“Let us work together to replace despair with HOPE, fear with human SECURITY and humiliation with DIGNITY”

Christianity’s empty cradle?

According to Amram Mitzna, the former mayor of Haifa 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?

This is the first of a two-part series. Part I 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 Haifa 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. The others belong to a variety of historic Christian churches: the Assyrian church of the East, six Oriental Orthodox churches, the Orthodox church, six Oriental Catholic churches (Chaldean, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Maronite and Melkite), as well as the Latin (Roman Catholic) church. The historic churches go back to ancient times or, at least in the case of Roman Catholicism, to the time of the Crusades. Small Protestant churches were established only in the 19th century; Evangelicals are of even more recent origin.

Thoughtful authors report how difficult it is to get accurate statistics on the Christians of the Middle East. Many communities, as Paulist Fr. Ronald Roberson reports in The Eastern Christian Churches, don.t keep statistics or have never had a census. In the Holy Land, a directory of the Catholic church no longer carries statistics.

Charles Sennott.s The Body and the Blood contains an especially thoughtful treatment of demography in the Holy Land. He notes, for example, that with a conservative estimate of natural population growth of 2 percent there should be about 425,000 Palestinian Christians today in Israel and Palestine, up from a pre-independence population of 145,000. Instead, according to the 1995 census, there are only 110,000 Christians. Israelis will point out, however, that the Christian population of Israel proper has quadrupled since 1948, whereas the population of the West Bank has dropped from 15 percent to less than 2 percent of the total population.

The drop-off is especially dramatic in Jerusalem. In 1948, there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem. By 1967, that number had dropped to 12,000. White Father Franz Bouwen, the editor of the prestigious Proche-Orient Chrétien, a journal dealing with Christianity in the Middle East, notes, however, that the greatest emigration from Jerusalem occurred in the years immediately following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Though Sennott cites a figure of 8,000 residents for the Holy City in the late 1990s, most authorities believe the total has dropped below 6,000, perhaps as low as 4,500.

According to official figures, 3,000 people, Christian and Muslim, have emigrated from the Bethlehem area during the four years of the al-Aqsa intifada. Local sources report as much as a third of the pre-uprising population of 50,000 Christians in the Bethlehem area is said to have emigrated. According to an informal local survey, a quarter of the Christian population of the mostly Christian town of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem departed in the first year of the current intifada. The Catholic parish, according to its pastor, Fr. Majdi Siryani, lost half its 2,000 members in 2001 alone.

While Christians, with international ties and better education than many of their Muslim neighbors, have been emigrating in search of opportunity since the 19th century, economic deprivation and political turmoil have accelerated Christian emigration over the last several years. Since the end of the Lebanese civil war a decade ago, between 200,000 and 300,000 people have left that country, slightly less than half of them Christians. Since Israeli independence in 1948, more than 230,000 Christians have left the Holy Land. Since September 2000, the al-Aqsa intifada has put a virtual end to tourism and the pilgrimage trade in which 80 percent of Christians worked. As a result, Christians from Israel as well as the Palestinian territories have been pressed to migrate in search of new homes and livelihoods. There are already more .Bethlehemites,. in the sense of those born there or descended from those born there, in Detroit or Los Angeles than in Bethlehem itself. As long as there is no peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the nightmare that holy places may someday lack indigenous Christians to celebrate the liturgy there grows ever more real.


While their country possesses a secular, autocratic government, secularism has provided no advantage for Egyptian Christians. Islam is the state religion and Christians find themselves a sorely disadvantaged minority. Especially in the rural south (the Upper Nile), Christians have suffered violent attacks in the absence of adequate police and judicial protection. With some exceptions, like banking, they are excluded from top jobs and suffer from other forms of discrimination. Churches, for example, may not be repaired without permission from the provincial governor — resulting in little practical improvement in the state of most church buildings.

Despite the discrimination they suffer, Egyptian Christians are among the most resistant to outside interference on issues of religious liberty. How much of this stems from fear of reprisal is unclear. They complain that activists often misinterpret local conditions. For example, Jesuit Fr. Christian van Nispen observed that disputes between neighbors, if the parties are of different religions, may quickly be misinterpreted as interreligious conflicts. Such misrepresentations can inspire inappropriate intervention on the part of religious activists abroad.

Catholic officials prefer to rely on local contacts to resolve such difficulties. The trust they have in their fellow Egyptians is illustrated, van Nispen told me, by the membership of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, which has included, in addition to Catholics, both Greek Orthodox and Muslim members. Still, a relatively simple problem can quickly escalate into a major riot, like that in Kharga in 1999, where government oversight and enforcement proved far from satisfactory. (See Sennott, The Body and the Blood, for an extensive report on events in Kharga.)


Holy Land Christians make up less than 2 percent of the total combined population of Israel and Palestine, down from 15 percent in 1948. Nonetheless, their historic link to the Holy Land, the contributions of Christian institutions and the flow of pilgrims makes them a significant presence. They also contribute both to interreligious understanding and civil peace. As the Theological Commission of the Latin patriarchate wrote in a December 2003 statement titled .Reflections on the Presence of the Church in the Holy Land,. .We are deeply conscious of the vocation of the church of Jerusalem to be a Christian presence in the midst of society, be it Muslim Arab or Jewish Israeli. We believe that we are called to be leaven, contributing to the positive resolution of the crises that we are currently passing through..

In Israel proper, Arabs count for less than 20 percent of the population. Though they are citizens with voting rights, Christians and Muslims alike suffer considerable discrimination in employment, property ownership and some social benefits, such as education. For example, there are no public schools as such, but Christian schools are subsidized at a lower rate than Jewish ones, and college-age Christians, because they do not generally serve in the military, lack state support for university training. (A 1999 study by three one-time Israeli officials, Amir S. Chesin, Bill Hutman and Avi Melamed, Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israel Rule in East Jerusalem, documents the full range of anti-Arab discrimination in the capital city as well as the political difficulties faced by those who try to remedy it.) A blue-ribbon report commissioned by the Israeli government after the killing of 13 Nazareth Arabs in 2000 has called for rapid movement toward increased spending in the Arab sector, but, with budget strictures and other security needs, no action has been taken to implement its recommendations.

In 2003, moreover, the Israeli High Court, which had five times ordered successive governments to allow Christians evicted from the villages of Berem and Ikrit in Upper Galilee in 1948 to return to their historic homes, orders that were five times ignored by the government, reversed itself and declared that Christians could be excluded on security grounds. Likewise, the intifada, begun in 2000, has worsened tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs, including Christians. Furthermore, the occupation and siege in 2002 of the Church of the Nativity increased apprehension about the future of Christians caught in a vise between Jews and Muslims. In the meantime, Israel has excluded or deported Catholic guest workers from Romania, the Philippines and Latin America, whose presence only two years ago was used to justify the establishment of a Hebrew-speaking diocese in Israel, a move supported by the Israeli foreign ministry.

Another factor complicating life for Christians is their intermediate role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Holy Land Christians are generally inclined to nonviolence. Sennott, in his book The Body and the Blood, gives a moving account of the nonviolent tax revolt of the Christian village of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, during the first intifada (1987-93), a remarkable case of Palestinian Christian solidarity. The Theological Commission.s statement in December 2003 reconfirmed the Christian commitment to nonviolence, calling for .a pedagogy & of an active, creative Gospel of nonviolence in our attitudes, in our word, and in our actions.. In the current al-Aqsa intifada, which has been both violent and Islamicized, Muslim militants have criticized Christians for their lack of involvement. Both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, as well as the Palestinian militants, have made nonviolent protests difficult to implement.

Erosion of the Fundamental Agreement

The Fundamental Agreement signed between Israel and the Holy See in 1993 promised to improve the situation for Israeli Catholics, but it has failed to realize that promise. The Israeli government in September 2003 unilaterally canceled negotiations over a vital follow-up agreement on economic matters. After an intervention by sympathetic American politicians, notably Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, the Israelis resumed negotiation in July 2004. Unfortunately, in a succession of meetings last fall Israeli negotiators attended only to announce they were not authorized to negotiate. The latest set of meetings, scheduled for Jan. 12 and 13, was also canceled. No further dates for the parleys have been set.

Worsening matters, the Israeli government has pressured Catholic hospitals and other institutions to pay taxes from which they were exempt under the terms of the Fundamental Agreement, threatening their closure. The government has also denied the church the right of appeal to Israeli courts. Worse still, the High Court, in response to a government motion, has ruled that the Fundamental Agreement is unenforceable. The government, furthermore, refuses to allow the foreign or interior ministers to testify to the Knesset as to Israel.s obligations under international law to observe the treaty, already ratified by the cabinet. It has taken no other steps to introduce implementing legislation in the parliament. The accumulating problems are such that if Israel were any other country, there would be a major crisis in relations.

Palestinian Territories

In the Palestinian Territories, the security wall being built by the Israelis on the West Bank has exacerbated the already difficult life exacted from the whole society by Israeli suppression of the al-Aqsa intifada. The Rosary Sisters are an Arab teaching congregation, founded in Jerusalem, with houses throughout the Middle East. In December 2003.they sent out an e-mail asking for international support in opposing the wall. Others have opposed the wall as a major land grab by the Israelis and as an ecological disaster for Palestine, denying the Palestinians as much as two-thirds of the water resources in the territory. The sisters. protest, however, addressed its negative impact on the Christians of East Jerusalem.

Entire neighborhoods, like Al Dahia and Al Ram, they complained, would be cut off, .

[paralyzing] all aspects of life.. The residents, who mostly hold Jerusalem identity cards, would be denied access to the city. Security measures around the wall would make passage of more than 800 pupils to the sisters. school an even greater hardship than it already is. The sisters. convent would be cut off from some 400 families they serve. Elderly sisters would be confined to the convent and priests of the Latin patriarchate would be unable to enter the West Bank to celebrate Mass there.

The Palestinian Authority has often been protective of Christians. In October 2000, for example, after anti-Christian rioting following a fiery Friday sermon in a Gaza mosque, the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat ordered the arrest of the perpetrators and repair and restoration of Christian property. He also played a key role in mounting international Muslim opposition to the Islamic Movement.s campaign to build the Shehab al-Din mosque in Nazareth. But, as the al-Aqsa intifada became prolonged, Arafat played a far more ambiguous role, as Joshua Hammer shows in his A Season in Bethlehem, in the reign of terror militants brought down on Bethlehem and the neighboring Christian towns. It is hard, however, to evaluate to what extent the violence Christians suffer is due to anti-Christian prejudice and to what degree they simply suffer from the general breakdown in law and order in the territories. Knowledgeable observers, like Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi, claim that in Muslim towns like Jenin, Muslims suffer just as Bethlehem.s Christians do.

A draft Palestinian constitution would declare Islam the official state religion. Drawing on past experience with the Palestinian Authority and reverting to an Ottoman-style reliance on political protection, church leaders trust the constitution will not bring restrictions on Christians or encourage discrimination against them. Even on the vital issue of education, they are ready to make their separate arrangements with the authorities. Lay people, however, seem less trusting, fearing life under resurgent Islam.


The American invasion of Iraq has produced deep uncertainty about the future of Christianity in that country. (For a short survey of Iraqi Christianity prior to the U.S. invasion, see Drew Christiansen, .Holy See Policy toward Iraq. in Gerhard Beestermoeller and David Little, eds. Iraq: Threat and Response [Munster: Lit Verlag, 2003].) After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi bishops and priests have worried aloud about the fate of the Iraqi Christian population at the hands of a resurgent Muslim majority.

Even prior to the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi public policy had begun to turn against Christians more broadly. Under a 1999 law, all religious property had been placed under the supervision of the Islamic Waqf (trust). The U.S. occupation liberated Iraq.s Muslim majority and particularly Shiites, who constitute the largest segment of the Iraqi Muslim population. One consequence of this emancipation, according to Chaldean Bishop Rabban Al-Qas of Amadiyah, has been to create new pressures on Christians in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, where some have fled Basra to seek greater security.

Catholic bishops, including the new Chaldean patriarch, Emmanuel III, have indicated that they would look for guarantees of religious freedom under a new Iraqi constitution. In an interview following his election in 2003, Patriarch Emmanuel said, .We absolutely need a new constitution that will include religious freedom, freedom of education and of cultural and social instruction. We want a constitution that is not religious, in the sense that it is not defined by Islamic law, but gives freedom and equality to Christians, Muslims and all other faiths.. But even moderate Muslim leaders, like Grand Ayatollah.Ali Sistani, a Shiite, have made known their intention of making Iraq an Islamic republic.

Under Saddam Hussein and in Kurdish-held regions of northern Iraq, Assyrians, belonging to one of the oldest churches in the Middle East, were persecuted on ethnic and linguistic grounds. In the 1980s, they moved the seat of their patriarchate to Chicago. Catholic Chaldeans and members of other churches, while they enjoyed a relative freedom from religious persecution under Saddam, nonetheless suffered from his tyrannical policies as well as from the decade-long U.N. embargo. The forced movement of people from the countryside into cities, in particular, led to serious emigration by Chaldeans. Urban life in close quarters with a Muslim majority made it difficult for Christians to preserve their traditions in the ways they once had in isolated villages.

In the last months as resistance to the U.S. occupation has grown, Catholics, who are viewed by their Muslim countrymen as representatives of the West even though their communities date to the earliest days of Christianity, have been increasingly victims of intolerance. In August and October and again in December, Catholic churches around the country were bombed. Christians have also been harassed for their lifestyles. Young women, for example, have been abused for appearing in public without wearing a head covering. By November, 80 percent of the Iraqi refugees arriving in Syria were Christians.


The Christian presence in Lebanon is shadowed by the growth of the Muslim population there and the ascendancy of Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Party of God. The arrangement whereby leadership positions in the Lebanese government are shared among Maronite Christians and Sunni and Shia Muslims is threatened by a growing imbalance in the population.

As Paulist Fr. Ronald Roberson shows in his Guide to the Eastern Churches (in the CNEWA Web site version), Muslims emigrate from Lebanon at somewhat higher numbers than Christians. But the addition of more than a million unwanted Syrian .guest workers. and several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees, all Muslim, threatens Lebanon.s constitutional arrangements. Even many secular and moderate Muslim Lebanese fear that once the population shift is publicly acknowledged to weigh heavily in the Muslims. favor, Lebanon will be absorbed into neighboring Syria. These Muslims want to preserve the Christian presence in the interest of saving the Lebanese state.

The ascendancy of Hezbollah (The Party of God), a Shiite militia group, however, further undercuts the Christian position. While the transformation of Hezbollah from a militia into a political and social force has helped to tame it some, Hezbollah has become a leading player in the country, with the imposition of Shariah, Islamic law, as one of its stated goals. By 2000, interreligious violence, never before a factor in the north, had spread with the movement of the Shiite population into that area of the country.

Jordan, Syria, Turkey

In Jordan, even though Islam is the official state religion, moderate governments have provided a climate of tolerance and support for the Christian communities. Christians have played prominent roles in government. As Muslim fundamentalism has spread, King Abdullah II and the government have taken many steps to reassure Christians, and the king.s uncle, Prince Hassan, a member of a Sufi brotherhood, is a longtime patron of interreligious dialogue.

Until recently, Syria, despite one-party rule, had provided safe haven for Christians, but, trying to preserve its own political base, the secular government has now begun to support fundamentalist Muslim schools and charities, undermining the culture of religious tolerance it has supported for decades. According to Catholic News Service reporter John Thavis, the flood of Iraqi refugees into their country has stirred anxiety on the part of Syrian Christians over their future too.

In Turkey, where the 1915 Armenian genocide is still a painful memory, other Christians were forced from their ancestral homes in the last decades of the 20th century during Turkey.s suppression of the Kurdish rebellion, as Dalrymple explains in From the Holy Mountain. Caught between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels, Anatolia, the ancient Christian heartland, has been depopulated of Christians. In Istanbul, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, only 2,000 Orthodox Christians remain.

In sum, .the cradle of Christianity. is under enormous pressures from demographic decline, the growth of Islamic militancy, official and unofficial discrimination, the Iraq war, the Palestinian intifada, failed peace policies and political manipulation. Political conditions, including Lebanon.s sputtering recovery from its civil war, have accelerated this decline. U.S. policy has had an indirect but decidedly negative impact, especially in Iraq, but in its neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and ambivalence toward Lebanon.s political and economic recovery as well. To the degree that .the war on terror. has inflamed relations with Middle East Muslims and spurred the growth of Islamic militancy, it has also aggravated the situation for the region.s Christians.

** Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen was an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on international policy and particularly Middle East affairs. He is currently a member of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation's (HCEF) Board of Directors.

2016-10-24T07:30:50+00:00 March 17th, 2005|Categories: News|