Christianity Faces Crisis in Mideast

By Hiel, Betsy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 24, 2006 | Go to article overview

Christianity Faces Crisis in Mideast


Hiel, Betsy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Editor's note: This is the first in a continuing series on the Middle East.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - The gate to one of Christianity's holiest sites is a 30-foot cement wall, replete with watchtowers, a stark separation from neighboring Jerusalem.

To enter Bethlehem through the Israeli security wall, you pass through a series of electronically controlled metal turnstiles and show identification papers to bored Israeli soldiers sitting behind bulletproof glass.

On Fridays, the call to prayer from Omar Ibn Khattab Mosque booms across Manger Square, echoing inside the 4th-century Church of the Nativity built over the grotto where the Virgin Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus. Overflow crowds of Muslims spill into the square to pray.

The Middle East is Christianity's cradle. Modern-day names trace Jesus' footsteps as recorded in the New Testament: Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, now located in Israel and the Palestinian Territories ... Egypt, where the Holy Family fled to escape King Herod's sword ... Jordan, where John baptized Jesus ... Tyre, Lebanon, where Jesus preached his message.

Early Christian communities spread to these countries and to Iraq, Iran, Syria and beyond.

Yet Middle Eastern Christians are fleeing their biblical birthplace in greater numbers, searching -- mainly in the West -- for safety, freedom of religion and brighter economic or educational opportunities for their families.

"Unless something drastic happens in the next few years, there is the possibility for the end of Christianity in general in the Holy Land," says Leila Sansour, who directs Open Bethlehem, which promotes the city's biblical heritage. "The churches will become museums that Franciscan monks will only open for tourists."

If those churches "cannot maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land," she says, "it is a huge failure."

Second-class citizens

Christians living in this war-torn region -- some under foreign occupation, others under authoritarian rule and a rising tide of intolerant Islamists -- are a varied lot.

Many are from the oldest Christian rite churches -- Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian, Chaldean -- as well as Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. Except for those in Israel, all are minorities in Muslim countries.

While freedom of worship is allowed in much of the Middle East, freedom of religion remains elusive; only Lebanon allows Muslims to convert to Christianity.

"There are really two distinct, historical narratives for the region's Christians," says Dr. Habib Malik, a history and cultural studies professor at American Lebanese University. "The vast majority -- I would say over 90 percent of them -- have at some point or another succumbed to Islamic subjugation and become dhimmi," or second-class citizens.

"That includes the Copts of Egypt, the Christians of Syria, Iraq, Palestine," says Malik, who is chronicling the situation for Freedom House, a U.S. research institute.

"The remaining eight-or-so percent, who would be the Christians of Lebanon, they have managed at great cost, in terms of love and treasure over the centuries, to avoid ... succumbing to the dhimmi status ... under Islamic rule, which imposes all sorts of restrictions on the community."

At risk of disappearing

In many Arab countries, the true number of Christians is unknown and a highly sensitive topic. Governments either refuse to take a population census, as in Egypt and Lebanon, or refuse to disclose the number, as in Jordan.

Many experts believe Christian immigration and higher Muslim birthrates will continue to reduce the Holy Land's Christian presence.

"If this current trend continues, Christians will disappear in the region," says Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at American University of Beirut. …

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