Will you be going to Mass this Christmas? If you are one of the Catholic readers of this paper, I imagine the answer is yes. If you are a member of another Christian body, then I imagine you too may be going to a Church service. If you are an average sort of Briton, though, you might well be staying at home, or thinking of going but not quite making it. But whatever your religious beliefs or lack of them, in Britain, if you want to go to Church this Christmas, you are free to do so. No one is stopping you, apart from yourself and your own laziness, that is.
In Kenya the situation is not so cheerful. Many Kenyans will be going to Mass at Christmas, for about a quarter of the country’s population is Catholic. Many other Christians will be in their churches, Anglican, Presbyterian, and other. But throughout the country, there will be fear, particularly in the coastal regions which are, historically speaking, predominantly Muslim. Al-Shabaab has carried out a series of attacks there, but also in the capital, in which they have murdered Christians but spared Muslims. Church services have been a target in the past, and are a target now, given what we know of the aims ands methods of al-Shabaab. In places like the tourist town of Malindi, people may well be too frightened to go to Church, as its bishop reports here. Perhaps they will have armed guards, always a feature of Kenyan life, on the doors of some churches this Christmas, but the sad truth is that the forces of law and order are incapable of protecting all the people all the time.
Kenya is not an exceptional case. It will be dangerous to go to Church this Christmas in northern Nigeria, thanks to the depredations of Boko Haram, the extremist Islamist group responsible for kidnapping the schoolgirls, who, despite much publicity, are still missing.
As for those very few Christians still left in the territory controlled by the so called Islamic State, there will be no church services for them at all, unless carried out in secret. In Mosul and other historic centres of Christianity, the now desecrated churches will be empty. The Islamic State is an extreme example, but in other places too there is fear and intimidation. Turkey is one place where Christians are on edge; Pakistan, where a Christian couple were recently burned to death and where Asia Bibi spends her sixth year on death row for the non-existent crime of blasphemy, is another. One could add Sudan, where Miriam Ibrahim narrowly escaped with her life.
On top of all these countries where Christmas is not going to be happy or peaceful, one might add places where it is illegal. Step forward, Saudi Arabia, friend and ally of Britain and the United States! And that is not the only one. What about the Maldives? If you are thinking of going there on holiday, please don’t.
One final point: if you are thinking of not going to church this Christmas, please change your mind. Remember all those who can’t, or who will be taking tremendous risks if they do. Think of them, and go, remembering that the privilege you enjoy, they would so deeply like to have too.