2020 has been a bad year for religious liberty, not only because of the COVID-19. Bitter Winter was there every day to report, but needs your help.
by Massimo Introvigne and Marco Respinti
Several years ago, a friend who was both a prominent politician and a self-styled atheist told one of us that he regarded as silly those who wanted to eliminate all references to Christmas from public places, arguing that they discriminated against non-Christians. “They, he said, would discriminate against me, assuming that only Christians can enjoy Christmas. I am not a Christian, but Christmas is for everybody. Its values and its message are universal. There should be a right to Christmas for everybody.”
Well, for all of us, this year the right to Christmas has been limited. In a Catholic country such as Lithuania, COVID-19 statistics are so scary that churches have suspended all public services, allowing only individual prayers. In Italy, the traditional Midnight Mass will be hold in the late afternoon rather than at night, with masks and distancing. In other countries, there is a strong debate on how to balance religious liberty and pandemic prevention.
We at Bitter Winter follow these debates with interest, but our mission is more to alert on countries where the right to Christmas is denied every year, not only during a pandemic. In North Korea, there will be the usual picture opportunities at more or less false Christmas celebrations for the benefit of foreigners, but both Christmas and Christianity remain basically forbidden. In China, government-controlled churches will have some Christmas services and masses—for adults only, since the participation of minors to religious events is forbidden—but elsewhere the repression will take no holidays. We learned that dissident pastors were preventively arrested, thus making their Christmas celebrations impossible even in private homes.
From India and Pakistan to Nigeria and Egypt, Christians will go to churches, but they will not know whether they will go back home. Unfortunately, terrorist attacks and mob violence have often happened at Christmas.
Then, there are those who do not celebrate Christmas as a calendar feast of their religion, but would like to enjoy a peaceful holiday season and cannot, because they are persecuted, scared, or in jail. There are examples everywhere, but Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, members of The Church of Almighty God and Falun Gong in China, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia (and in other countries) should be remembered in these days for the sheer magnitude of their persecution. Nor will those ridiculed or discriminated because their religion is unpopular among the media or certain politicians really enjoy the holidays.
It has been a bad year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also been a bad year for religious liberty, with a situation deteriorating in all continents. Totalitarian regimes took advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to increase the surveillance and the repression.
It is also the case that COVID-19 made donors more reluctant to support humanitarian causes, as they are firstly concerned for their own families. We understand this, and decided to cut the costs of translations, moving from a multi-language magazine to one published in English only. But at the same time, we heard the suggestions of many friends and supporters, and created in December a brand-new and ambitious international section, with global religious liberty news and comments, beyond China.
We frequently hear readers who tell us they prefer to donate to those who bring material help to the persecuted. As individuals we donate ourselves to worthy charities when we can afford it. On the other hand, we meet every day persecuted believers whose opinion is slightly different. Some may also need material help, but many tell us that what is most urgent for them is that their stories be told. If the truth about their situation is not told, if nobody knows about the persecution, there will be no material help either, and certainly no political intervention by democratic countries.
What can be done when religious liberty is violated? Some of the persecuted are not even materially poor, yet they are discriminated, jailed, and sometimes tortured and executed for their beliefs. What they urgently need is that their cases are internationalized, so that pressure on their governments may be exerted by international institutions and foreign countries—where, as the last resort, asylum may be granted to them when they come as refugees.
This is only possible if a new narrative will prevail, one regarding religious liberty as important for everybody and everywhere. We at Bitter Winter build this alternate narrative every day—and with results. Google tells us that we have more than 133,000 links to Bitter Winter from other Web sites, including governmental sites in several countries. Both in 2019 and 2020, Bitter Winter was the most quoted source in the China section of the U.S. Department of State’s yearly reports on religious liberty (in 2020, we were quoted 74 times, more than any other media outlets).
Can we continue without adequate donations? We would like to answer that our enthusiasm and our volunteer work, and the heroic deeds of those who brave censorship by sending us information and photographs (some of whom remain in jail in China), will be enough. But we are not so sure. If you like what you read, make sure it will continue to be available, and remember us in your Christmas gifts. It takes less than three minutes to donate via PayPal, and you do not even need a PayPal account.
We thank you in advance, whatever your religious beliefs, for affirming the right to Christmas, and the right to religious liberty, for everybody. And for acting about it.
Warm season’s greetings from Bitter Winter.
Massimo Introvigne, editor-in-chief
Marco Respinti, director-in-charge