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Christianity faces crisis in Mideast

| Friday, May 4, 2012, 1:25 a.m.

Editor's note: This is the first in a continuing series on the Middle East.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - The gate to one of Christianity's holiest sites is a 30-foot cement wall, replete with watchtowers, a stark separation from neighboring Jerusalem.

To enter Bethlehem through the Israeli security wall, you pass through a series of electronically controlled metal turnstiles and show identification papers to bored Israeli soldiers sitting behind bulletproof glass.

On Fridays, the call to prayer from Omar Ibn Khattab Mosque booms across Manger Square, echoing inside the 4th-century Church of the Nativity built over the grotto where the Virgin Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus. Overflow crowds of Muslims spill into the square to pray.

The Middle East is Christianity's cradle. Modern-day names trace Jesus' footsteps as recorded in the New Testament: Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, now located in Israel and the Palestinian Territories ... Egypt, where the Holy Family fled to escape King Herod's sword ... Jordan, where John baptized Jesus ... Tyre, Lebanon, where Jesus preached his message.

Early Christian communities spread to these countries and to Iraq, Iran, Syria and beyond.

Yet Middle Eastern Christians are fleeing their biblical birthplace in greater numbers, searching -- mainly in the West -- for safety, freedom of religion and brighter economic or educational opportunities for their families.

"Unless something drastic happens in the next few years, there is the possibility for the end of Christianity in general in the Holy Land," says Leila Sansour, who directs Open Bethlehem, which promotes the city's biblical heritage. "The churches will become museums that Franciscan monks will only open for tourists."

If those churches "cannot maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land," she says, "it is a huge failure."

Second-class citizens

Christians living in this war-torn region -- some under foreign occupation, others under authoritarian rule and a rising tide of intolerant Islamists -- are a varied lot.

Many are from the oldest Christian rite churches -- Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian, Chaldean -- as well as Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. Except for those in Israel, all are minorities in Muslim countries.

While freedom of worship is allowed in much of the Middle East, freedom of religion remains elusive; only Lebanon allows Muslims to convert to Christianity.

"There are really two distinct, historical narratives for the region's Christians," says Dr. Habib Malik, a history and cultural studies professor at American Lebanese University. "The vast majority -- I would say over 90 percent of them -- have at some point or another succumbed to Islamic subjugation and become dhimmi," or second-class citizens.

"That includes the Copts of Egypt, the Christians of Syria, Iraq, Palestine," says Malik, who is chronicling the situation for Freedom House, a U.S. research institute.

"The remaining eight-or-so percent, who would be the Christians of Lebanon, they have managed at great cost, in terms of love and treasure over the centuries, to avoid ... succumbing to the dhimmi status ... under Islamic rule, which imposes all sorts of restrictions on the community."

At risk of disappearing

In many Arab countries, the true number of Christians is unknown and a highly sensitive topic. Governments either refuse to take a population census, as in Egypt and Lebanon, or refuse to disclose the number, as in Jordan.

Many experts believe Christian immigration and higher Muslim birthrates will continue to reduce the Holy Land's Christian presence.

"If this current trend continues, Christians will disappear in the region," says Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at American University of Beirut. "By 2025, the Muslims will be around 380 million ... right now the Christians are around 12 million, and by then will be 6 million.

"That would make them statistically insignificant."

Already, Christians make up just 1.4 percent of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, some 50,000 people.

Ten years ago, Bethlehem was half Christian, half Muslim. Now, Christians are just 30 percent of its populace; many say they are squeezed between the Israeli occupation, which stifles their work and expropriates their land, and the ruling fundamentalist Hamas, which has failed to halt a breakdown in law-and-order.

Arab Christians living in Galilee, in northern Israel, are Israeli citizens. A Christian minority within a larger Muslim minority in the midst of a Jewish majority, they often accuse Israel's government of treating them as second-class citizens.

They also face rising Islamic fundamentalism.

"If you live as a Christian in a society that is more and more religious, and it is concentrated in Islamic beliefs and has elements that consider non-Muslims as less than Muslims, things start to change and your neighbor starts to look at you differently," says Halim Makhoul, a lawyer in the northern Israeli border town of Nahariya.

'There is no place for us'

Of the thousands of Iraqis fleeing their country's sectarian carnage, Iraqi Christians feel especially vulnerable.

Many live as urban refugees in Jordan or Syria, hoping to immigrate to the West.

Dafer Sabah, 48, who fled with his wife and daughter to Jordan two years ago, says Iraqi militants targeted them as Christians: "In their eyes, we are infidels. The future of Christians is difficult with this fanatic fundamentalism increasing, and there is no place for us. ... Forget about Christians in the Middle East."

Egypt has the largest number of Christians -- between 5.6 million, according to official statistics, and 10 million, according to Christians themselves. There, many Christians endure increasing sectarian attacks and systemic discrimination.

"The last five years has been the worst time between the Christians and Muslims," says Rev. Ekram Lamie of Evangelical Church in Shubra, Egypt.

Jordan has long sought to protect its Christian minority, estimated as 2 percent to 6 percent of the populace.

Yet living between countries in conflict -- Iraq to the east, Lebanon to the north, Israel and the Palestinian Territories to the west -- Jordanian Christians feel the rising religious tension.

"Some Muslims do not differentiate between the Christians of the region and the Christians of America and Europe," says Dr. Audeh Quwas, a Christian member of Jordan's House of Representatives. "They consider that these wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) are the Christians against Islam.

"Because of this wrong understanding ... we are suffering."

'A very bad trend'

Lebanon's per-capita Christian population is the region's highest.

Once politically dominant, Christians share power in a shaky sectarian system that includes Sunnis, Shia and Druze.

The last official census there dates to 1932, but a recent independent survey suggests Christians comprise 35 percent of the populace.

The war-torn nation is struggling to rebuild and to reinvent itself yet again after Hezbollah triggered a monthlong war with Israel.

Capitalizing on its new power, Hezbollah is trying to bring down the U.S.-backed government -- splitting Lebanese Christians between anti-government, pro-Syrian and pro-government, anti-Syrian forces.

Rival Christian factions have clashed daily on Beirut's streets.

"I can understand it, if it is to fight for more political power," says Dr. Fadia Kiwan, who directs the political science department at Beirut's St. Joseph University. "But for Christians to fight each other ... is a very bad trend."

Redefined as infidels

Arab Christians began immigrating to America in the late 19th century, encouraged by economic opportunity and common religious faiths.

The decades-long ties to the United States and other Western nations are enabling more to immigrate today.

The Arab Christians' tradition of superior education, nurtured by Christian missionaries and colonizers in the 19th and 20th centuries, often gave them more social and political heft in the region.

"They are closer to Europe and America than their Muslim neighbors," says Makhoul, the Israeli-Arab lawyer, "which means closer to modern life, education, industry and technology."

Now, with Islamic militancy redefining Christians -- once the tolerated "People of the Book" -- as infidels, Arab Christians wonder if they still have a place in ancestral lands.

"Political and economic stagnation creates corruption, and corruption is a good medium for growing fanatics, terrorism and radical movements," says Father Yohanna Sharkawi of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt.

"The government becomes more religious to counter the strength of the Islamic movements" -- at Christians' expense, he says.

Such rising Islamic religiosity is evident on Cairo's streets, where women not wearing hijabs, or headscarves, are viewed as Christian.

'Vestiges of the Crusades'

The spillover of the Sept. 11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and episodes such as Danish newspaper political cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, or Pope Benedict's remark about Islam's violent history -- enraged many across the region.

Angry Muslims ignorant of Christianity's regional roots and differences often see Arab Christians as an extension of the West, of a "global Crusader conspiracy against Islam."

Increasingly, the result is deadly: Coptic Christians murdered in Alexandria churches; six churches torched in the West Bank and Gaza; a Christian neighborhood attacked in Beirut; a priest brutally slain in Mosul, Iraq.

"Very often, Christians here become the scapegoats for things that happen far, far away," says Lebanese American University's Malik.

"It just percolates in the collective Muslim psyche, this idea that the Christians are a fifth column, that they are somehow sleeping traitors, the vestiges of the Crusades, just waiting to rise up at the earliest opportunity."

Dependent on U.S. policy

Amid such volatility, most Arab Christians step carefully. Yet some reach out to Muslims.

"My approach is, before I talk about the Muslims, I ask myself, 'What did I do to win their respect?'" says Father Nabil Haddad, executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center. "Then we start holding them responsible for being tolerant or intolerant.

"I am not living in Tokyo, I am not living in Pennsylvania, I am not living with the Buddhists. I am living with the Muslims."

Many Arab Christians cite U.S. foreign policy -- especially the overwhelming support of Israel at the expense of Arab states, and particularly Palestinians -- as hurting them.

"The continuity of the Arab Christian presence in the Middle East depends on a just foreign policy of the West in general, and America in particular," says Geries Khoury, theological dean at Mar Elias College in the Galilee. "The ongoing policy is wrong."

If the Middle East continues losing Christians, Khoury fears "the whole relationship in the future between Islam and the West" will be damaged.

Instead, he hopes Arab Christians "play a very important role, by telling Muslims about the Christian reality and Western culture, and help the West to better understand Islam and Muslims."

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