If you were to ask 15 year-old Valentina her favourite thing about Christmas, it wouldn’t be the decorations on the tree, the food or even the presents. She loves all those things, but her favourite? “For me, the best Christmas is when I’m with my family.”
Most children live with their family all year round. But Valentina can’t. Christmas is one of the only occasions when she gets to spend time with her family. It’s not that her parents Francisco and Luz don’t want her at home – but, rather, that being a Christian is really dangerous in Cauca, their Colombian town. And children are particularly at risk.
“I felt that I had no freedom where I lived,” shares Valentina. “I always wanted to leave. I used to say, ‘My God, I want to get out of here. I don’t even know where I want to go, but I want to leave.’”
What makes living in Cauca so difficult? While the population of Colombia is overwhelmingly Christian, there are still areas where following Jesus is dangerous. Those who convert from indigenous beliefs or oppose the activities of criminal groups are particularly at risk. That’s why Colombia is number 30 on the Open Doors World Watch List.
Persecution started when Valentina’s father took a stand for religious freedom, for his family and for all the other Christians in the region.
In Cauca, the population and the local authorities are predominantly from an indigenous community that is openly hostile to Christians. The Cauca Indigenous Regional Council (CIRC) was actively trying to close churches and impose indigenous rites in schools, including the one Valentina attended. When Christians opposed the idea, the council was furious and prevented Christian children from going to school.
And that wasn’t the only problem as the family were threatened by local guerrilla groups. In Colombia, these guerrilla groups target prominent Christians in the community – particularly church leaders – because these believers stand against corruption and protect children from being coerced into joining the cartels. “The guerrillas were looking to recruit children as young as 12 years old,” says Francisco. He knew that Valentina and her siblings were at risk.
Image: Valentina studying in class
This is where Open Doors supporters like you stepped in. Because it’s not safe for children such as Valentina to live in dangerous areas, their parents often make the difficult decision to send them somewhere much safer: the Children’s Centre, run by Open Doors partners.
“We sought help to get our children out, as desperate parents,” says Francisco. “Thank God there was an open door at the Children’s Centre.”
At the Children’s Centre, Valentina is able to get Christian education and support. She doesn’t face any threats or harassment. She won’t be targeted for following Jesus. And though she can’t be with her family, all the other children at the centre have become like a family for her.
“I was sad, because I missed my family, but now I don’t want to leave the Children’s Centre,” she says. “I don’t know if my life would exist if I still lived in Cauca, or if I’d be lost.”
Valentina has spent four years at the Children’s Centre so far, and her life has been radically transformed. “When I got to the centre, I said ‘Thank you, God – because I didn’t have this in mind, but You brought me here,’” she remembers. “I love visiting home, but I don’t want to stay there.”
Some of Valentina’s story is unique to her region. But other parts of it would be familiar to hundreds of thousands of Christian children across the world. In many countries, these children face persecution because of their faith – either because they are directly targeted, or because they suffer when their families are persecuted.
For Mimi in Iraq, persecution targeted her whole family when she was very young. She is 12 now, but was only four years old when her family had to flee so-called Islamic State (IS). Open Doors partners are helping the family financially, so they can run a farm. Valentina’s situation is different from Mimi’s in many ways – but similar enough that the two girls, living thousands of miles apart, can understand and support each other.
They’ve been able to write letters to each other – sharing their experiences, and giving each other hope for the future. It has given the girls a chance to feel part of a global family of believers.
“When I heard your story, I was angry about what happened to you,” Mimi writes to Valentina. “I know how you feel – because we, the Christians in Iraq, have also been persecuted.”
“I know that, in the middle of persecution, God is faithful and merciful,” writes Valentina in reply. “He is the best because He takes care of us. It’s Jesus who unites us and means we can enjoy peace and hope.”
The problems faced by Christian children are diverse and complex, and so the solutions need to be too. Around the world, Open Doors partners respond with context-specific programmes to support, protect and encourage persecuted Christian children.
Valentina has a message for all the other children like her, facing persecution because of their faith: “For those people who are being persecuted, I would tell them not to leave their faith. If they are still here, it’s because God has a purpose for them, even though we don’t see it immediately.”
She knows she faces ongoing danger, but her hope for the future remains strong. She wants to study art when she leaves the children’s centre, and dreams of one day travelling and meeting many people to share her experiences with, and to spread the gospel. “With God, nothing is impossible,” she says. “I know He can help me.”
One way He helps Valentina, and so many children like her, is through your gifts, letters and prayers. Today, can you show these courageous young believers that you are their family, and they are yours?
For God’s strength and hope for Valentina and Mimi and their parents, and all families of believers who can’t be together because of persecution
That this Christmas would be a time when the gospel is abundantly shared and received in places of darkness.
Praise God for all He continues to do to support persecuted Christian children through Open Doors local partners
and share Valentina and Mimi's stories, with your group during the festive season.Download for free now...
Every £22 could give a month of education to a child impacted by persecution.Make a donation here...
and pray for Christians facing persecution from countries in the tournament.Order yours here...
Get our free glow-in-the-dark World Watch List Map and find out more about the places where faith costs the most.Get your map here...