An iPad, an Xbox, whatever our most desired shiny object under the Christmas tree happens to be is not as precious as the ability to celebrate Christmas freely and openly — with Santa at Macy’s or midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s, as casually or as devoutly as we wish.
When I see images of the Virgin Mary in Nativity displays, I can’t help but think of a young girl in Pakistan who was killed right after we celebrated Thanksgiving here in the U.S.
Amariah Masih was 18 years old when she was allegedly murdered for refusing to give in to a Muslim man’s advances. A Catholic girl from a small village in the Punjab province of Pakistan, she was killed while on an outing to fetch drinking water, not available within the village, for her family.
Typically, a rape victim in Pakistan will be imprisoned for unlawful sex and released on the condition that she marry the rapist, explains Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. And since a Christian cannot be married to a Muslim under sharia law, the woman would be forced to convert to Islam.
The homilist at Amariah’s funeral called her “a martyr.”
Young Christian women in Pakistan are far from the only Christian martyrs of 2011. Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities there, was assassinated for having the courage of his convictions. He was Pakistan’s sole Christian parliamentarian when he was shot multiple times outside his mother’s house in Islamabad in March.
In an undated interview obtained by Al-Jazeera after his death, Bhatti was asked about threats on his life.
“The forces of violence, militant band organizations, the Taliban, and al-Qaida ... They want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan. And whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them.”
But such animosity failed to stop Bhatti. Citing the example of Jesus Christ, he explained: “I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights.”
It was, in fact, the Taliban and al-Qaida that took credit for the assassination.
Christian martyrs abound. As we continue to cheer on a messy “Arab Spring,” there have been attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt. Earlier this year, I was visited by Cardinal Joseph Zen, the Chinese-born Catholic bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who carries a desperate plea that the world not look away as Christians in his homeland continue to be oppressed for daring to worship as they choose.
And it’s far from just Christians who suffer religious persecution. Try being a Sunni Muslim teacher in Saudi Arabia who discusses the Bible in class or makes favorable comments about Jews — prison terms and lashes for “mocking religion” should not be unexpected.
Christians believe that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) on that first Christmas Day. “The Incarnation of the Son of God is an event which occurred within history, while at the same time transcending history,” Pope Benedict XVI declared in his traditional address from Rome last Christmas.
His Holiness went on: “In the night of the world a new light was kindled, one which lets itself be seen by the simple eyes of faith, by the meek and humble hearts of those who await the Savior. If the truth were a mere mathematical formula, in some sense it would impose itself by its own power. But if Truth is Love, it calls for faith, for the ‘yes’ of our hearts.”
That “yes” may ask us to give up a comfort, rise to a challenge at the office, sacrifice time or money, or put our very lives on the line. For most of us, it won’t be as dramatic as for Amariah or Bhatti or the late Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, who was killed for standing up for Christians and others, calling for the repeal of Pakistan’s harsh and vaguely worded blasphemy laws.
This Christmas season, we might all spare a prayer for young women like Amariah and brave men like Bhatti, and give thanks that we can enter our houses of worship without experiencing the fear that too many around the world live in — that their hearts’ “yes” of faith may be their last.
Email Kathryn Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org.