In a few days my family as well as many other Christians in the United States and other countries will gather in churches and homes to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
We will sing Christmas carols, attend pageants and worship our King of Kings.
But in many restrictive countries around the world, Christians are unable to worship Jesus in freedom. In fact, many believers are under siege and facing even more intense persecution during the Christmas season.
Let me give you just two examples of how some of our brothers and sisters in Christ are observing Christmas…..in ways far different from yours and mine.
Secret Believers or Muslim Background Believers, Christians who come to Christ from Islam, celebrate Christmas at personal risk. Church surveillance by police is not only to protect public order for these church buildings; it also includes a ban on church attendance for those who are not "legally" Christian. Iranians born as Christians in one of the traditional churches have more freedom to celebrate Christmas openly.
But Secret Believers have to be very aware of their actions. They are not able to celebrate Christmas publicly. They try to come together with other Secret Believers in their home cell groups. The only difference is that during Christmas more people come together. At Christmas they sometimes meet with other cell groups as well. They pretend that they are having a special dinner as a way of not drawing attention of the security police. They would like to sing the Christmas hymns loudly, but instead have to worship quietly. Sometimes the children receive gifts.
Secret Believer Fardin says: "Last year we met in our regular (cell) group, and we had to be very careful. Around the same time there was a remembrance day for a mullah. So we could not really be open about our joy. We had to be careful to not look too joyful or to have a party in a house. This made us extra cautious. We met with a few cell groups together for Christmas celebrations in a house of a believer. We received teaching on the Christmas story. The groups celebrate Christmas on the day we always meet, and not specifically on the 25th of December."
Secret Believer Kamal adds: "It is hard to celebrate Christmas in my house because of safety concerns for my family. We celebrate it in a way that the police won't discover."
No bright lights, no Christmas dinner and not even a Christmas Eve service for the followers of Jesus Christ in North Korea, the top persecutor of Christians in the world. The government officially doesn't allow the observance of the birth of our Redeemer. And, of course, Christmas is not a holiday in this hermit communist kingdom. According to a report from Open Doors earlier this month, children are dying on the streets due to maltreatment and malnutrition.
This Christmas -- just like any other day in the year -- there are no festive lights in the streets of Pyongyang. The city is largely shrouded in darkness and gloom. Thousands of Christians are annually targeted -- and often thrown into prisons or executed -- for holding secret house church meetings or reading Christian materials.
But there is the light and hope of Jesus… even in the dark country of North Korea.
"But of course Christians do reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ," says brother Simon, who coordinates the work of Open Doors in North Korea. "Only they can't just go along to church to sing or listen to a sermon. They cannot even visit one another to read the Bible together. Being a Christian in North Korea is very lonely.
"Christmas is mainly celebrated in the heart of the Christian. Only if the whole family has turned to Christ is it possible to have something like a real gathering; as long as it is possible to keep your faith hidden from the neighbors. Besides this, it is sometimes possible to hold a meeting in remote areas with a group of 10 to 20 people. Very occasionally, it is possible for Christians to go unobtrusively into the mountains and to hold a 'service' at a secret location."
This is what touched me personally -- "Christmas is mainly celebrated in the heart of the Christian." Isn't this really what Christmas is all about… having the glory and joy of Christ in our hearts… and not about the number of presents under the Christmas tree.
Let me share a story which came to me from Compass Direct News this week. Last Friday evening history was made in communist Vietnam. Christian sources reported that some 40,000 people gathered in a hastily constructed venue in Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate Christmas and hear a gospel message -- an event of unprecedented magnitude in Vietnam. A popular Vietnamese Christian website and other reports indicated up to 8,000 people responded to the gospel message indicating a desire to follow Christ. What a thrill to read this report… this is truly a Christmas miracle.
Dr. Carl Moeller is president and CEO of Open Doors USA.