Although she spends Christmas without her dad, eleven-year-old Rafif is learning more about the saviour that her father died for.
Christmas is a time of gathering with family and celebrating the birth of Jesus. But because of the courageous faith in that same Jesus, Christians all over the world have empty seats at their Christmas tables. One of those empty seats is in the house of Rafif (11) from Iraq. Her father was killed in a violent attack on Christians, leaving Rafif to grow up experiencing Christmas without her dad. Christian education classes, supported by Open Doors through a local partner, help Rafif stay strong through the storms of persecution.
Reindeer ears, a glitter dress, and a big smile: Rafif is 100% ready for Christmas. Rafif shows us the house where she lives with her mother and her grandparents. She stands on her toes to add the peak ornament to the Christmas tree and points us to the jolly Christmas ornaments that are everywhere: “Christmas is always lovely,” says Rafif: “you giggle, you laugh and most importantly you spend time with the people who you love.”
Due to persecution, there is one empty chair in Rafif’s house. Every year, she spends Christmas without her dad. Rafif kneels next to a nativity scene situated in a paper Mache cave. There is hay, puppets representing Joseph and Mary and, of course, baby Jesus in his manger. “My father made this,” Rafif says while carefully adjusting some figures in the scene. “I never knew him, but by setting up this nativity scene each year, I feel he’s there with Christmas a little bit.”
Eleven years ago, when Rafif was still in her mother’s womb, Raddif went out for what seemed to be a normal day of work in his shop near the University of Mosul. It was not. And Raddif saw it quicker than anyone else: explosives ready to detonate near the arrival place of the buses that carried Christian students from the surrounding village to the University, the only one in the region at the time.
“When he saw the bomb, he ran towards the bus and shouted and waved at them.” Rafif tells us “He told them, don’t move or we will all be dead.” The bus drivers listened to Raddif: they all stopped. Because of Raddif’s heroic action, only one of the targeted young Christians died. But he paid with his life: Rafif’s father died before ever seeing his daughter.
Centre of Hope
On another day, we join Rafif at her church, colourfully decorated for Christmas. Parents are dropping off their children and some are staying to chat with each other for a little bit, while the children run to their friends immediately. For Rafif these moments can be painful. “I miss my dad. Especially when I hear my friends talk and say ‘my dad did this with me, my dad brought me that,’” she explains. “I have asked God: ‘Why did You take my father away? Why did You do this?’”
While most children still have their father, none of the children running around here today is a stranger to persecution. At their young age, the children here are between 8 and 12 years old, all share horrifying memories of the Islamic extremists of IS overtaking the Nineveh Plain in 2014.
While for some the memory might be as mild as ‘just’ seeing their church change into a refugee camp overnight, others will still have nightmares about men taking even the few coins from their pockets after already having to leave everything behind. Many children never returned to the house they fled from. Rafif, for instance, comes from Mosul, a place still deemed too unsafe for Christians to return.
For the tens of thousands of Christian children in Iraq, it is essential to build a relationship with the Saviour born in a manger starting from an early age, because persecution was in the past, but it is also in the present and might fire up again in more extreme ways in the future. That is why Open Doors invests in these children with the help of local partners and churches. This Christian education class is one of the ways in which the children are encouraged to grow in their relationship with the Lord and stand strong through the storm.
The headteacher, Moshriq, leads the 20 teachers who educate the children in this Centre of Hope. “We divided the children into age groups. We tell them stories, but we also do activities so that they feel like they are part of the story. If we don’t support these children spiritually, they will not be able to overcome the pain and suffering that they encounter.”
“It is important for the children to feel at home in the church and make the stories their own,” Moshriq says. “We start eight weeks before Christmas, sending them daily online lessons about the story and the meaning of Christmas. We also continue our weekly meetings. We then help the children to tell the story of Christmas in their own words, or through a little play. On Christmas day, they then contribute to the service.”
The lessons help Rafif reflect on what happened with her father. “There are stories in the Bible where people save the lives of other people,” says Rafif. Then she jumps up in excitement: “When I hear those stories I think, ‘Hey, that is my dad! He also died to save the lives of others, just like the special people in the Bible.’” The Bible has become more and more familiar for Rafif due to the classes: “You know, whenever I feel like I am not in the right place, I read the Bible. That gives me confidence that I am in the right place.”
Millions of Children Are Persecuted
Rafif knows that Iraq is not the only place where children are persecuted for their faith. All over the world millions of children miss their parents, face violence or are discriminated against for their faith. With a wisdom that is unusual for children her age, Rafif says, “Every one of those kids should have a Christian education class like I do. They need to know their roots and they need to know what the truth is, what the reason is they suffer.” Then she continues, speaking from her heart about her own experience: “The most important thing I have learned in Christian education class is that God is always there for me, He never leaves me.”
Then it is time for teacher Moshriq to gather the children who find a place and grab their music sheets, perfectly socially distancing in the pews. In all the darkness of this country filled with persecution, the children have found their spark: Jesus who came to this earth and still is with us.