I keep thinking about all the American Christians who canceled church on Christmas Day. Terry wrote about the Iraqi Christians who've done the same. Except in their case, it's under threat of death. I'm elated that Christmas is finally here after a lengthy Advent but I am so sad that Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other locations, aren't able to worship freely. Or take the horrible news out of Nigeria yesterday. What Christians there wouldn't do to have the freedom to worship in peace.
In any case, some holiday seasons see quite a few stories aiming to undermine some aspect of Christianity. We didn't see much of that. Neither did we see much War on Christmas-type stuff (hurray!), particularly considering that there was ample opportunity.
Certainly the plight of global Christians this Christmas has not been covered well. But I did want to highlight a package from CNN that I personally found quite interesting.
In August 2009, an angry mob of extremist Muslims torched Christian homes in Gojra, Pakistan. At least seven people were shot to death or burned alive. A few days after the attacks, American photographer Gary S. Chapman visited the area with his wife, Vivian, to document the aftermath. “I want people to see my images and feel both discomfort and compassion at the same time,” he said recently. “I want them to try and see themselves in the situation I am witnessing.” The violence in Gojra was incited by rumors of the desecration of pages of the Quran at a Christian wedding, police said. An investigation determined the allegations were baseless.
His project began in 2005 when he photographed relief efforts after a massive earthquake killed 86,000. He learned about mistreatment of Christians then and there, including rape, lack of employment and education and beatings for drinking from Muslim water fountains:
At large gatherings, the Christians would sometimes hire armed guards for protection. Despite their hardships, Chapman says many remain optimistic. "I have been encouraged by the Christians of Pakistan that remain faithful, forever hopeful in the midst of real persecution," he said. He has been to Pakistan four times now. During one trip, he visited a woman who had taken in several Christian children orphaned by the earthquake. Shortly after he left, an arsonist set fire to her home.
He ends by noting:
“After seeing the injustices in Pakistan, I’ve learned not to take my freedom for granted concerning my faith, livelihood, or even where I live,” Chapman said. “I am thankful for everything.”
His wife Vivian Padilla-Chapman wrote an accompanying essay from her perspective. She goes through some of the heartbreaking stories. She tells about a 32-year-old father of four who saved 70 women and children from violence and death by offering them safe harbor in his house while he kept rioters at bay with a shotgun from which he discharged rounds in the air for several hours. When the mob finally left, he had only two rounds remaining:
Another family just blocks away had no such protector. Seven people, including several children, were locked into their house and burned alive. Villagers said they could hear their screams.
I’m a Christian and familiar with Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you,” but at that moment, those words seemed impossible. Honestly, I don’t know that I could sincerely love my enemies. I’m not sure that I could even pray for them.
Although Pakistan’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, blasphemy laws call for the death sentence of anyone who insults the prophet Muhammad or Islam. These laws are often used against Christians by jealous or disgruntled coworkers or neighbors. The incident that sparked the violence in Gojra stemmed from a rumor that a Christian had committed blasphemy at a wedding. It was never proven.
As the relief team took assessments for supplies, our interpreter, also a Christian, turned to me and said, “We see the destruction of their homes, but not the destruction of their lives. Jesus will never leave us or forsake us.”
Under the same circumstances, would I draw strength from that promise? Could I endure those kinds of struggles and hardships? I hope so.
The strong faith that undergirds this community is the kind of faith that I want to sustain me.
Reporters don't just hear about terrible things, we're encouraged to seek them out and report on them. When your beat involves religion, it can cause some mixed emotions. It's interesting to me to read how these journalists react to what they've witnessed.
I'm no photojournalism expert, but I wanted to highlight the photo essay because of the simplicity and honesty in the pictures. Padilla-Chapman writes that her husband frequently does work for non-profit humanitarian groups. I expected to see photos that were manipulative or maudlin. They aren't. They seem so accurate and honest.
Since I can't use any of the Chapman photos to illustrate this post, I thought it might be worth remembering Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian mother of five facing a death sentence for allegedly blaspheming Mohammed. Punjab governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were both killed this past year for defending her and opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. A delegation overseeing her legal and material aid visited her on December 19 at the prison in Sheikpura where she's being held in isolation. They say she's not been allowed to bathe for more than two months, is unable to stand on her own, appeared confused and was afraid to accept the water they offered her to drink. But she told them she has forgiven those who accused her of blasphemy and only wants to return to her family.