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Christmas in Yemen – Not Much to Celebrate for Anyone

Two sisters in Yemen. (Photo: Rod Waddington)
Two sisters in Yemen. (Photo: Rod Waddington)

For too many in Yemen and across the region, Christmas has become a reminder of the intolerance which still plagues and defines communities’ sense of self.

In the throes of a catastrophic human crisis – 80 percent of Yemen’s total population is grappling with severe food shortages, health issues and the threat of violence, Yemen does not exactly scream Christmas … maybe more to the point, very few of us will even entertain the possibility that Yemen would even want to have Christmas. 

Does the Middle East even know about Christmas? I can tell you from experience that it does, and actually the region does it with style … at least it did before war sucked the merry out of everything!

Grant you Yemen has very little to be cheerful about, but this is not the point of this article. By now I don’t believe that anyone remains oblivious to the suffering Yemenis have been made to endure since late March 2015. Whichever “politics” any one may feel inclined to follow, it is evident that Yemen’s war is an aberration that ought to be stopped, never to be repeated again.

Let’s not even bother with assigning blame. At this point in time, too many horrors have been committed by sanctimonious parties, each claiming self-political righteousness. In the middle of it all stand 26 million people. In war, there are no winners, only victims.

If we cannot change the past, I do believe we have a duty to make our future a better one. For Yemen, and to a greater extent the region, we may want to start with the very right most of us take for granted: religious freedom – from where I’m standing such freedom also encompasses the right NOT to believe. For anyone to claim the right to believe in God or a god in the manner one sees fit away from persecution, one must also agree to honor people’s right to refuse the existence of the divine. 

Since Christmas is upon us, and since God has been the banner many factions have raised above their heads to justify wanton murder and wholesale brutality, I thought religion would be a good place to start. In all fairness, religion and the right to religious freedom have always been a bit of a sticky point in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). Ironically enough, the region literally gave birth to all three Abrahamic religions and unless I am mistaken all three call for tolerance and compassion. What a mess devouts have made of it all since it is violence they chose to wield to “encourage” their Scriptures.

Yemen was once a crossroad between nations, a place where merchants would come to share in their goods and their traditions so that all could be enriched. For well over a century – actually, since the fall of the last Imam in the early 1960s – Yemen has grown bold in its intolerance and rejection of religious minorities. Yemen’s religious pluralism is now but a distant memory. As for the churches and synagogues which once stood tall under the Arabian sun, well let’s just say that they are no longer standing – many zealots would have you believe that there were never there to begin with. 

After all, it is much easier to claim religious supremacism when one denies the existence of “contenders.” 

Today there is little if anything left of a long and rich religious history. Should radicals have their way, I fear Christmas will soon be outlawed, alongside Mickey Mouse, Pokemon and other so-called unholy subversions the West allegedly conjured up to confuse the faithful.

Many of you will most likely smile at the mention of Mickey Mouse and how this one cartoon could have been the source of so many fatwas (Islamic ruling) equating the love for Disney characters with apostasy. I remember vividly how one Friday through the speakers of my neighborhood local mosque I heard one imam warned against the danger of western life, starting with Pikachu. Somewhat as I sat in my garden taking the midday sun, I could not help but feel a ghastly chill run down my spine – there it was, the very ignorant intolerance that had forced so many religious communities into hiding across Southern Arabia.

Yemen’s descent into radicalization did not happen overnight, it was slow and subtle. It began with the declaration that Yemen was only one faith, as if all others simply did not exist, could not exist, and should not exist – and there lies the problem, the dormant cancer that has eaten away at the region forcing communities to think themselves in war with one another over religious iterations. 

Today I doubt anyone in Yemen will remember it is Christmas. I doubt anyone who does will dare attempt celebrate Christmas for fear of reprisals. To be a Christian in Yemen is a dangerous thing

How did a region which started off as the birthplace of civilization end up being the very negation of all things civilized? I say intolerance followed closely by bigotry, and an overblown sense of one’s own importance in the face of people’s differences.

For too many in Yemen and across the region, Christmas has become a reminder of the intolerance which still plagues and defines communities’ sense of self. So as we all finish to check our Christmas list, looking forward to days of indulgence spent with families and friends may I suggest we check ourselves just enough to realize that Yemen’s fate could be ours unless we learn to wield compassion and tolerance – not only when convenient, but as a matter of principle.

On this note, I wish you all a Joyeux Noel and a Happy Hanukkah!

Catherine Perez-Shakdam

Catherine is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a former consultant to the UN Security Council on Yemen. Her work has been published in the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, the Daily Express, Epoch Times and countless other media.

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