How will Christians under pressure for their faith celebrate Christmas? In the second of our series we hear from Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Saudi Arabia: Migrant workers challenged to live Christmas every day
No, really – although building churches, displaying crosses or meeting for Christian worship is outlawed in the oil-rich Sunni kingdom, many of its foreign workers – especially Indians and Filipinos – are Christians and, far from home and family, they find a way to meet and worship in secret. There are estimated to be between 1.5 and 2m Christians among the migrant workers across Saudi Arabia who in 2013 numbered an estimated 9 million, more than half the workforce. If Christians don’t draw attention to themselves or cause disturbance, they are mostly left unharmed if they organise services for their own community in non-public places.
Visiting Westerners sat in on an early Christmas service celebrated by some Indian Christians in an inconspicuous meeting room after dark one evening earlier this month. After singing some Indian worship songs, the people heard the pastor challenge them: “Are we limiting Christmas to four weeks a year? Now it’s Christmas, but every other day of your life is meant to share God’s gift of life with the people around you.”
He said Indian Christians support each other financially if the wages on which their families back home depend are delayed, and some Hindus have joined their congregations. But he said that the 2016 “Saudisation” policy – replacing foreign workers with Saudi nationals in the private sector, partly to combat high youth unemployment – has halved his congregation in the last two years. “Fewer migrant workers also means fewer Christians working and praying in this country,” he said.
Egypt: religious cleansing, constant fear and a broken promise
While the Holy Family found refuge in Egypt, some Egyptians today are fleeing their homes to seek refuge elsewhere. Some 500 Coptic families fled the region of El-Arish when IS took control of it in spring this year, just as Iraqi Christians did on a larger scale when IS seized Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in 2014. For these Copts displaced from El-Arish, Christmas looks bleak and exile is impoverishing them. They have been placed in low-cost accommodation in nearby cities after fleeing in February but the Church has helped some to move into rented flats.
One displaced Christian, Moheb Qadri, told World Watch Monitor: “We don’t feel any joy this Christmas because of what happened to us. We left everything. I lost my work there; I was working as scrap dealer and the ISIS group took my truck. We can’t return; my brother in-law Nabil Saber Ayoub Mansour went back in May and was shot dead by masked men four days later. All the displaced Christians lost hope of returning after that – what will our future be? I haven’t found work here and we can’t afford presents or new clothes for our children.”
Meanwhile Emad Adel, a Christian lawyer from Cairo, told World Watch Monitor that while Copts have seen President Sisi as preferable to an Islamist government, their support for him is waning. There is growing anger at the security forces’ apparent inability to prevent several bloody attacks on Christian targets, and some Copts are again thinking of emigrating. As he usually does, Sisi is expected to attend the 7 January Christmas Mass celebrated by Pope Tawadros, which this year will take place in a newly built cathedral. “Sisi has failed to honour the promises of equality he made four years ago to the Copts … He could not take away their constant fear, because of the failure of his administration in the war on terror. Copts fear for their future in Egypt,” said Mr Adel.