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Christmas in a closed country: how Christians secretly celebrate in Saudi Arabia


19 December 2017

Officially Christians in Saudi Arabia aren’t free to celebrate Christmas. Incredibly, migrant Christians working and living there manage to gather in secret. Open Doors workers visited a group of Indian believers living in Saudi Arabia and joined their annual Christmas service to pray and celebrate with them.

Two Indian men walk down an empty street on a quiet night in a large city. They knock on a nondescript door, and slip quickly inside. They take off their shoes and join a handful of worshippers in a room decorated with Christmas lights, stars, and garlands. In the next hour over a hundred Indian believers arrive quietly, excited to celebrate Christmas together. Most of those gathered to celebrate have low-paying jobs in large Saudi companies or households; they are construction workers, stone cutters, electricians and cleaners.

Churches, crosses and Christian meetings of any kind are deemed illegal in Saudi Arabia. But migrant workers organizing services for their own community in non-public places are mostly left alone. But, there is always the risk of being raided by the police, resulting in imprisonment and forced repatriation.

When the Christmas service begins, there’s no doubt that this is an Indian celebration. The instruments, the music; when you close your eyes you feel as if you’re right in the heart of India. Taking turns, the worshippers sing songs in their mother tongue.

The preacher, a labourer during the day and a pastor in secret, talks about the true meaning of Christmas. Despite the dangers he passionately implores his congregation to share the gospel. “God wants to use you,” he said. “Every day can be Christmas if you are willing to obey Him when He says, ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’”

The preacher tells us later that they see many migrant workers choose to start following Christ during their time in Saudi Arabia. “Living here, their lives are changed,” he said. “We minister to them and disciple them so when they return to India, they can start new churches in their own communities that are often yet unreached with the gospel.”

The service concludes with children, dressed as Nativity characters, singing, ‘we wish you a merry Christmas’ and a big Christmas cake is cut up and handed out. Then the congregation cautiously slips away, a few at a time.

Most of the congregation came to Saudi Arabia to support their families back home. But the wages are low and sometimes employers skip a salary payment. “No salary is really a problem because our families depend on us,” said one church leader. “In some cases, employers are six to nine months overdue with their payments. Legally, there is nothing we can do about this. When necessary, we all donate a small amount to help each other financially. None of us are rich, but together we can help each other out.”

By imposing new taxes for foreign workers, the Saudi Arabian government is trying to push migrant workers out of the country in order to create more jobs for Saudi nationals. One of the effects of this so-called ‘Saudization’ policy is that this congregation has shrunk by 50 percent over the last two years.

Saudi Arabia is number 14 on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List. All Saudis are considered to be Muslims, and the legal system is based on Sharia (Islamic law). There are no church buildings at and Christian services take place in secret places. Believers from Muslim backgrounds usually keep their faith hidden.

 

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Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians in over 60 countries for over 60 years. Last year it raised approximately $70 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised over £11 million.

Every year Open Doors publishes the World Watch List – a ranking of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. This is produced using detailed information provided by Open Doors co-workers in more than 60 countries, as well as independent experts. Data is gathered on five spheres of life - private, family, community, national and church life – plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence impacting Christians. Persecution in each country is recorded by Open Doors using a point system. Open Doors' research methods and results have been independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom. The 2017 World Watch List accounts for the 12 months ending 31 October 2016.

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