INTERNATIONAL DIGEST: India's Christians celebrate Christmas in peace
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Christians in the Indian state of Orissa were able to celebrate Christmas peacefully after Hindu extremists called off their plans for a statewide "bandh," a forced shutdown of the entire society, on Dec. 25.
The strike was called off after government officials threatened to arrest extremist leaders who caused disturbances, according to the online edition of The Hindu newspaper. The government dispatched paramilitary forces to Orissa and Christmas passed without serious incident. "We have kept a close watch on roads, outside churches and increased night patrolling ensuring that no expense is spared for a peaceful Christmas," Deputy Inspector General R.P. Koche told reporters.
On Nov. 15, the leader of a Hindu extremist group notified the Orissa government that the group would impose the bandh unless the state arrested the parties who murdered Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23. The murder of that swami was blamed on Christians, even though a radical Maoist group claimed responsibility, and months of violence against Christians has ensued. An estimated 500 people have been killed and thousands of homes and church buildings have been destroyed. Thousands of refugees reportedly are living in the area's forests, despite near-freezing temperatures.
Secular Hindus have begun speaking out in support of Christians. "Intelligent people all over the state are now coming out in public saying, 'What we need is a peaceful society, and Christians are never a threat to our society,'" said K.P. Yohannan of the Gospel for Asia mission organization. "That is a new thing. So I think God is working, and I see a lot of people coming to Christ in the days to come in Orissa."
CHINA ARRESTS 9 FOR LIVING NATIVITY -- Christians in four regions of China -- including the area devastated by an earthquake this past May -- experienced persecution at the hands of government officials during the Christmas holidays.
In Henan province, nine Christian women were arrested Dec. 24 while they were conducting a living nativity scene on the street. Officers of the Public Security Bureau demanded their families pay fines in order for the women to be released, according to the human rights group China Aid Association. Five of the women were released Dec. 25 after their families paid the fines. Four women -- Zhang Xiufang, Liu Suqin, Shan Qimingand and Han Yuhuan -- remained in prison Dec. 26.
In Anhui province, officials arrested two house church leaders and 19 students engaged in a Bible training class on Dec. 22. At least 10 uniformed police officers conducted a warrantless search for two hours, China Aid reported. The next day, the County Bureau of Religion sealed the building in which the training was being held and read a statement that the school had been abolished. Government officials announced the building would be demolished or sold.
In the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, a house church was forbidden to gather on Dec. 21, China Aid reported. The pastor, Xie Xianhua, was warned he could face arrest if he continued conducting worship services in his home. On Dec. 25, Public Security Bureau officials raided a house church during its Christmas celebration and arrested seven leaders.
In the Sichuan earthquake disaster area, police conducted Christmas Eve raids on four construction sites where Christian volunteers from other areas of China were helping disaster victims build new houses. More than 40 policemen participated in one raid, according to China Aid. People at the scene were beaten and several were arrested. Police officers refused to present documents authorizing the actions, CAA reported.
CHRISTMAS A NATIONAL HOLIDAY IN IRAQ -- Christmas in Iraq was, for the first time, a declared national holiday and Dec. 25 hundreds of Christians gathered in one Baghdad church to publicly celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
An estimated 600 people gathered at a church in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Women wore festive Western clothing and a Christmas tree stood on the altar. A person dressed as Santa Claus handed out Christians CDs and tracts on the street.
Some of Iraq's Christians who fled to neighboring countries to escape violence and persecution are returning and the improved security situation in the country is giving those who did not flee the confidence to express their faith publicly. "We are happy for peace," Boutros Haddad, the church's pastor, told the Times. "We are not happy only for Christians, we feel happy for the Kurds, Arabs, Chaldeans. We feel happy for everybody in Iraq because we are brothers. Let us pray for peace."
Christians account for less than 3 percent of Iraq's population of 27 million, the paper reported. About half are estimated to have fled the country in the past five years.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.