In another decade or so, given present trends, there will be few if any Christians living in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. The same is true of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and even of Jerusalem, where nearly 600 historic churches still stand.
Christians in the Palestinian territories have dropped from 15 percent of the Arab population in 1950 to just 2 percent today. Both Bethlehem and Nazareth, which had been overwhelmingly Christian towns, now have strong Muslim majorities. Today three-fourths of all Bethlehem Christians live abroad, and more Jerusalem Christians live in Sydney, Australia than in the place of their birth. Indeed, Christians now comprise just 2.5 percent of Jerusalem, although those remaining still include a few born in the Old City when Christians there still constituted a majority.
And it is not only the Holy Land from which many native Christians have fled. Throughout the entire Middle East once significant Christian communities have shrunk to a minuscule portion of their former robust selves. In 50 years they may well be extinct.
What happened? Why has there been a great – and little reported – Christian exodus from the Middle East, with some 2 million fleeing in the past 20 years alone? Why have perhaps fully half of all Iraqi Christians clandestinely emigrated in the last 10 years? Why have hundreds of thousands of Egyptian Copts left their homeland, with the famous Antioch community collapsing from 15,000 Christians a couple of decades ago to a mere handful today?
The single greatest cause of this emigration is pressure from radical Islam.
To be sure, there have been other reasons for the exodus. Educated Middle Eastern Christians sometimes emigrate for economic reasons. Some have left to avoid the endless procession of violent conflicts. Their lower birth rate and compatibility with the Christian West have reinforced these tendencies.
But an entire group does not cavalierly abandon a homeland in which its ancestors have lived for nearly 2,000 years simply because of the allures of a more prosperous society. Such people must be pushed out, too. And that is precisely what radical Islamists are managing to do.
In his book, The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land’s Christians at the Turn of the Century, Charles Sennott reported on one Christian community after another that was “perilously close to extinction.”
“In one Jerusalem parish there were not enough young Christian men left to carry a casket at a funeral...In the sanctuary of an Upper Egypt monastery, Christians cowered in fear of violence from Islamic militants and systematic human rights violations by Egypt’s police state. In Lebanon the empty halls of once-grand Maronite Christian monasteries echoed a long-distant past crumbling and disappearing in the aftermath of a devastating civil war ... In all these places I found the Christian community withering, as daily life grew steadily more difficult.”
Lebanon and Egypt are revealing cases precisely because no one, a generation or two ago, would have imagined that their large historic Christian communities would be so beleaguered today. And yet they are. In Lebanon, where Christians were once a solid majority of the country, they number less than one million people today and are shrinking rapidly.
Egyptian Copts, meanwhile, have felt the brunt of both the state and Islamic fundamentalists. Many laws and customs favor Muslims, and the constitution proclaims Islam as the state religion. Muslim, but not Christian, schools receive state funding and Arabic may be taught in schools only by Muslims. It is nearly impossible to restore or build new churches at a time while many thousands of new Islamic buildings have been sanctioned by the state. Identity cards note the bearer’s religion, Christians are frequently ostracized or insulted in public, and laws prohibit Moslem conversions to Christianity. Most frightening of all, Islamic radicals have frequently launched physical attacks on Copts.
In several other Islamic countries, conditions are even worse. In Saudi Arabia, Islam is the state religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. It is illegal to import, print, or own Christian or non-Muslim religious materials, and Christians have been jailed and deported.
Sudan has followed sharia law since 1983 and declared itself an Islamic Republic in 1991. A brutal civil war waged by an Islamic Arab North against the Christian and animist black African south killed over two million people and uprooted most of the population.
In Taliban Afghanistan, the harsh Sharia law bred such hatred of Christians that there were no longer any open churches or significant numbers of avowed Christians in the country.
In Iran, Christians form a minuscule .4 percent of the population. The tiny Christian population has been treated as second-class dhimmis – people of the Book – who are theoretically protected while officially marginalized. The printing of Christian literature is illegal, converts from Islam are liable to be killed and most evangelical churches must function underground.
Nowhere is the fate of Christians of more international interest, however, than within the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Arafat has repeatedly proclaimed himself a defender of the Christians; he met with the Pope and appointed a Christian, Hanan Ashrawi, as one of his leading spokespeople. But, his deeds belie his words, and ever more so with the rapid Islamization of the Palestinian movement.
Since 1975 Arafat has tried to erase the historic Jesus by depicting him as the first radical Palestinian armed fedayeen (guerrilla). Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has adopted Islam as its official religion, used sharia Islamic codes, and allowed even officially appointed clerics to brand Christians (and Jews) as infidels in their mosques. The militantly Islamic rhetoric and terrorist acts of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah – all of which Arafat has tolerated and even encouraged – offer little comfort to Christians.
Since the December 1995 Palestinian takeover of Bethlehem, Arafat has placed the Church of the Nativity and other key Christian sites under his direct political supervision. Palestinian converts to Christianity have been harassed, Christian cemeteries have been destroyed, monasteries have seen their phone lines cut and convents have been broken into. By December 1997 The Times of London could report: “Life in (PA ruled) Bethlehem has become insufferable for many members of the dwindling Christian minorities. Increasing Muslim-Christian tensions have left some Christians reluctant to celebrate Christmas in the town at the heart of the story of Christ’s birth.”
In May 1999, Sheikh Yussef Salameh, the Palestinian Authority’s undersecretary for religious endowment, praised the idea that Christians should become dhimmis under Muslim rule, and such suggestions have become more common since the second intifada began in October 2000.
Perhaps most ominously for the future of Christians in the Holy Land, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was a favorite of Arafat, declared that there were no Jewish stones in Jerusalem and “not even the smallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on this place in the past.”
From where, then, had Jesus chased the moneychangers? The Grand Mufti did not say, but it is no wonder, given such an atmosphere, that long-awaited global celebrations of the second millennium anniversary of Jesus in Bethlehem had to be cancelled in 2000; nor is it surprising that Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem have been cancelled for the second year in a row.
The overall result? The exodus of Christians continues apace from Palestinian Authority controlled areas. Within a generation Christians may comprise less than 1% of the population of the ground sacred to their faith.
None of this is to suggest, of course, that Christians always fared well under Islam in earlier centuries. Indeed, the birth of Islam in the seventh century had a disastrous impact on Christianity (as on Judaism) in the Middle East. The Eastern Mediterranean at the time was almost totally Christian and the Levant was Christianity’s heartland. The difference is that the brutality characteristic of much of Islam’s early history was also typical of most of the rest of the world’s major civilizations at that time whereas the Islamist intolerance today has no significant counterpart in the West.
Moreover, it appeared that Muslim governance would follow the course of the West, and adopt policies protecting religious minorities and even granting them equal status. But the demise of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1918 and the rise of nationalism and radical Islam again reversed the fortunes of Middle East Christians, and in several places their beleaguered status has only worsened with time.
The irony, of course, is that Christian rites, rituals, and traditions all are rooted in the Holy Land, and most early church fathers hailed from the very areas of the Eastern Mediterranean in which Christian communities are now on their heels or in virtual flight.
Those in the West who seek to understand the events of Sept. 11 and the struggle now taking place between the West and a radical jihadist movement must not forget that the scars of radical Islam are also visible in the Middle East itself.
Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Agota Kuperman is a retired senior foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State. Both are senior fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.