifts for secret believers – adults and children – and packed them into bags. They brought personal letters from supporters of Open Doors from all over the world. The ones from kids with drawings were especially well received.

House-church leaders receive the gifts and share them with their members as they meet for Christmas in their homes, but not on Christmas Day, when it is too likely they will arouse suspicion. In a gathering, their church leader encourages them with exactly the words they need to hear, “You are not alone. We are your family. Be strong in what you are facing in your family. We are with you.”

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A very Bangladesh Christmas

In Bangladesh, some Christians celebrate with freedom. Others don’t. For believers who come from a Muslim background, commemorating Jesus’ birth openly would bring threats of violence, Open Doors says.

Worse still is the fact that many new converts in these communities are scattered and isolated. They can’t go to church with other believers and often can’t even communicate with them. “We’ve heard stories of children [believers from a Muslim background] started resenting their parents because they could not celebrate Christian festivities like other Christian kids [from open churches],” one Open Doors staffer said. Open doors works to provide Christmas celebrations for these children in a safe environment.

“Christmas? What’s that?”

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That’s what the average North Korean would say, if you were able to ask. Everyone in North Korea knows the birthdays of the three Kims – the leaders of North Korea since its beginnings – but they don’t know who Jesus Christ is or that Christmas is a celebration of the Messiah’s birthday. Christmas has long been a non-event for North Korean people, except for underground Christians, who rank number one among the world’s most endangered Christians. The regime works hard to ensure information about religious holidays does not enter the country, and its citizens remain unaware people are celebrating and belting out Christmas hymns across the world.

Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior. It is he who gave us his life on the cross. He is risen to give us eternal life, so that’s all. He is everything.”

Around the world

Other Christians are coming home to war-torn towns, where Christmas brings reminders of things that have been lost. Some have freedom but live as a minority, and sharing about Christmas, or even visibly living their faith, is not permitted. Still others live under dictatorships, or among a non-Christian population intolerant of their faith.

To these believers, Christmas is precious, even if you wouldn’t know it to look at them. As one believer in Morrocco says, “This is the only celebration we have. Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior. It is he who gave us his life on the cross. He is risen to give us eternal life, so that’s all. He is everything.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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