DALLAS — This year the liturgical calendars of the Eastern and Western churches coincide, and all of Christendom will celebrate Easter this Sunday, April 20.
Christians often mark this most important holiday in Christianity with pageantry and by inviting non-Christians in their communities to join their celebrations. However, for believers who live in hostile and restricted nations, this is a season of heightened danger.
It is because the holiday is so important to the Church that some Christians are at greater risk. Tom Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that advocates for persecuted Christians said, “If you’re trying to make a statement against Christianity, like many persecutors are, what better way to do that than by taking the most holy day in the Christian calendar–Easter–and turning it into a day to make a statement.”
Nigeria is one nation that has seen attacks on Christians and churches, particularly in the northern area of the country. Nettleton said that some churches in Nigeria have armed guards and close off the streets in front of their churches during services. “On Easter, we want to invite the whole town, we would never consider putting a gate up at our churches to keep people out, but our Nigerian brothers and sisters have to do that. They have to be conscious of that, because so many churches have been attacked.”
Todd Daniels of International Christian Concern, another group that works to help Christians in danger because of their faith, agrees. “An attack on a church on Easter sends a very loud symbolic message, which is often what terrorist groups aim to do.” He also notes the conflicting nature of the holiday for Christians who are persecuted. “For some, it has made the celebration all the more special because it gives them a break from the fear that surrounds them, but for those who have suffered loss it is a reason for mourning.”
Khamis, an Egyptian Coptic Christian, said that many Christian families in his country are in mourning, such as the family of Mary Sameh George, a young woman from Cairo who was pulled from her car and killed two weeks ago by Muslim Brotherhood protesters, according to a release by ICC. “There are many kidnapping cases of Christians, especially in Upper Egypt nowadays. This Easter will be very sad Easter for their families,” he said.
Nettleton notes that the situation is different for believers depending on their background. He notes that traditional Christian populations, such as the Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, have cultural recognition and some protection. Their right to celebrate Easter is recognized by most in their cultures. However, for those with a Muslim background who have converted to Christianity, their situation is totally different. “They are considered to be apostates, and the Quran says that they should be killed,” he said. “For them to publicly worship on Easter is really like painting a target on their chest and setting themselves up for possibly terrible things to happen to them.”
Despite the dangers, Nettleton says the first things the persecuted Christians ask for is prayer to remain strong in their faith. “I’ve spoken with persecuted Christians who say, ‘We want you to pray for us that we will be faithful to Christ in spite of the persecution that we’re facing.'”
Voice of the Martyrs has also established a website that allows letters to be sent to imprisoned Christians. The letters are translated into the prisoner’s native language. One former prisoner in Uzbekistan said, “After the letters started arriving at the prison, they beat me less.” Even when the prisoners aren’t allowed to receive the letters, they can have an impact on how imprisoned Christians are treated. This was the the case with Iranian Christians Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad and Maryam Rustampoor who were imprisoned for 258 days in 2009. Nettleton notes that they began to receive better treatment from the prison officials and even the judge after the letters began arriving. The website also allows letters to be sent to government officials of the countries where Christians are imprisoned.
“Easter, in the the Twenty First Century in the suffering Middle East, is about finding hope and reconciliation amidst the daily bloodshed and killing,” said Huda Nassar, a Syrian Christian now living in the United Kingdom. “The power of the Resurrection of our Lord comes from bearing and carrying the cross despite the fact that he could have walked away from it. Christians, as they bear their own cross there, share the burden of it with their neighbors whoever they might be and do not walk away from the suffering the whole country is going through.”