The Magazine

Do They Know It's Christmas?

Not in Burma and Eritrea.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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For Christians--and many Muslims--the main reason to celebrate this Christmas is, of course, Jesus' birth. But there are also trends in the church worldwide that make this Advent season at once a time of especial hope and a time of great suffering and darkness.

In China, despite ongoing repression (in early December, 270 house-church pastors were arrested in the city of Linyi alone), Christianity is expanding at a rate that has few parallels in history. Estimates placing the total number at over 80 million are no longer considered outlandish. Similar growth has taken place in Africa, which is now majority Christian and is likely soon to have more Christians than any other continent.

In purely numerical terms, Christianity is the world's fastest growing religion. Two-thirds of Christians and four-fifths of active Christians live outside the West, so Christianity now may well be the world's largest non-Western religion.

But for probably hundreds of millions, Christmas is shadowed by pain and fear, since this is usually the peak season for anti-Christian attacks in Pakistan, India, Sudan, Nigeria, and beyond. It is also a time when the Chinese and Vietnamese governments are prone to arrest their unregistered believers.

Violence continues in Nigeria, where tens of thousands have died in conflicts around the spread of Islamic law. Nigerian Christians are also often the victims when others produce allegedly blasphemous drawings. During the 2006 "Danish cartoon riots," Muslims rioting in Borno State killed 65 and destroyed 57 churches and 250 businesses. Persecution continues in Laos, India, Iraq, Turkey, Ethiopia, Sudan, Belarus, and elsewhere. Some Christian leaders in Gaza have been murdered while others have had to flee. Even in Britain, newspapers are reporting threats to Muslim converts to Christianity: Many remain in hiding, and one has had to move 45 times.

Other examples could be given, but two of the worst, Burma and Eritrea, receive scant attention because their repressions do not fit any wider international political agendas, hence their victims are among the world's most forgotten people.

Burma made international news this year when, in August and September, thousands of courageous Buddhist monks led peaceful demonstrations against the military regime, which responded with mass killings, beatings, and arrests of monks. Equally brave democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest, still gains some attention. But the regime's destruction of its ethnic and religious minorities seldom receives coverage, though it rivals that in Darfur.

The government's program of "Burmanization" includes not only privileges for ethnic Burmans but also promotion of Buddhism in the name of "national solidarity." The Religious Affairs Ministry is on the grounds of the World Peace Pagoda (Kaba Aye) in Rangoon, the residence for senior Buddhist monks. As shown by the Buddhist-led demonstrations this fall, this campaign is not conducted by true Buddhist leaders: They too are monitored and repressed. In a country where almost everyone is persecuted, however, the religious minorities are more so.

The minority ethnic groups have significant Christian, Muslim, and animist communities. The Chin, Kachin, and Karenni are about 90 percent Christian. The Naga have significant numbers of Christians, and the Karen are about 40 percent Christian. The government's ethnic and religious cleansing of these groups verges on the genocidal, including destruction of villages, land confiscation, forced labor, use of human minesweepers, and rape and torture--especially in the Karen, Shan, and Mon states. More than 150,000 people, predominantly Karen and Karennis, are in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. A further 200,000 Shan refugees are thought to be in Thailand without recognition or camp facilities. At least 1,000,000 people are internally displaced. Since 1996, the army has destroyed over 3,000 villages in eastern Burma.

This repression has specific religious elements. Mosque and church construction is forbidden. Christians are forced to engage in destruction of churches, and Muslims of mosques. On pain of death they are conscripted into forced labor, including building pagodas and monasteries. There is forced conversion. In Chin State unmarried Buddhist government soldiers have been encouraged, with offers of higher rank and privileges, to marry and convert Christian Chin women. Torture is widespread, with reports this fall of prisoners being roasted over fires.