"We are losing members at an alarming rate," Bishop Hanna Ibrahim, the metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church, recently told me in an interview in Aleppo, Syria. By Wolf D. Fuhrig "We are losing members at an alarming rate," Bishop Hanna Ibrahim, the metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church, recently told me in an interview in Aleppo, Syria. "They are emigrating to countries where life is less stressful: to North America, Australia, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere." In Jerusalem, the number of Arab Christians has shrunk from 27,000 in 1967 to less than 7,000 today. In Nazareth, which has the largest Arab population of any city in Israel, the Christian majority of 70,000 have decreased to 34 percent. Only 5 percent of all Arabs are Christians; but they often hold leadership positions in their communities.
Forty percent of all Lebanese are Christians while in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and the Sudan their share approximates 10 percent. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, strictly forbid all Christian activities, even among foreign workers. The exodus of Christians has been largest from the Israeli-occupied territories, from Lebanon during and after the civil war (1975 to 1990), and from Iraq after the Gulf War.
The more Arab Christians emigrate, the more the remaining minority is being marginalized in relation to the growing Muslim majority. It was among both Jews and Arabs that the first Christian congregations assembled. After the Council of Nicaea (325), however, Christendom broke up into four major divisions: the Roman Catholic Church headquartered in Rome, the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople, the Syrian Orthodox Church in Antioch (now in Turkey), and the Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt. Doctrinal controversies further split up Christians, leading to the creation of the Armenian Church, the Nestorian Church in Syria, and the Maronite Church in Lebanon.
As Islam spread from the 7th century on, Christianity virtually disappeared on the Arabian peninsula and North Africa. Yet, the Christian crusaders (1095-1204) were even more intolerant of infidels than Muslims, and even more destructive as they advanced toward the Holy Land. Arab Christians have long been alienated by the tendency of outsiders,particularly the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican Church, to absorb them and treat them as an underclass. Today, many Palestinian Christians lament that their struggle for survival in a land dominated by Jews and Muslims seems of little concern to Christians in Europe and North America. American Christians in particular are sorely divided on the issue of Palestinian statehood and sovereignty over a united or divided Jerusalem. Those who most heavily focus on Old and New Testament prophesy believe that Arabs, who as descendants of Ishmael are excluded from God's covenant with Isaac, are not entitled to any of the ancient Hebrews' lands between the Jordan River and the Sea and between the Sinai desert and Lebanon. Many interpreters of Bible prophecy also claim that the Second Coming of Christ can only occur if Jerusalem remains undivided under Israeli control.
This, however, is not the view of the leaders of Jerusalem's Christian congregations, such as the Roman Catholic Patriarch Michel Sabbah and the Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, both Palestinians, who see a peace of justice and reconciliation as more important than an undivided Jerusalem. Around the world, similar appeals are increasingly sounded by churches committed to full equality between all ethnic groups, including Jews and Arabs. On January 22 at Washington National Cathedral, for example, an ecumenical prayer vigil for peace in the Middle East was held jointly by Churches for Middle East Peace, the Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation, and the Commission on Peace of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C. These groups have been reminding both Israeli and Palestinian authorities of actions undermining the peace process. The Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, for example, called for the dismantling of Israeli West Bank settlements that violate United Nations resolutions. The same document, however, also challenged the Palestinian National Authority to end its "systematic methodology of corruption, humiliation and abuse of people" and to democratize its government. The bishop coadjutor of the diocese of Jerusalem, Riah Abu El-Assai, a Palestinian Christian and Israeli citizen, recently talked about the forebodings of Arab Christians, particularly the young, and their fears of extinction: "So many people here are hoping we will simply disappear," they say. "All that would be left of us are the holy shrines."