We are 12 years into the 21st century; 64 years on from the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; 23 past the fall of Communism in Europe and end of the Cold War, yet the world is not a safer place, especially for Christians. For while positives have progressed, so too have negatives. And while proud, self-sufficient humanity likes to congratulation itself on the positives, it is not very good at tackling the negatives.

For decades now, dangerous religious nationalism has been building in post-colonial emerging democracies such as Sri Lanka, but especially India. It is 33 years since the successful Shi'ite Revolution in Iran and the failed Sunni Revolution in Saudi Arabia triggered the Saudi-funded global expansion of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, which is pro-Sharia, pro-jihad, supremacist, imperialist and intolerant.

CandlePICTURE: Bev Lloyd-Roberts/www.sxc.hu

A CHRISTMAS PRAYER FOR IMPERILLED CHRISTIANS

As we lift our hearts and hands to the God of all Creation, we confess that our hearts are heavy with anxiety for our persecuted fellow believers;
we confess that our hands are empty for there is nothing material that we could offer that could stop the violence.

But come we do, because we know that while we are limited, you our God are not; for you are the Almighty living God (Psalms 77:10-13) and nothing is impossible for you (Luke 1:37). Indeed you are willing and able to do abundantly more than we could ask or even imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

We come because we know that you love us with an everlasting love; that you speak, work and rule in our interests; and that you are 'for us' (Psalms 56:9) and one with us (Romans 6:5), having been given to us (the Church) as our head (Ephesians 2:22).

And so we cry to you: May the Lord of hosts himself guard his churches and secret fellowships this Christmas.  May the Holy Spirit draw all imperilled believers into prayer, trusting that you will answer as soon as you hear it (Isaiah 30:19). May the name of Jesus Christ be exalted throughout all the nations with songs praise, of glory to the Righteous One (Isaiah 24:16).

AMEN

Yet these past decades have of been decades of phenomenal church growth, specifically throughout the non-Western world. In 1960 the church was predominantly white, Western and middle-class. Today the church is around 80 per cent coloured, non-Western and poor. These Christians - including many converts - live as counter-cultural, vulnerable religious minorities in increasingly hostile environments in states with poor human rights records. And still their numbers increase as the church continues to grow in spite of everything the devil throws at it. 

And this brings us to the key issue: the escalating persecution we are witness is Satan's response to church growth. "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). Satan is fighting back, as should be expected. So how should we respond to this? We are to respond with endurance (Hebrews 10:35-39), prevailing prayer (Ephesians 6:18) and steadfast faith (Isaiah 30:15) in the one who secured our victory be means of the cross.

This year, multitudes of Christians will be celebrating Christmas behind barricades and armed guards there to prevent terror attacks and mob violence. Those of us who are accustomed to worshipping in freedom can hardly imagine such a scenario. This year the Indonesian government will heighten security "in seven areas believed to be prime targets for terrorist attacks ahead of the Christmas and New Year celebrations". The areas that will receive special attention are East Java, Central Java, Jakarta, North Sumatra, Central Sulawesi, Bali and Maluku. From 23rd December, 2012, to 1st January, 2013,"police will heighten security at the 38,499 registered churches across Indonesia" (Jakarta Globe). Instead of celebrating Christmas outdoors, as they like to do, most Christians across northern Nigeria will remain inside their churches, behind the barricades and armed guards. Rev Musa Asake, the general secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, expressed anxiety about the prospect of Christmas bombings and appealed through CBS news for Christians to pray that "the Lord will intervene to protect churches".

One of Iraqi's leading Shi'ite clerics, ayatollah Ahmad Al Hassani Al Baghdadi -- who is currently in Syria, supporting the jihad against Assad -- has just issued a fatwa labelling Iraqi Christians as "polytheists" (because they worship a trinity) and "friends of the Zionists", decreeing they must choose "Islam or death" and that "their women and girls may legitimately be regarded wives of Muslims". This fatwa may well increase the likelihood of a terror attack against Iraqi Christians this Christmas. And it is difficult to imagine that foreign jihadis in Syria will let Christians gather and celebrate Christmas in peace and with security, for it is their intention that Christianity be eradicated from the whole Middle East. Christians worshiping in unregistered (illegal) house fellowships in totalitarian states - such as Eritrea, Algeria and all through Asia - will worship, as usual, at risk of arrest. Christians in Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Maldives and India will also worship at great risk, while Christians in Somalia, Afghanistan and North Korea will worship in total secret and near silence.

But worship and celebrate we all will; for we celebrate the coming of the one who changes everything: Jesus Christ, son of David, son of God. He came to redeem His people and establish His church. What started with a band of disciples, most of whom were martyred, He has built into a church that is hundreds of million-strong. What's more, He is building still and Satan, though he fight with 'the energy of despair', cannot stop Him. And though this relentless battle leaves us weary, Christ is resilient. Though we bruise like fragile reeds and fade like spent lanterns, the promise is that Jesus Christ, the Lord of hosts, will not grow faint or be discouraged till He has established justice in the earth (from Isaiah 42:3-4). He - the one whose coming we celebrate at Christmas - is the one who in grace gives strength to those who will trust Him, that the battle might be turned back. He is the one in whom we hope. Yes Christmas is worth celebrating, for Christmas heralds hope for the world.

Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate and an Adjunct Research Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at the Melbourne School of Theology. This prayer bulletin was initially written for the Australian Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (AEA RLC)For more of the prayer bulletins, see http://rlprayerbulletin.blogspot.com.au/