This Christmas, there will be an empty chair at the table for Rafif's family in Iraq and Sele's family in Nigeria. Both of their fathers were killed for their faith - Rafif and Sele have never known their dads. But you can spark hope for them, and thousands of other persecuted Christian children.
“When he saw the bomb, he ran towards the bus,” says Rafif, from Iraq. “Mum and other people always say that he saved so many people’s lives and that he is a hero.”
Everything Rafif knows about her dad she has heard from her mum, and other people who knew him. Because when Raddif ran towards that bus filled with Christian students, warning them of the planned bombing, he saved a lot of lives but was himself killed. It would be a few more months before Rafif was born. She’s 11 now, and she never got to meet her dad. She’s one of many, many Christian children across the world suffering the long-term effects of persecution.
“I miss my dad,” says Rafif. “Especially when I hear my friends say, ‘My dad did this with me, my dad brought me that.’” It’s hardest of all at Christmas – a time when families often hope to all be together. In Rafif’s house, there’s an empty chair at their Christmas table. While Raddif can’t celebrate the birth of Jesus with them in person, Rafif does have something special to help remember him. He created a nativity scene out of papier-mâché, complete with figures representing Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.
“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 at Christmas a little bit.”
When Rafif is asked if she understands why Islamic extremists planted the bomb, she puts it this way: “Because they hate Christian people, they want to get them out of this world. They didn’t want them to be here so they always tried to kill us. But we always stand!”
"They hate Christian people. But we always stand!" Rafif, Iraq
As in many countries in the world, children suffer more than grief when a father is killed for his Christian faith. Because Rafif’s family lost its breadwinner, making them economically vulnerable. They also lost their home – she and her mother had to flee Mosul when IS invaded. The city is still too unsafe for Christians to return.
At her church, there are many other young children who’ve had a similar unsettling and uncertain start to life, even if their parents haven’t been killed. Iraq has seen a sustained campaign of violence by so-called Islamic State (IS), and persecution doesn’t just affect the individuals who are killed or otherwise targeted: it has an impact that lasts for generations.
And that’s why, with your help, persecuted Christian children are supported – not just with vital short-term aid and shelter, but with long-term education, discipleship and investment. Sparking hope that lasts.
Open Doors believes that every child persecuted for their faith should be protected, provided for and strengthened to ensure a better future for them and the long-term survival of the church.
Rafif loves the Christian education classes that she gets from Open Doors partners in Iraq. “The thing I like most is that we learn more about God,” she says. “The second thing I like is that we learn new stories.
“There are stories in the Bible where people save other people’s lives,” she adds, and it’s clear how much they mean to her. “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.’”
Above all, these classes help Rafif get to know more about her Heavenly Father. “The most important thing I have learned in Christian education class is that God is always there for me,” she says. “He never leaves me.”
"Every one of those kids should have a Christian education class like I do" Rafif, Iraq
In the face of uncertainty, we can all be sure that God doesn’t leave us. It’s a truth that Rafif and her mother hold dear as they spend Christmas without Raddif. And your gifts and prayers help make God’s presence even clearer – through Christian classes and church – as well as showing that their worldwide family cares for them.
Rafif knows that Iraq is not the only place where children are persecuted for their faith. All over the world millions of children miss a parent, face violence or are discriminated against for their faith. When Rafif is asked about them, she knows what would help: “Every one of those kids should have a Christian education class like I do,” Rafif says.
One of those children is 13-year-old Sele in Nigeria. He loves the Christmas period. “My favourite thing about Christmas is the dramas we watch in church and the songs we sing,” he says. But as he and his mum prepare for Christmas, they also have an empty seat at their festive table.
Though Sele lives far away from Rafif, they have something very significant in common: his father was also killed because of his Christian faith.
"Sele never knew his dad" Cecelia, Nigeria
“Sele never knew his dad, Solomon,” explains Cecelia, Sele’s mum. He was only two years old when his father was shot and killed in 2011, part of a wave of extreme violence that engulfed Nigeria’s Plateau State at the time. Christians in the region still face kidnap, attack or murder from different groups of Islamic extremists.
“I was preparing food,” remembers Cecelia. “We began to hear gunshots everywhere. The last call we had, Solomon said I should go home and take care of our children. He said everything in town was on fire, but I should stay calm.”
It was the final call she received from her husband. The next day, she heard confirmation that he had been killed.
“When my husband was alive, we were living peacefully,” remembers Cecelia. “He was a farmer and provided for all our needs.”
Without the family breadwinner, Cecelia had to take over the farming herself. Many people might have despaired – but she knew, like Rafif knows, that God will not abandon her. “I decided to hold on to Jesus,” she says simply.
Sele has to help his mother with difficult farm work but, thanks to the gifts and prayers of Open Doors supporters, there is also money to send him to school. And Sele has big dreams that show his caring heart.
“One day, I want to be a doctor,” he says. “I want to save lives and help people. I love my school – my teachers teach me very well, and they are helping me to become what I want to be. If I don’t go to school, I will feel very sad, because I will not become the doctor I want to be.”
And it’s not just science that Sele is learning: he attends a Christian school, where he can hear more about God and live out his faith openly. The story he likes best is one that many children around the world also love reading: “My favorite Bible story is David and Goliath, because I want to be like David who had faith in God and defeated Goliath.”
"I want to say thank you to the brothers and sisters who are helping me" Sele, Nigeria
Sele is thriving at the school. Cecelia shares: “When he receives exam results, he asks me if I can call the office [Open Doors local partners] to tell them he came first in his class. I thank God for Open Doors – they constantly come and visit me, and always support me with Sele’s school fees.”
“I want to say thank you to the brothers and sisters who are helping me,” adds Sele. “Merry Christmas everybody – may God bless you!”
God is certainly blessing Sele and Rafif through you – and hundreds of other young persecuted Christians. There are so many more children who need to know that God is with them as they face discrimination, persecution or grief simply because they and their family follow Jesus.
With your support, Open Doors brings short-term care and long-term hope and provision for the next generation of believers. It’s vital because God loves these courageous boys and girls – and because we have to invest in the next generation to ensure the survival of the church.
This Christmas, can you help remind Christian children that God will never leave them – and neither will their worldwide family?
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.