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Christians in Asia prepare for Christmas despite violence, economic woes

Christians across Asia have prepared culturally and spiritually to celebrate Christmas and New Year despite hardships and challenges.

Published: December 22, 2023 12:09 PM GMT

Updated: December 22, 2023 12:14 PM GMT

Christmas is near and Catholics in rural villages of northern Bangladesh have decorated their houses with banana leaves and marigold flowers as part of a long-held Christmas tradition.

Women are all set to prepare delicious homemade cakes to be served to family members, guests, and carol groups.

Many migrant Christians from cities have started flocking to their villages to enjoy their Christmas and New Year holidays.  

Christians in Manipur state in northeast India are bracing for a low-key Christmas amid ongoing tensions following months-long communal riots between tribal Kuki Christians and Hindu-majority Meitei people.

 In this file photo, South Korean volunteers in Santa Claus outfits throw Santa hats during a ceremony before the delivery of Christmas gifts in Seoul, South Korea, on Dec 24, 2018

In this file photo, South Korean volunteers in Santa Claus outfits throw Santa hats during a ceremony before the delivery of Christmas gifts in Seoul, South Korea, on Dec 24, 2018. (Photo: AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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On Wednesday, thousands paid their last respects to 87 tribal Christians during a mass burial in the hilly state.

The remains of a burnt church are seen in Langching village some 45 km from Imphal, the capital city of Manipur on May 31. The ongoing ethnic violence has kept India's northeastern state on the edge since May 3. (Photo by AFP/ UCAN files)

The sectarian conflict that started in May killed about 200 people and displaced over 50,000, mostly Kuki tribal people after a dispute over proposed tribal status for the majority Meitei community.

In Vietnam, the government committee for religious affairs warned churches and places of worship in the national capital Hanoi to take precautions to prevent fire accidents.

St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi during the Christmas season in 2020. Christmas festivities in Vietnam are attended by thousands of people. (Photo: AFP)

The warning about high risks of fire and explosion was issued last Friday as many people will burn incense, candles, and votive papers during the celebrations of Christmas, New Year, and the Buddhist lunar new year.

In the South Korean capital Seoul, Catholic Church organized a pre-Christmas gathering for a group of North Korean Christian refugees on Monday.

The refugees participated in a Holy Mass, a cultural function, special dinner and exchange of Christmas cards and gifts. The refugees prayed for peace and reconciliation in the Korean peninsula and expressed the desire to reunite with their families back home.

The former Portuguese colony and now a Chinese territory, Macau, hosted the first public exhibition showcasing more than 20 nativity scenes.

The exhibition is sponsored by Casa de Portugal, an organization promoting Portuguese education and culture and runs from Dec. 5 to Jan. 6 next year. The nativity scenes displayed included creations by art craft students of the organization.

Catholics in Myanmar are also planning a silent Christmas to express solidarity with people killed and displaced in the war-torn country.

Church leaders and lay people in predominantly Christian areas of Kachin, Kayah, Chin and Karen states said they will observe a low-key Christmas in support of the tens of thousands of victims of the escalating conflict between the military and rebel forces.

People flee after renewed fighting between Myanmar's military and rebel groups in western Rakhine state on Nov. 19. Christians are skipping Christmas celebrations to show solidarity with displaced persons. (Photo: AFP)

Bishop Celso Ba Shwe of Loikaw in Kayah state had to flee the bishop’s house after a military takeover.

In a message this week, Bishop Shwe urged Catholics "to show love and do good" at Christmas time.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has urged Christians to share a meal with the hungry poor this Christmas as millions in the crisis-hit nation island nation struggle to put food on table.

During a press conference in Colombo on Tuesday, Ranjith said the situation in the island nation is “precarious” and lamented that many families do not have proper sustenance.

A sculptor works on a statue of the Virgin Mary in his workshop ahead of the Christmas celebrations in Biyagama on Dec 18. (Photo: AFP)

A recent study found that a family of four needs about 371 US Dollars equivalent to cover monthly expenses, but the average monthly income of a family is only 241 in the politically and economically troubled nation.

The government in Muslim-majority Malaysia has issued a new directive to reverse a three-year-old ban that barred businesses from displaying Christmas greetings on their products.

The ruling came following public uproar last weekend over an internal memo from popular bakery chain Berry's asking its staff not to write “Merry Christmas” on their cakes.

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Christmas decorations for sale are seen on display at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 7. (Photo: AFP)

The new directive has advised the use of "Season's greetings" as a topper instead of “Merry Christmas.” About two-thirds of Malaysia’s 34 million people are Muslims.

Christians account for about 10 percent in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation. In recent years, rights groups have reported rising Islamization due to the strong influence of religious hardliners in national politics.

Rescuers in China raced against time amid a freezing cold winter to search for survivors after the nation’s deadliest earthquake in years left 131 people dead.

State media reported at least 113 people were killed in northwestern Gansu province and 18 more in neighboring Qinghai after a tremor on Monday night that damaged thousands of buildings. It is the worst quake in China since 2014 when more than 600 people were killed in southwestern Yunnan province.

People walk past a collapsed building after an earthquake in Dahejia, Jishishan County in northwest China’s Gansu province on Dec. 19. (Photo: AFP)

Western China is quake-prone due to frequent seismic activity. A huge quake in Sichuan province in 2008 left more than 87,000 people dead or missing, including 5,335 schoolchildren.

This year, the death toll is expected to rise further as fears are growing that survivors awaiting rescue could succumb to the bitter cold, with temperatures in some places expected to dip as low as -17 degrees. 

Cambodia’s authoritarian government has rejected a request from 18 US senators urging the release of American-Khmer lawyer and rights activist Theary Seng.

The 52-year-old is serving a six-year sentence for treason linked to an alleged 2019 plot to overthrow then prime minister Hun Sen. The rejection followed a letter sent to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to prioritize her release.

Theary Seng, a US-Cambodian lawyer and activist, speaks to the media ahead of her treason and incitement hearing in front of Phnom Penh municipal court in Phnom Penh on May 3, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

The US senators want Theary Seng’s detention designated under the Hostage-Taking Accountability Act. A government spokesman said Cambodia will follow its own constitution and law, and claimed there was no political prisoner in the country.

Rights groups say more than 60 political prisoners including Theary Seng are languishing in Cambodian jails on fabricated charges amid an ongoing crackdown on opposition, dissent and free speech.

A Vatican declaration allowing pastoral blessing for same-sex couples have drawn mixed reactions in Asia as in other parts of the world.

In Catholic-majority Philippines, activists advocating for LGBT rights communities have welcomed the move.

Members and supporters of the LGBT community take part in the Metro Manila Pride March in Pasay, Philippines on June 25, 2022. (Photo:AFP/Getty Images)

LGBT Catholics said this small, good, and progressive step is the beginning of a more inclusive Church in the coming years.

A protestant pastor who reportedly solemnized over 6,000 same-sex unions since 2006 said that the move is expected to trigger a surge in same-sex marriage despite opposition from the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, Cardinal William Goh of Singapore said the declaration aims to guide priests on the pastoral care of same-sex people and it does not change the Church’s teachings on marriage and family.

In a press statement on Tuesday, Goh thanked Pope Francis for approving the document and sought to dispel the misconception that the Church has changed its stance on its traditional doctrine about marriage between a man and a woman as reported by some media houses.

Cardinal William Goh of Singapore. (Photo: Singapore Archdiocese)

He also highlighted that the Vatican document distinguishes "between the Church’s official blessings, and a pastoral blessing for all occasions outside the liturgical and sacramental setting."

Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong has invited Pope Francis to visit the country. Thuong had signed a letter inviting the pope, the government committee for religious affairs announced last Thursday. This was announced as the president along with top government officials met and exchanged Christmas greetings with Church leaders in the communist nation.

During the meeting, the president said he was impressed by his meeting with Pope Francis and Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin during his visit to the Vatican in July.

President Vo Van Thuong (left) offers a gift to Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Chi Linh at the Archbishop’s House in Hue on Dec. 14. (Photo: btgcp.gov.vn)

Thuong and Cardinal Parolin signed a landmark agreement that would allow a papal representative to reside in Vietnam and open an office for the first time since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

Vatican and Vietnam have yet to establish full diplomatic ties. However, since 2011 a non-resident papal representative has been paying regular pastoral visits to Vietnam.

The Korean branch of papal charity ACN or Aid to Church in Need has launched a Christmas fundraiser campaign to help Christians suffering in war-torn Syria and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The funds will be channeled to Christians in Syria, Christian migrant workers in Israel and other asylum seekers in other countries. A major portion will be delivered to support “A Bite of Love Project” in Damascus, Syria.

A woman attends a Mass in the Syrian village of Sadad in this file image. (Photo: Youssef Karwashan/AFP)

The project provides food to poor Syrian Christians and others. A civil war that began in 2011 killed more than 500,000 people in Syria and driven out half the country's pre-war population.

The number of Syrian Christians dropped from two million to 450,000 today due to mass exodus to Europe and the United States. ACN Korea also supports the “One Smile” project which sends clothes to Syrian children as Christmas gifts.

The papal charity will also send funds to offer food, medicines and other daily necessities to households in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and East Jerusalem affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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