'A Stark Choice Between Life And Death': A Call To Prayer For Persecuted Christians Around The World
Just before Christmas, the Prince of Wales spoke on Radio 4's Thought for the Day about how for many people, religious freedom is "a stark choice between life and death" – one that doesn't go away just because it's Christmas.
For many people around the world, Christmas isn't just about celebrating the birth of Jesus: it's also characterised by fear and uncertainty as the occasion of a major Christian holiday is used as an excuse for harassment, intimidation and violence.
Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), reminds us that we have the opportunity to support those who faced Christmas this year with more fear than hope – through our prayers.
"We're passionate about prayer; it's the foundation on which the rest of CSW's work is built," he said. "We've been so privileged to see some incredible answers to prayer this year: from nation-changing developments through our work at the UN, to the release of prisoners, and everything in-between.
"We know that our prayers have the power to change the course of history."
For many of us, the Middle East is foremost in our minds when we think of parts of the world desperately in need of prayer. We remember the Syrians and Iraqis returning to homes and villages that have been liberated from ISIS and who are starting to rebuild their lives, and the displaced of Aleppo who are in Idlib Province and who may be forced to move again.
The world was moved by the callous bomb attack on worshippers gathering at St Paul's and St Peter's Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt, which killed 25 people. Our prayers are with those who have tragically lost loved ones and friends as well as with all who were injured. We pray for strength, wisdom and faith for church leaders in the aftermath of the attack, which follows a series of sectarian mob attacks on Christian communities in Egypt.
But as Prince Charles pointed out in his Christmas message, "Religious persecution is not limited to Christians in the troubled regions of the Middle East".
In many part of Asia, threats against religious minorities have been mounting. Christians in two villages in Laos have been threatened by village leaders and told to either give up their faith or leave. No action has been taken against them yet, which we're giving thanks to God for, and asking that he would continue to protect them.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, tensions are mounting following an attack on a Protestant church and demonstrations against Jakarta's Christian governor who is on trial for blasphemy.
This year, CSW supporters have also been praying and campaigning for the thousands of men, women and children fleeing violence in Burma, including the Rohingya, Kachin and those fleeing Shan state. It's a truly horrific situation that's being made worse by a block on aid to those who need it most.
Set against this backdrop, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon (Rangoon) has described the various civil wars that have been raging in Burma for more than 60 years as "unwinnable" and made an appeal for people of all religions to set aside 1 Jan 2017 as a day of prayer and fasting for peace and unity.
He has urged people from all religions to flock to monasteries, churches, temples and mosques carrying placards and flags depicting the words, "stop all wars".
It can be done. This year we gave thanks for the eventual ratification of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the largest armed groups, after 50 years of civil conflict. There is still much to be done, particularly with regards to peace and reconciliation, but the deal was a significant step forward.
In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, the festive season is often marked by fear of attack. Christians in northern Nigeria face the threat of terrorist attacks by Boko Haram and Fulani militia. While in Kenya, Christmas is a time when terrorist group Al Shabaab has previously planned attacks.
And for some, the Christmas season has been spent in prison – for many, with little hope for imminent release. In Eritrea, thousands are imprisoned without charge or trial, including hundreds of Christians. Some have been unjustly detained for more than a decade. And in Sudan, four men continue to stand trial on serious criminal charges. A year on since they were first detained, they still await justice.
Though we have a lot to pray for this Boxing Day, there's hope, too. In 2016, we saw prisoners released and legislation changed. Religious persecution is pervasive and widespread: but in prayer, we can unite in solidarity against it.
Answer the call to prayer this festive season and change the course of history.
Kiri Kankhwende is press officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.