This time of year, during a long-awaited weekend of celebration, our minds turn toward feasts and family. The Thanksgiving holiday is a season of gratitude, of taking time to count our blessings and — for people of faith — raising thankful eyes heavenward.
Most days, whether on Thanksgiving or some other occasion, when we actually begin to recall our greatest joys — “every good and perfect gift” that has come to us — we are both touched and amazed.
And once again, as another year nears its end with a gathering of family and friends, it is my hope — and one that I’ve expressed for many years — that we will not only thank God for the food, but that we’ll also express our gratitude for the remarkable freedoms we enjoy in the United States.
We may find much to complain about, and perhaps too many issues to argue about, but we have much more for which to give thanks. And these days, the giving of thanks may well become more than a traditional or sentimental gesture.
Truthfully, no matter how bright the light that graces our homes may be this weekend, a shadow of darkness is gathering over large parts of the world. We may rarely catch a glimpse of it as we go about our busy lives, but it is surely there.
The same faith and freedom, which our country extols and embraces, are under intense attack in other parts of the world.
For example, besides Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions, North Korea is also the world’s worst persecutor of Christians other people of faith.
Those under Kim’s scrutiny, who demonstrate belief in a power greater than his, are warehoused and starved in brutal labor camps and prisons, most of them never to be heard from again.
Then there’s China.
Beyond recently televised presidential honors and formalities, just this week we learned:
“Officials in China's eastern Jiangxi province have replaced religious images displayed by Christian families with portraits of the country's leader, Xi Jinping … on Nov. 12, pictures were uploaded to [a] popular social messaging service … showing officials removing images of the cross and other religious subjects in Yugan County. The message from officials said the Christians involved had ‘recognized their mistakes and decided not to entrust to Jesus but to the (Communist) Party.’ claiming the Christians voluntarily removed 624 religious images and posted 453 portraits of Xi.”
Meanwhile, an untold number of the faithful languish in brutal Chinese prisons.
Not so far away from China is Pakistan — an incomparable hotbed of Islamist religious intolerance. The victims of sectarian violence are preyed upon by either iron-fisted Islamist jihadis or enraged mobs of neighborhood thugs.
Either way, Christians, who make up only a small segment of the population, suffer disproportionally. Churches are routinely bombed by terrorist groups. Hundreds have died, many of them children.
Christians and other Pakistani minorities are too easily accused of blasphemy against Allah, Mohammad his prophet, or the Koran — a “crime” that, unbelievably, carries a death sentence according to the Pakistani constitution.
Another region where non-Islamic religious faith is a matter of life and death is, of course, the Middle East. While much of the world slept, in recent years tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq and Syria were killed in genocidal ISIS attacks.
A threat of similar jihadi-imposed death and destruction also endangers the ancient Coptic Christian population in Egypt.
Attacks on Coptic Christians at the hand of radical Islamists increased exponentially after the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power, following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s government in 2011.
However, in recent years — despite the removal of a brief Muslim Brotherhood regime — anti-Christian persecution persists. A Cairo church bombing brought 2016 to a tragic, bloodstained conclusion. And in 2017, alongside more bombings, mob attacks, riots, and widespread kidnappings, 28 Coptic Christians died at gunpoint during an ISIS terrorist attack on a children’s church bus.
Just this week, the Coptic community once again protested to the government about their lack of religious liberty and the dangers they continue to suffer.
“We said nothing when one church was closed, so it got worse and a second, then a third were closed, and a fourth is on its way as if praying is a crime for which Copts are punished,” said a statement issued by the Diocese of Minya in Upper Egypt.
Today, candles flicker in Christian churches and other houses of worship all around the world, embodying the prayers and petitions of believers.
In the same moment, candles on our Thanksgiving tables illuminate the thankful faces of our nearest and dearest.
While we offer our prayers of gratitude this year, it won’t take but an extra moment or two to remember those who struggle, suffer and fear for their survival, both near and far.
And as we remember them, let’s also give thanks for our own homeland, America.
Thank God for our nation’s heritage of faith. For those who defend it. And for our freedom to embrace it.