How the children of the persecuted Church celebrate Christmas

Hawi, 9, from Ethiopia, with her Christmas candle.(Photo: Open Doors International)

Many Christian children in the world who belong to the persecuted church face extra pressure during the season of Christmas. However, they put on their most beautiful dresses ready to embrace the celebrations. Join our trip around the world to see how children of the persecuted church celebrate Christmas.

Palestinian Territories: Maria and Sophie

Where better to start than where it all started? Maria, 10, and Sophie, 7, are proud to live near Bethlehem, in a place called Beit Sahour.

"You should all come and visit the nativity church at least once!" they say.

Today Christians are a minority in the place where Jesus was born. This is difficult enough, but they mostly suffer from the ongoing conflict between their country and Israel.

"We pray for peace," the sisters say.

Kenya: Mary

"Together" is a word associated with Christmas in Kenya, as Mary, 13, explains: "Christmas starts with a normal service - the pastor preaches, we worship.

"After the service, we eat and drink together because there are those who do not have money to buy food to celebrate in their homes. We all come together and share so that everyone has enough."

The sharing doesn't end in church. The Christians in Kenya also share the Word of God on that special day.

"Christians from all churches go around sharing the Gospel," Mary says.

"That is where someone may come, push you and accuse you of something you have not done. The hawkers that are around also insult us and spread negativity about us. They pour water on us as we go sharing the Gospel around the area."

Despite all this, she doesn't hesitate to join the others in her church, sharing her faith.

Iraq: Lydia and Youssif

In the Christian town of Qaraqosh in Iraq, the church is packed on Christmas Eve. The house where Lydia, 11, and her family live is beautifully decorated inside and out.

Mary in Kenya.(Photo: Open Doors International)

Only a few years ago, this city full of Christmas spirit was dark: for almost two years militants of the so-called Islamic State occupied Qaraqosh. The majority of inhabitants fled; many of those who stayed were killed or abducted.

Lydia started preparing for Christmas early: "We started on the 1st of November to learn about the story of the birth of Jesus, in my Christian education class. We read a part of the Bible each week and we answered the questions that the teacher gave us."

Ethiopia: Hawi

In Ethiopia, nine-year-old Hawi is trying to make sure her candle doesn't extinguish itself.

"We celebrate Christmas by lighting our candles and bringing them to church," Hawi tells us.

"At the church we celebrate Christmas by singing songs."

Hawi and her family live in a region where many people follow Islam. For converts from a Muslim background, Christmas can be especially challenging. This is a time when Christians may attend church more regularly, but for converts it comes with the added risk of being discovered by their Muslim family. Those who are discovered are thrown out of their houses, sometimes villages, or beaten.

Because Hawi's father ministers specifically to Christian converts, her family may experience a lot more threats and pressure from the Muslim community during Christmas.

Iran: Ayla

"I'm sorry," says Alya, 10, "I can't show you my face. This would be dangerous for me and my parents."

Alya lives in Iran, where being a Christian from a Muslim background is considered a crime. They do celebrate Christmas, but in secret.

"In school, I certainly won't be able to tell other kids that we celebrate Christmas. Because if they realise that I am a Christian, they will tell our school authorities and they can punish us as they wish," she says.

With Alya's birthday in January, the family has found a trick to avert suspicion: "We don't celebrate Christmas in December, because we must always be extra careful in our neighbourhood. We wait until January and on my own birthday we celebrate Christmas too. In this way we don't raise suspicion and all the celebratory noise doesn't sound unusual to our neighbours."

Deng, in Laos, with her friends.(Photo: Open Doors International)

Syria: Ahmad and Lian

Ahmad, 14, and Lian, 10, are decorating the Christmas tree. Although many Christians have left the country because of the civil war to find safety elsewhere, the Christian street in their town, Latakia, is still festive and welcoming at Christmas.

"I celebrate Christmas by going to my grandfather's house, and we eat sweets and stuff like that," Lian says.

"We put up a tree and eat delicious meals," adds Ahmad. "I go out with my friends, we walk through the Christian street where people put up Christmas decorations. We also have lunch at a restaurant."

It's in the little things that Lian and Ahmad notice that their faith isn't always respected by others.

"Some Muslim neighbours don't respect our holiday," Lian says. "They make a lot of noise during our celebration and sometimes the children bang on our door."

Laos: Deng

Deng, 12, and her friends are lighting Christmas candles. In their country, the church is heavily monitored by the government, and persecution is widespread. All religious materials used need to be reported to the local authorities to be checked, and preachers and teachers need to be officially recognised as such. Secret police attend services, count the number of people attending and take notes of the sermons and the proceedings.

Despite this, the atmosphere at Christmas is cheerful and festive. The girls rehearse a dance they plan to perform for Christmas.

"We celebrate Christmas by dancing," Deng says. "We sing songs and worship God with the adults."

Every Christmas, Open Doors supports children in persecution contexts all over the world with Christmas gifts, Christmas celebrations and Christian education classes about Christmas. Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for over 60 years and works in over 60 countries. In 2020, it raised £42 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised about £16 million.