Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Christianity's Empty Cradle? Relentless Pressures Drive Christians from the Middle East

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Christianity's Empty Cradle? Relentless Pressures Drive Christians from the Middle East

Article excerpt

Parts I and II This is the first of a two-part series. Part 1 discusses the strains on Christian communities in the Middle East and looks at the conditions Christians face in different countries. Often these are quite dissimilar. Part II looks at the identity of Arab Christians and the state of Christian-Muslim dialogue in the Middle East.

In mid-February, the Druze population of Maghar, a village in Galilee, rioted against their Christian neighbors after a disgruntled teenager circulated a rumor that a Christian youth had posted nude photos of young Druze women on the Internet. Homes, cars and stores belonging to Christians were burned. Many Christians, who make up about 30 percent of Maghar's population, were forced to flee the town and, according to their Melkite pastor, are afraid to return home.

According to Amram Mitzna, the former mayor of Haffa and a candidate for prime minister in the last Israeli elections, police refused to intervene to protect the Christian community. Writing with the frankness for which Israelis are well-known, Mitzna asked in the Feb. 16 edition of Ha'artez, the liberal daily, "Can it be that in Israel, the state of the Jews--a people with much experience with persecution and pogroms in the name of religion--there could be such a thing as violence committed in the name of religion? The weekend of violence in Maghar answered this question. The disgrace did not end with the violence," Mitzna, who is a member of the Knesset, added, "It continued with the apathetic reaction of the police, who failed to intervene as they should have. They did not quell the violence or protect the Christian residents."

The anti-Christian rioting in Maghar is not unique; neither is the failure of the authorities to offer protection. All over the Middle East, Christians are under pressure. The situation varies from country to country, but the conditions that permitted them to coexist with their Muslim and Jewish neighbors in the modern Middle East for the last 80 years are fast eroding under pressure from militant Islam and the U.S. war on terror.

The assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, has unsettled the tense post-civil war peace in that country still further, putting the Christian presence there in further jeopardy. U.S. threats against Syria risk unleashing the kind of anti-Christian activity seen in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, in a country that, despite its tyranny, has provided Christians a safe haven in a troubled part of the world.

For the last 14 years, I advised the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on international policy and particularly Middle East affairs. In recent months, I have been repeatedly asked by interested Catholics and others about the situation of Christians in the Middle East and particularly about the impact of Islamic fundamentalism on the Christian communities in the region. When NCR asked me to review a number of books on Middle Eastern Christians, it appeared to be an opportunity to provide a survey of the Christian Middle East for American readers.

Despite the general deterioration of the situation, conditions differ markedly from place to place. Thus, Part I of this article presents a country-by-country survey of the region. Part II addresses the key question of Christian-Muslim relations and briefly treats the issue of the Arab identity of Middle Eastern Christians, an issue that is vital to them but for which Western Christians have little appreciation. I hope this overview will increase knowledge of the ancient homeland of the Christian faith, dispel popular confusion, correct misimpressions and spur greater involvement on the part of American Catholics in advocacy on the behalf of the churches of the Middle East.

Dwindling numbers

Who are the Middle East's Christians? How did they become so few, and is there any justification for fears that they will disappear?

There are roughly 12 million Christians in the Middle East, with half, mostly Copts, in Egypt. …

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