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Bijli* stands in the yard of her school, drawing a picture in the dirt with a stick. She draws a figure who looks like her – a girl with short hair and a dress. Then she draws other children, friends for her imaginary girl. One holds the girl’s hand. Another has a ball to play with. They all have big smiles.

She looks up at the other children in the playground. The scene does look a bit like her dirt drawing – except that no one is playing with her.

She notices a couple of girls whispering to each other and looking at her. Bijli quickly looks down and stares hard at her drawing, but it’s too late – they’ve started walking towards her. She looks around for their teacher, but Bijli can’t see her.

“What are you doing?” one of the girls asks.

“I’ve just been drawing…” Bijli stammers, gesturing to her drawing in the dirt. One of girls stamps on it with her foot, making the smiling faces disappear.

“My mother says that your family are infidels,” another girl says.

“We’re not infidels,” Bijli says, starting to cry.

“Are you saying my mother is lying?” The girl pushes Bijli over, and she lands on the floor where her drawing once was. The girls laugh and run away. Bijli stays on the floor, tears rolling down her face.

‘You are not the same as us’

Bijli’s family are one of just a few Christian families in their village of 50 houses in Bangladesh. Her father, Badol*, is an auto driver. Badol smiles as he says, “In my family, my father was the first believer, then my brothers became believers, and after that I accepted Jesus Christ.” In fact, his father has received biblical training through Open Doors partners, and now he’s a church leader.

But his decision to leave the traditional Muslim faith of the village and follow Jesus hasn’t been easy for the family. He remembers, “I was a little bit scared that the Muslim villagers would not want to do anything with me.”

Sadly, his fears were realised. Badol explains, “No one wants to talk, communicate, and associate with us.” The family chooses to no longer take part in Muslim festivals, but they also get left out of other community events, such as weddings, and are shunned by their neighbours. “I feel sad.”

Bijli’s mother, Maya*, adds, “We are Christians, but in the village, Muslims are the majority. They tell us, ‘Go away, you are Christians, you should not mix with us. You are not the same as us.’ They drive us away, get angry and quarrel with us. They do not allow us to get close to them. It is a problem.”

The rejection and isolation are especially hard for 10-year-old Bijli. “My friends don’t want to play with me. They push me,” she says. Her mother, Maya*, explains that sometimes Bijli comes home crying because her ‘friends’ have attacked her. “Bijli comes and says, ‘Mother, they have beaten me. They say we are Christian. They do not allow us to join with them.’”

Thankfully, Bijli has her brother to play with at home, five-year-old Mohon*. “I adore him,” Bijli says. They make pillow forts, build sand castles, and play hide and seek – just like children all over the world. And there are a few other Christian children in the village for them to play with.

“But she can’t play with the Muslim children,” Maya says.

Celebrating ‘Emmanuel’

It’s a hazy afternoon in December when Bijli and her family arrive at the Christmas celebration organised by Open Doors partners. After hours of travelling from their village, they finally reach a Christian compound on the edge of a city – a safe place.

“Do you remember why we’re here?” Badol asks Bijli and Mohon, smiling.

“To celebrate Jesus’s birthday!” Bijli replies excitedly. “I can’t wait for the singing and dancing!”

“I want to eat Jesus’ birthday cake!” Mohon says, greedily remembering the enormous cake from last year – he’d never seen such a big cake before. His parents laugh.

After entering the gates, they walk down the drive way, Bijli and Mohon running on ahead while their parents walk slowly with their bags, tired from the long journey. The path is lined with trees that have colourful fairy lights hung between them. The lights aren’t so noticeable in the afternoon sunshine, but as the night draws in they shine and flash, making it feel like a party.

Badol and Maya smile as they approach the outdoor dining area where some families are already sitting, talking and laughing and drinking cups of hot tea. Some of the local Open Doors team get up to greet them and take their bags, and other familiar faces smile and wave them over.

Bijli sees a group of girls talking and looking at her. But here, she doesn’t feel afraid.

One of the girls walks towards her. “We were going to play a game of hide and seek. Would you and your brother like to play?”

Soon there are 100 Christian families at the celebration, all believers from Muslim backgrounds who come from isolated rural communities, just like Bijli’s family. For some, this will be the first time they have ever met with so many other believers – and the first time they will celebrate Christmas.

Once most people have arrived it’s time for dinner – a delicious daal, chicken curry, and rice. Maya enjoys eating a meal that she hasn’t had to cook herself. Bijli and Mohon eat their dinner as quickly as they can so they can go back to their game.

At one point during dinner, a table bursts into a song of praise to Jesus. Most of the room joins in, clapping and enjoying the freedom to sing their praises to God at the top of their lungs, with no fear of who might be listening. “We can’t celebrate in this way in the village because of the restrictions and fear of persecution,” Badol explains later.

But that burst of song is just a taste of what’s to come. It’s not long before the sound of drumming can be heard from the room above where they’re eating, the main hall where the celebrations will take place.

Bijli is excited to hear the music begin. She grabs her brother’s hand and they rush to take off their shoes at the bottom of the stairs, then run up them two steps at a time. As they enter the hall, there are already people dancing and singing, and more come flooding in behind them to join the party. Everyone is dressed in their finest – the women’s beautiful sarees fill the room with color. There is an arch of red, green and white balloons over the stage where the band are playing drums, a squeeze box, and a tambourine.

There are parties like this in the village – for the end of Ramadan, or to celebrate someone’s wedding – but Bijli and her family aren’t invited. She can smell the food cooking, and hear the music, and she hears about them at school the next day, but she doesn’t get to join in.

But this party is different. Tonight, Bijli knows she is welcome.

A song begins which Bijli hasn’t heard before, but it’s a call and response song, so it’s easy to join in. “The name of Jesus is so good!” she sings, dancing in a circle with Mohon.

At one point in the evening, the music stops, and everyone sits down on the floor. One of the leaders speaks into a microphone and asks, “Who is here to celebrate Christmas for the first time?” Dozens of hands go up.

“We are here to celebrate ‘Emmanuel’ – that when Jesus was born, God came to be with us, here on earth. And He is with us all the time, and promises never to leave us.”

“Is he even with us in the village?” Bijli asks her mother, whispering.

“Yes dear,” she replies.

“Even when I’m at school?”

“Yes Bijli. Jesus is always with you.”

‘I love everything!’

The next day, a visiting Open Doors team speak to Bijli and her family, to ask them how they are enjoying the celebrations. Badol says, “I am very happy to be here. We are celebrating the birthday of Jesus, singing carols, and playing games. I feel very good.”

Maya adds, “I love the songs, cutting the cake, I love everything! When we come here we have joy and peace, we sing songs and dance. We do not get to celebrate like this in the village.”

She wishes more believers could take part in such celebrations. “If we could do a big program about Jesus in different places, believers would grow in spirit and in faith.”

They are also glad that the celebrations give Bijli and Mohon the chance to meet with many other Christian children and learn more about their faith. Badol says, “They are learning many new things – they do not get this opportunity in the village.”

Bijli says, “I like the songs, dancing and celebrating Jesus’ birthday.”

It’s clear that being able to come to this celebration, thanks to your support and prayers, means a lot to them. Badol says, “I would like to give thanks to those who gave us the opportunity to come here.” Bijli says, “I want to give thanks to all of my uncles and aunts who organized this program.”

‘Pray for me’

Of course, the Christmas celebration can’t last forever, and soon it is time for Bijli and her family to go home. Even just by coming to this celebration, they will attract negative attention from their community. “They will ask many questions,” Badol says. The rejection the family already face will be made even worse when the community hear that they have been at a Christian event.

But when I ask Badol if he thinks it’s worth it to come to this event, knowing what the consequences could be, he is adamant that it is. “Yes, my decision is right. I will give them our answer, that we are followers of Jesus Christ, and we went to celebrate the birthday of Jesus.”

Maya does worry about her children as Christians in Bangladesh. She says, “We complain to the teachers (about the bullying), but the teachers can’t watch them all the time.” Badol is more hopeful – he says, “I am not afraid. God will protect them.”

Despite the challenges she faces, Bijli still has high hopes for her future. She says, “I would like to cook as well as my Mum, and to be a teacher. Pray for me and my brother so that we can study well, and fulfil my dream to be a teacher and my brother can be a doctor.”

A few days after the celebration, Bijli is back in the school yard once again. Some things haven’t changed – she’s still on her own, drawing with a stick in the dirt. She draws herself – a girl with short hair in a dress. But this time, she draws someone different next to her – a tall man with a beard and a big smile. She smiles at the memory of the music and the dancing at the Christmas celebration, and reminds herself of what she learned: “Jesus is always with me.”

 

Covid-19 update

Since this Christmas event took place in December 2019, the covid-19 crisis has hit the world, including Bangladesh. Bijli and her family had to stay at home during the lockdowns – Bijli couldn’t go to school, and Badol couldn’t go out to work.

Badol says, “I passed the time with my kids and tried to help my wife sometimes. The kids also passed their time playing together around the house. They did studies at home.”

It was a challenging time for the family. “I had no work for around two months and it was really difficult to manage the needs of my family. We live from hand to mouth, so no work means no food,” says Badol.

He did not receive any support from the government, even though many people in his village received relief. Sadly, there have been many incidents of Christians not receiving government aid in Bangladesh – it is often distributed by the village authorities who will discriminate against those they don’t like.

Your prayers and support enabled Open Doors partners to provide the family with emergency aid. Badol says, “For the first time, I received relief. I am very happy.”

Although the lockdowns have been lifted, there are still some restrictions for Badol on carrying passengers in his auto (a small taxi), and there are also fewer people looking for rides. “There are very few passengers, so I earned only half of the total amount that I used to earn before the covid-19 crisis,” he says.

He asks us to pray for their good health and safety. Ask God to protect Badol both from covid-19 and from traffic accidents, as he drives on busy roads. Pray that God will provide for all the needs of the family. Pray that the whole family will remember what they heard at the Christmas celebration – that God is with them, and has promised never to leave them.

*Names changed for security reasons

PRAY WITH BIJLI

  • Please pray for 10-year-old Bijli*, and her 5-year-old brother Mohon*. They are from a Christian family in Bangladesh, but most people in their village are Muslims, and their family face rejection and isolation for leaving Islam. Their family have also been affected by the covid-19 crisis. Bijli and her family had to stay at home during the lockdowns – Bijli couldn’t go to school, and her father, Badol couldn’t go out to work.

BRING COMFORT AND JOY

Every P2000 could provide a Bible to 10 children who have been impacted by persecution.

Every P5000 could allow the Colombia Children’s Centre to provide protection, care and education to a child of a persecuted church leader for a month.

An additional gift of P2400 provides a Christmas gift to one persecuted child, let them know that their church family in the Philippines love them!