Christians in lands across Middle East face uncertain time this Christmas
In the birthplace of Christianity, present fear and future uncertainty threaten populations which have praised Christ for centuries.
By Richard Spencer, Samer al-Atrush, and Rob Crilly
12/20/2009 Iraq, Israel Territory, Egypt (Telegraph) – Rima, whose sister was murdered by Saddam Hussein's officers, is going to America. Hani, another Christian, is off to Sweden after being kidnapped by a Baghdad militia. Michael Marody, whose cousin was likewise abducted but did not come back alive, is heading for Australia.
War-torn, anarchic Iraq, however, is not the only place in the Middle East that will see fewer Christians celebrating this Christmas. The region that was Christianity's birthplace is witnessing an unprecedented modern-day exodus – victims of radical Islam, the global economic crisis, and new currents of sectarian feeling from both Arabs and Jews alike.
Bethlehem, the lights are on for Christmas, but its resident Christians have dwindled from four-fifths of the population since the Second World War to just a quarter today. One by one, the carpenters who hand-craft the wooden figurines that feature in Nativity scenes worldwide are shutting up shop, hamstrung by the difficulties of working in the Palestinian West Bank.
"Every year we have obstacles," complained Elias Giacaman, a Bethlehem woodcarver who can trace his ancestry to the Crusades. Crates loaded with unsold likenesses of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus fill the floor of his workshop, which has cut its workforce from 18 to six. "After the Intifada – and three or four years of curfews – there was the Lebanon war, the economic crisis and all the time we have the (security) wall. Last year things picked up, but this year it is bad again."
Such tales of misery are repeated both in neighbouring cities and neighbouring lands. In Jerusalem, Orthodox Jews spit on passers-by wearing crucifixes. In the other Palestinian enclave of Gaza, Christian shops have been firebombed. In Egypt, meanwhile, a string of businesses owned by Coptic Christians were burned down in riots in the southern province of Qena last month. "Copts are in a continuous state of fear," said the diocesan bishop, Anba Kirillos.
The sweeping sectarian violence of Iraq is well documented, though the suffering of its once million-strong Christian community has been less prominently recorded.
As many 600,000 have fled abroad since 2003, while hundreds of thousands more have moved to safer areas in the north, abandoning once thriving Christian communities in Mosul, Baghdad and the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
Across the Middle East, a Christian population that stood at 20 per cent a century ago has now sunk to under five per cent. Yet the rise of radical Islam is not the only factor. In the Occupied Territories, Christians suffer alongside Muslims from Israeli policies, most recently the new "security wall".
Arab priests claim that Israel deliberately turns a blind eye to violence against Christians, hoping they will leave and make it easier to portray the conflict as one between Jews and Muslims.