Christians are Suffering in the Holy Land this Christmas
The Christians who still live in the Holy Land face a Christmas that will be far from happy, merry or bright. They are a persecuted minority.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…” This hymn, and dozens like it will be sung all over the world soon, as they are every Christmas. Cards depicting the scene of the holy birth will decorate millions of houses. Nativities will be set up in homes, in shopping malls, in churches. But as people prepare to celebrate the humanity of a man known as Jesus of Nazareth, his homeland is no longer a safe place to be for those who follow him.
There are 14 million Christians throughout the Holy Land but they are a rapidly dwindling minority. Many of them are so desperately vulnerable that they feel they have no choice now but to emigrate. In Iraq alone, since the fall of Saddam, a startling two-thirds have fled. Since 2003 at least a million have left. Most of them went to Syria. Now they face a second wave of displacement as they are no longer protected there. There have been reports of rape, murder and attacks directed at them and the Christian community lives in terror. When they feel they have to run for their lives they head for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. It is said that the ancient Syrian Armenian community has all but gone.
Egypt has seen churches being burnt and anti-Coptic rioting. In Gaza and on the West Bank, Christians are caught up in chaotic uncertainty. To be Christian in the Holy Land, the birthplace of Jesus, is to live in fear. The Vatican has confirmed as credible the estimate that 100,000 Christians are killed every year for their beliefs.
Historian Tom Holland has noted how deeply ironic it is, that two devoutly Christian leaders, George W. Bush and Tony Blair, brought about, inadvertently, the final demise of Christianity in the Middle East by invading Iraq. Now the Arab Spring has proven the final knell, as Christians are all too easy targets for extremists and are living in dire jeopardy.
The major Christian celebrations are still national holidays in Syria, and this is testament to the fact that Syria has long been a sanctuary for Middle Eastern Christians. One of the oldest parts of Damascus is the Christian Quarter at Bab Touma. Islamic and Christian communities used to live side by side in such ease, that sacred spaces were shared. There was ethnic and religious tolerance, mutual respect and understanding. Now, along with so much in Syria, that harmonious co-habitation has been ripped apart.
Speaking about his deep concerns for the beleaguered Christians of the Middle East, has been HRH Prince Charles. At an inter-faith reception he said he is very troubled by what he calls the “intimidation, false accusation and organized persecution” to the Christian faith communities. It is a problem affecting Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Iraq as well as other Arab countries. The prince says it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to the targeting of these Christians by “fundamentalist Islamic militants.”
The birthplace of Jesus and the founding site of Christianity now has less than 4 percent of Christians making up the entire population of the Middle East and North Africa; a number that has dropped dramatically over the past 100 years. Prince Charles sees this as a great threat to possible peace in these regions as Christians are renowned for their bridge-building capabilities. He himself had been trying to build a bridge between Islam and Christianity for the last 20 years, but these efforts have been beset by those with “vested interests” in destroying them.