The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity but the number of Christians living in this region is diminishing.
A century ago, Christians constituted 20 percent of the population of the region. Today, the percentage has shrunk to 2-5 percent. The Christians in the Middle East are disappearing from the region with such a speed that the Catholic archbishop of Baghdad, Rev. Jean Benjamin Sleiman, has said he “fears the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East.Pope Benedict XVI, on 12 May 2009 in a Mass at the foot of Jebel az-Zeitun or Mount of Olives, in east Jerusalem Al-Quds spoke about the tragic reality of the departure of so many members of the Christian community in recent years.
But why Christians are leaving the Middle East? There is not a single reason for the decline as it is attributed to a combination of factors including low birth rates, emigration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of radical Salafi groups, especially in the wake of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Many Christians have left the region and continue to do so for greater economic opportunities.
Bernard Sabella, a Catholic member of the Palestinian parliament, told a gathering of Middle Eastern Christian and Muslim scholars and religious leaders in February 2009 that was held at the Vatican City that the exodus of Christians is related to the global market. Therefore, if a young Palestinian, Christian or Muslim, can get work in the United States or Dubai, then they will go.
And Fayez Khano a member of the Assyrian community believes the main reason behind the departure of Christians from the Middle East is Economy.”
But is that the only reason for the ever-shrinking population of Christians in the Middle East?
Deputy Secretary General of the New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), Chorbishop John D. Faris, believes that though emigration of Christians from the Middle East started in early 20th century, but the exodus grew faster “in the middle of that century with the creation of the state of Israel and consequent Arab-Israeli conflicts.
This period has been marked by political and economic strife that has driven people from their homes and homelands. One small example: in 1900, the population of Bethlehem was more than 90% Christian. Today, Bethlehem is only one-third Christian and this proportion is steadily shrinking as the Christians depart for Europe, the Americas or Australia.”
Many of the Palestinian refugees who fled their homeland in 1948 were Christians. In 1948, when Israel came into existence, Jerusalem Al-Quds was about one-fifth Christian but today it is only 2 percent Christian.
Archbishop Fouad Twal, Coadjutor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, says, “Christians are more or less 370,000 out of 17 million people living in our three countries of Palestine, Israel and Jordan. This makes 2% of the total population.”
Andrew Lee Butters of the Times Middle East Blog has said in a May 8, 2009 article that “Israel has been a disaster for Christians in the Middle East.”
Jonathan Cook, a British freelance journalist based in Nazareth and author of “Blood and Religion: Unmasking Zionism”, believes the decline in the population of Christians in the Middle East can be explained by two factors.
“The first is a lower rate of growth among the Christian population.” The second reason for the decline is that “Israel has established an oppressive rule for Palestinians both inside Israel and in the occupied territories that has been designed to encourage the most privileged Palestinians, which has meant disproportionately Christians, to leave.
This policy has been implemented with stealth for decades, but has been greatly accelerated in recent years with the erection of the [separation] wall and numerous checkpoints. The purpose has been to encourage the Palestinian elite and middle class to seek a better life in the West, turning their back on the Holy Land.”
William and Carolyn Yontz have said in a report entitled Living Under Fire: Christian Clergy and Congregations in the Holy Land? that “If there is one subject that most often is referred to as the core of the Palestinian problems, it is the Israeli occupation.? Its tentacles reach everywhere, in every direction, in every aspect of life. It is truly omnipresent.”
“Many Christians have died or have been killed as a result of the occupation. Many of them young and many innocent,” William and Carolyn Yontz said in their research.
In Iraq, the number of Christians has been declining on a fast track basis in the wake of the 2003 invasion of the country by the US. Of the 1.4 million Christians living there in 2003, nearly half have fled. Apart from the consequence of the invasion, Iraqi Christians, especially those in Mosul, came under attacks unleashed by the Salafi militants as well as the Al-Qaeda.
These Salafi groups did not appear over night in the Arab countries. Some regional governments have been funding these groups primarily to target Shia Muslims and those Sunnis who rose up against extremism.
Therefore, it is no wonder to see that the holy Shia sites including Askariya shrine and Imam Musa al-Kadhim shrine as well as churches became the targets of such groups. Interestingly, many of these regional governments are very close allies of the West, especially the US.
But what is the role of the West in the growth of extremism?
Andrew Lee Butters says the culture of “tolerance is today under threat from the rise of religious extremism. But clash-of-civilizations pundits and Western leaders like the Pope often ignore how the West helped spark such intolerance, especially through its one-sided support of Israel.”
“In fact, Muslims in the Middle East are getting tired of visiting Western leaders who talk down to them about tolerance but don’t practice it at home. If Western society is so multi-cultural, why do Westerners care so much about Christians in the Middle East? It smacks of the same kind sectarian attitudes of the European colonial era, when British and French rulers elevated the region’s Christian groups to positions of authority in order to manage their mostly Muslim empires,” Butters says.
It is not an easy task to convince Christians not leave the birthplace of Jesus Christ. To do so, in the first place, the West must put an end to its policies that harm the Middle Eastern Christians especially its military policies in the past several years including its one-sided support of Israel, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Moreover, religious extremism has been ideologically sponsored and financially backed by some of the regional countries that are supported by the US Just refresh your memory by remembering the nationality of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.
And let’s not lose sight of the fact that the US has been, at least partly, behind the spread of religious extremism including Wahabism and the Taliban.
“Let’s remember here the people we are fighting today we funded them twenty years ago and we did it because we were locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union,” so said the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in late April 2009 after she appeared before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
Clinton went on to add “They [the Soviet Union] invaded Afghanistan and we did not want to see them control Central Asia and we went to work and it was President Reagan in partnership with Congress led by Democrats who said you know what it sounds like a pretty good idea lets deal with the ISI and the Pakistan military and lets go recruit these mujahideen.
And great, let them come from Saudi Arabia and other countries, importing their Wahabi brand of Islam so that we can go beat the Soviet Union and guess what they [Soviets] retreated they lost billions of dollars and it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union so there is a very strong argument which is, it wasn’t a bad investment in terms of Soviet Union but let’s be careful with what we sow because we will harvest.”
And what the US created is now at its own throat. The same thing has been happening in Israel. The US lop-sided support of Israel, has created a regime that cannot tolerate Washington’s tepid pressures to halt the settlements it is building in other people’s land.
The West has to realize that it too has had a share in the exodus of Christians from the Middle East. To help stop it, it has to rectify its policies.