America’s “War on Christmas” has been raging for over a decade, inciting controversies over nativity scenes, Christmas lights, holiday cards and even Starbucks cups. Everyone from The New York Times to Time has commented on the so-called war, with one side claiming that Christianity itself is at risk, and the other side dismissing the outrage as “histrionics.”
There may or may not be a war on Christmas in America. But there certainly is one in other parts of the world, and it is these wars that should be getting our attention. Open Doors USA calls persecution of Christians “one of the biggest human rights issues of this era,” citing instances of violence, imprisonment and murder in countries around the world. According to Open Doors, in 2018 over 245 million Christians were living in places where they experienced high levels of persecution.
A report published this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that Christians in Burma, the Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam face the highest levels of persecution. According to a USCIRF commissioner, "Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world," and that persecution is only intensifying.
Christians around the world are suffering horrific atrocities
What does that persecution look like? It looks like government oppression, mob attacks and churches being burned. It looks like rape and attacks on the elderly. It looks like 11 Christians being killed every day for their faith.
In Syria, where over 800,000 people are Christians, Christian villages have been “hollowed out” by ISIS, according to The New York Times. Most historic churches have been demolished or claimed by Islamic groups. Last September, six Christian children were killed in a bomb attack on a Christian village.
Today, with the recent U.S. decision to withdraw most troops from Syria, 150,000 Christians in Northeast Syria are in danger, along with those of many other faiths, according to Lauren Homer, an attorney with Law and Liberty International. Hundreds have already died as their villages have been bombed.
At the same time, there is little hope of resettlement as refugees, especially in the U.S. In the past several years, there has been a sharp decline in the resettlement of Christian refugees, particularly from countries where Christians face extreme persecution. From FY2016 to FY2019, the number of Christian refugees from Iran has plummeted 95.4%; 94.2% fewer Christians have been resettled from Iraq; and the same group from Pakistan has dropped 74.1%.
We have the ability to help
And now, a Christian pastor seeking asylum in the U.S. is being sent back across the border under the White House’s remain-in-Mexico policy. Last week, I met Douglas Oviedo, a Honduran youth pastor who was so effective at drawing young people to Jesus — and away from gangs — that the gangs threatened his life, compelling him to flee his country. After 11 months of waiting in Mexico, Pastor Douglas was granted asylum by a U.S. immigration judge. But he is still not in the clear, because our government has inextricably appealed his case, such that Pastor Douglas could be deported back into the hands of Honduran gangs rather than be allowed to stay in the U.S. and bring his wife and small children.
While I appreciate that President Donald Trump has affirmed his support for Christmas greetings, a much more impactful gesture would be fulfilling his pledge to facilitate the resettlement of persecuted Christian refugees. This would also mean rolling back changes to asylum policy that threaten to deport pastors and others back to the Central American gangs seeking to harm them.
Don't forget about them: On Good Friday and beyond, remember Christians who aren't allowed to take refuge in the US
It’s okay that not everyone in America shares the same faith; in fact, the religious freedom that allows each person to choose for themselves how (or if) to believe is a core American value. My own Christian faith compels me to welcome refugees and asylum seekers whether persecuted for their faith — Christianity or any other — or for their ethnicity, political opinion or other reasons. I challenge “War on Christmas” warriors to keep their focus on the real sufferers this Christmas.
As we reflect upon the nativity story, let’s not forget this detail from the Bible: Just after the three wise men brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Jesus himself was carried by Joseph and Mary across a border to Egypt, fleeing the genocidal persecution of King Herod. We can best honor a refugee Savior this Christmas by remembering brothers and sisters persecuted by the Herods of today and by insisting that our government resume its role as a safe haven for persecuted Christians and others fleeing persecution.
Scott Arbeiter is the president of World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian organization that is among nine agencies that resettles refugees in the U.S.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The real war on Christmas? Global Christian persecution