In the two millennia since the child’s birth in a humble manger in Bethlehem, the good news of Christianity has spread to every continent, inspiring more followers than any other religion today. But the lands that once were the cradle of Christianity have turned distinctively inhospitable to the faith. Fiercely intolerant variants of Islam are taking hold in the region, many of them fueled with ideology and funds from Saudi and Iranian extremists.
From Morocco to the Persian Gulf, we are seeing the rapid erosion of Christian populations, thought to now number no more than 15 million. These are the communities that have disproportionately been the region’s modernizers, the mediators bridging east and west, its educators and academics, as the Lebanese Catholic scholar Habib Malik observes. For empirical evidence he has to look no further than his own father, a principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The loss of Middle Eastern Christianity has profound meaning for the Church. But it should not be a matter of concern to Christians only. These Christian communities, along with a handful of other non-Muslim minority groups, such as the Bahais, Mandeans, Yizidis, Jews, together with the anti-Islamist Muslims, are the front-line in the terrible worldwide struggle taking place today between Islamist totalitarianism and individual rights and freedoms. The extinction of these ancient church communities will lead to ever more extremism within the region and polarization from the non-Muslim world. This will hurt us all.
The new religious survey, Freedom in the World, produced by the Center for Religious Freedom shows that while some Muslim governments do respect religious freedom, none are to be found in the Middle East. Israel is the only “free” country, and their Christian numbers are increasing.
The survey ranks Jordan, Oman, Morocco, and Lebanon as “partly free.” Here the Christian populations are either miniscule and largely foreign, or, in the case of Lebanon, shrinking precipitously from majority to about a third of the population in recent decades.
The rest of the region is further down the freedom scale. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, and Tunisia there are virtually no indigenous Christian communities left, though some converts there carry out religious lives in the catacombs and expats quietly hold services. In Saudi Arabia, religious intolerance is official state policy.
Over half of Iraq’s one million Christians have fled since a coordinated bombing of their churches in August 2004 was followed by sustained violence against them. A Catholic Chaldean bishop raised the possibility last month that we may now be witnessing “the end of Christianity in Iraq.” Anglican Canon Andrew White, who leads a Baghdad ecumenical congregation, agrees: “All of my leadership were originally taken and killed — all dead,” he asserted in November.
Iraq’s Christian community, which dates from the Apostle Thomas, is not simply caught in the cross hairs of a sectarian civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. It is targeted for its non-Muslim faith — a reality U.S. policy fails to acknowledge. An extremist Sunni fatwa issued to Christians this year in a Baghdad neighborhood could not be clearer: “If you do not leave your home, your blood will be spilled. You and your family will be killed.‘”
The Christian presence in Palestine may hold out no more than 15 years, according to Israeli human rights lawyer Justus Weiner, due to increasing Muslim persecution and maltreatment. Amidst a Muslim population of 1.4 million, some 3,000 Greek Orthodox live in the Hamas-run Gaza strip. An extreme Wahhabi-style group wearing seventh-century robes recently emerged, calling them “Crusaders” and vowing to drive them out. It has succeeded in killing several Christians in recent months, including a prominent member of the community, Rami Khader.
The West Bank is hardly better. “No one city in the Holy Land is more indicative of the great exodus of Christians than Bethlehem, which fell under full Palestinian control last decade as part of the Oslo Accords,” states Weiner. This town of 30,000 is now less than 20-percent Christian, after centuries in which Christians were the majority. In the West Bank’s only all-Christian town, now called Taybeh and once known by the Biblical name Ephraim, a Muslim mob from a neighboring village torched 14 houses last September to avenge the honor of a Muslim woman allegedly impregnated by her Christian employer.
Demographic decline isn’t perfectly correlated with religious repression. Lower birth rates, conversions, and some voluntary emigration also account for shrinking numbers of Christians. Israel’s barrier fence, erected relatively recently in its history in response to terrorist attacks, is a hardship and is commonly blamed for the Christian exodus from Palestine.
But when the decline is so dramatic, when only the Christian and other non-Muslim populations are dwindling and when this pattern holds in country after country, the facts on the ground deserve a closer look. There we see a region-wide, steady, grinding economic, legal, and social discrimination, and political disempowerment punctuated by horrific acts of terror by social forces that governments are unable or unwilling to control. The smaller a minority in the brutally sectarian world of the Middle East, the more vulnerable it is and the more rapid its decline.
Egypt, with some ten million Copts, has the region’s largest Christian minority. The state systematically discriminates against them and frustrates their efforts to build and repair churches. Fanatical Islamist groups rise up periodically and threaten or kill priests and individual Christian believers, especially converts, and the state often fails to bring justice in such cases. Earlier this month, an Islamist website urged a terrorist attack on the Cairo office of the Knights of Malta, a Catholic charitable group founded in 1087 to care for poor and sick pilgrims to the Holy Land. Posting photos of the Malta office, it exhorted: “Do not stint on your attacks, Egyptians, either with car or truck bombs.”
Turkey, where Paul preached to the Ephesians and Galatians, once the seat of the Eastern Christianity known as Byzantium, has one of the smallest Christian minorities. It is now home to less than 75,000 Christians, out of a population of 70 million. The persecutions, even genocide, of the Assyrians, Pontic Greeks and Armenians, the population exchange with Greece and other mass Christian emigrations of the last century, all took their toll. Things are quieter today for the Christians. To be sure the Orthodox Church is being slowly strangled by the state closure of its seminary, but the violence is no longer systematic or official. It is more targeted, and carried out by zealous young men acting outside the law. Last Sunday, Italian Catholic priest, Fr. Adriano Franchini, was stabbed after Mass at a church in Izmir. In April three evangelicals were mutilated and killed at their Christian publishing house.
Last June, speaking of Iraq but in words applicable to the region, the pope told President Bush of his concerns that “the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion.” Chaldean Bishop Audo elaborated: “This is very sad and very dangerous for the church, for Iraq and even for Muslim people, because it means the end of an old experience of living together.”
Christian hearts are filled with joy and wonder reflecting on the first Christmas. They should also make room in this season for the persecuted faithful of the Middle East.