At Christmas, we see Bethlehem – a small, then-backwater town in the Middle East – take centre stage for one of the most significant events in the Christian calendar. We sing carols about it, set up Nativity scenes, and reflect on it as a place of great peace and blessing.
But what is Christmas like for believers in the Middle East 2,000 years after the birth of Jesus?
Nadia* lives in Israel, not far from Bethlehem itself. “Christmas is a very confrontational time for me,” she says – and for good reason. Coming from a Muslim background, her community expelled her when they found out she had chosen to follow Jesus.
As the only believer in her family, Christmas can be a really lonely time for her. And yet every year, in a beautiful act of hospitality, she opens up her house for secret believers nearby to celebrate Christmas in safety. “Last year, there were 14 people in my apartment celebrating Christmas and they stayed overnight. They brought their own decorations, and even a tree, and they brought all the food they liked. We had a great time together! They really had the feeling that this was their house as well.”
CHRISTMAS IN LIBYA
Things are different in Libya, however. “Christmas is not a special day in Libya,” says Charley*, an Open Doors fieldworker who is in regular contact with isolated believers there. “You won’t see any Christmas trees there; life just continues as usual. In day-to-day life, believers are already very alone with few Christian connections. At Christmas, this is even more apparent. Individual believers here don’t even dare to dream about celebrating Christmas.”
For Christians in Libya who do have connections with other believers – for example, other family members – then discreet Christmas celebrations might occur. “Don’t expect Christmas trees, angels and fake snow,” Charley says, “but secret believers do have a nice meal on Christmas Day, just as you would with a birthday.”
Christmas celebrations may be more low-key in the Middle East than here in the UK and Ireland, but the faith of believers there is not diminished because of it. If anything, their desire to see others around them come to know Jesus as Lord increases. “I have a vision that, before I die, I will witness at least one million Palestinian Muslims coming to the Lord,” says Nadia. “I do believe in that and I wish to see it soon.”
- For Nadia as she opens her home to believers this Christmas, and for isolated believers in Libya, that they would know Jesus present in their midst
- For God’s protection and wisdom for secret believers who choose to celebrate Christmas this year
- That all Christians who are persecuted for their faith would experience the peace and joy of the Christ child.
*Names changed for security reasons