BOSTON -- ''Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.'' Every Christian knows what the angel said to those shepherds 20 centuries ago as a baby lay sleeping in a Bethlehem manger.
Here in America, where the most powerful community of Christians in history dwells in peace and prosperity, the story of Jesus has indeed proved a fount of good tidings and great joy. ''Fear not,'' the angel said. But in this rich and blessed place, Christians need not fear. Their freedom to worship is unchallenged; their religious liberty is enshrined in law.
But for millions of Christians in other lands, fear is ever-present. Never before -- never before -- have so many believers in Jesus been persecuted for their faith.
''Christians are the chief victims of . . . religious persecution around the world today,'' writes Nina Shea of Freedom House, the renowned human-rights organization. ''In many countries they suffer not just discrimination or bigotry but torture, imprisonment and the ultimate test of faith, martyrdom.''
Ms. Shea is the author of ''In the Lion's Den,'' one of two forthcoming books documenting the global plague of anti-Christian persecution. The other is ''Their Blood Cries Out'' by Paul Marshall, a senior academic at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. Both will come as jolting reality checks to anyone who imagines that violence against Christians ended with the Roman Empire.
It is true that over the span of Western history, Christians have been guilty of brutal atrocities. From the Crusades to the Inquisition to the blood libels of czarist Russia, horrifying evil has been committed in Jesus' name. But today in the East, it is Christians who are hunted and martyred. Wherever militant Islam has taken hold and wherever Communist dictators still rule, Christians are in desperate danger.
The testimony with which Ms. Shea and Mr. Marshall have filled their books is heart-stopping.
Sudan, the Nuba Mountains:
''These mountains, which have had a Christian population since the 6th century, are littered with mass graves. . . . Nuba women are systematically raped by Arab soldiers in order to produce non-Nuba offspring. There have been reports, including from Catholic bishops, of crucifixions of Christians by the army.''
Muslim troops from northern Sudan have sold tens of thousands of Christian children and women from the south into slavery. Many have been branded or mutilated to prevent escape; many more have been tortured, brainwashed or starved until they converted to Islam.
Beaten with rods
China, Shaanxi Province: ''The officers stripped three brethren naked from the waist and forced the women to stand with them. . . . The three men were beaten until they were totally covered with blood and had gaping wounds and injuries all over their bodies. As if such violent beating wasn't enough, the officers then hung them up and began to hit them with rods on their backs. They did this until the three men were unconscious and barely breathing.''
The victims were Protestants. Their crime was communicating with foreigners.
Pakistan: ''The Muslim population of Khan Jajja [was] incited in May 1994 by the local Muslim cleric to drive the 60 Christian families of the region from the 'land of the pure' and to demolish their church. The Christian men were beaten and the women were stripped naked . . . while three girls were kidnapped and raped. These Christians' homes were razed and their possessions looted or destroyed.''
Pakistan's 1986 blasphemy law makes it a capital crime to insult the Prophet Mohammed ''by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation.'' The law has been used repeatedly to justify a reign of terror against Pakistani Christians.
Nigeria, Kano state: ''The leaflet that was mass-distributed to Christians . . . in 1995 was both ominous and explicit: 'This is to inform you that for your interest and life security, you are seriously advised to pack out of Kano metropolis with immediate effect; otherwise your life will be in danger. . . . No authority can protect you from whatever calamity may befall you if you fail to comply.'
''The . . . leaflet, written by the Islamist group Ja'amatu Tajudidi Islamiya, was delivered in the wake of a new round of Muslim-Christian violence in Kano that had left one Protestant pastor dead and several Christian churches burned to the ground.''
Earlier this year, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria slit the throats of seven Trappist monks. Police in China's Zhejiang Province demolished 15,000 Christian temples and tombs. A U.S. citizen visiting her native village in Vietnam was arrested for giving out Bible tapes and pens adorned with crosses.
Three Coptic Christian villages in Egypt's Nile Delta were torched by Muslim mobs in February. Seven foreigners were imprisoned and beaten in Saudi Arabia for holding a private worship service last Christmas.
This has been a century of unmatched Christian martyrdom. It began with the mass murder of Christians in Armenia; it is ending with the mass murder of Christians in Sudan. Then as now, the world looked away, even as it looked away during the most unspeakable mass murder of all, the Holocaust.
Will we look away again? ''Fear not,'' the angel said. Yet never before have so many Christians had reason to fear. Which means that never before have Christians in America, whose lives brim with good tidings of great joy, been called more urgently to pray for, and cry out for, their embattled brethren.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.
Pub Date: 12/26/96