THE Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has used his Christmas message to highlight the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. He has promised to defend the right to freedom of religion.
“Christmas Day is, first and foremost, a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ,” he said on Christmas Eve. “It is a day of inestimable importance to billions of Christians the world over. . .
“Today of all days, I want us to remember those Christians around the world who are facing persecution. For them, Christmas Day will be marked in private, in secret, perhaps even in a prison cell. As Prime Minister, that’s something I want to change. We stand with Christians everywhere, in solidarity, and will defend your right to practise your faith.”
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in his Christmas message, focused on homelessness and the work of charities such as Shelter, which reported that as many as 280,000 people would be homeless, or living in temporary housing and hostels, in England on Christmas Day (News, 21 December).
“It shouldn’t be a time when pensioners go lonely and, worse, without care,” he said. “And no one — absolutely no one — should be homeless this Christmas.”
He urged people to “love their neighbour” by volunteering and donating to foodbanks. “It’s the goodwill and generosity of ordinary people, public-service and charity workers, who give tirelessly to help the most vulnerable and the lonely. They remind us of Christmas values: love for your neighbour, working together and hope, hope that things can be different.”
The Queen described 2019 as a “quite bumpy” year in her Christmas Day message. “Small steps” could heal divisions within communities, she said, after a year in which there has been division over the future of the UK and the European Union, and a fiercely contested General Election.
She spoke of the anniversaries of both the Apollo-11 mission and the D-Day landings. “Since the end of the Second World War, many charities, groups, and organisations have worked to promote peace and unity around the world, bringing together those who have been on opposing sides,” she said.
“By being willing to put past differences behind us and move forward together, we honour the freedom and democracy once won for us at so great a cost.”
PAThe Queen records her annual Christmas broadcast in Windsor Castle, Berkshire
She continued: “Through his teaching and by his example, Jesus Christ would show the world how small steps taken in faith and in hope can overcome long-held differences and deep-seated divisions to bring harmony and understanding.
“Many of us already try to follow in his footsteps. The path, of course, is not always smooth, and may at times this year have felt quite bumpy, but small steps can make a world of difference.”
Her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is 98, travelled to Sandringham on Christmas Eve to join the royal family for Christmas, having spent four nights in King Edward VII’s Hospital in London. He was admitted on the Friday before Christmas Day, on the advice of doctors.
In his Christmas Day sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury drew on his visit earlier in the year to Ebola centres in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the London terrorist attacks, and a story of the hope a distant light brought to passengers of a boat lost along the Nile in South Sudan.
“Light liberates. Light inspires action. Light reveals truth. Jesus is light, life and love.
“As Christians, we are called to be the hope-creating witnesses to light, life, and love,” he said. “Not hope in ourselves, or in our own efforts, or in our strength or our wisdom, or even in our goodness and virtues. In fact, the closer we get to the light the more our imperfections are revealed.”
Bishops used their Christmas messages to draw parallels between the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus and the modern-day challenges of homelessness, poverty, isolation, the refugee crisis, and social division.
The Bishop of Lancaster, Dr Jill Duff, said that the Christmas story was “remarkably chaotic”, but that, in chaos, then and today, God showed his presence.
The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, praised “shop-workers, health- and social-care workers, those who keep our power running [and] our streets safe” over the Christmas period. “Work still matters through Christmas,” he said.
“Many people work extremely hard without being paid for their work. Mary, Jesus’s mother, almost certainly falls into this category, as have and do so many mothers raising children, running households, caring for families — often now also working in a paid role on top.”
The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, urged people not to “sentimentalise” the Christmas story, which he said was as “dramatic and colourful as any contemporary soap opera: a teenage pregnancy, homelessness, and a deranged leader who commits murder, causing people to seek asylum.
“Our Christmas carols and cards often sentimentalise the events which took place 2000 years ago, but in reality, they were pretty brutal.” In his Christmas Day sermon, he was expected to speak about the challenges of homelessness and the refugee crisis.
The chief executive of the charity Open Doors, Henrietta Blyth, welcomed Mr Johnson’s support for persecuted Christians; but she warned that the challenge was Brexit, “and how trade agreements will be negotiated with countries in which Christians and Muslims are having an increasingly difficult time. We would like to see the Government raise religious freedom in its trade discussions.”