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ICC Note: A Great Article from the Houston Chronicle covering the disappearing Christians of the Middle East.

Silent Exodus: Vanishing Christians of the Mideast

AIN EBEL, LEBANON — This Christian village near the Israeli border looks tranquil, but the undulating hills and silver-tinted olive groves mask a beehive of Hezbollah military activity that brought the town under Israeli attack this past summer.

Brahim Barakat, a gas station owner, said the 34-day conflict convinced him and the town’s other Christians that they have no future in Lebanon, where policy is increasingly set by the militant Islamic group Hezbollah, which is trying to destabilize the elected national government. They are ready to abandon their fig trees and move out.

“Our church is older than Hezbollah,” said Barakat, sounding beaten down at 56. “Our history is here. Jesus Christ walked here. But we are caught between Hezbollah and Israel. We are lost here. If 80 percent of the Christians in Lebanon are trying to leave, here the figure is 100 percent because of the war.”

The vicious battle between Hezbollah and Israel this summer has joined the long list of religion-based conflicts and feuds ripping the peoples of the Middle East apart. Most of the Christians who lived in Ain Ebel already have gone, scattered like seeds tossed by a tempest.

Some have resettled in other parts of Lebanon, trying to eke out a living, but many have abandoned their country altogether, adding to the huge number of Lebanese Christians who have gone to the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries for a fresh start.

The flight of Lebanese Christians is one symptom of a larger malady: the wholesale departure of Christians from the Middle East.

This silent exodus is reshaping the region’s cultural mosaic, eating away at its diversity by slowly removing Christians from the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Their voice is being muted as Islam becomes more strident.

The Islamic holy book, the Quran, preaches respect for other religions, but the growing popularity of radical Islam, which casts Christians and Jews as infidels, has convinced many Christians they will soon be unwelcome, said Anthony O’Mahony, a London professor who has written several books on Christianity in the Middle East.

“We may be seeing the end of a historic Christian presence,” he said. “Islam has profoundly displaced the indigenous religions, Christianity and Judaism. We’re seeing another stage of the Islamicization of the region. You start to see the Middle East purely in Muslim terms, dominating the whole region.”

Precise figures are elusive, in part because governments in the region do not carry out sensitive surveys listing religious affiliation, but historians believe that at least 2 million of the region’s Christians have left the Middle East in the past 30 years. Sharp declines have been observed in Lebanon and the West Bank over the past three decades.

Seeking safety

In Lebanon, the civil war that started in 1975 spurred hundreds of thousands of Christians to seek safety abroad. Christians are now a minority in a country where they used to be the largest religious group.

A measure of stability returned to Lebanon when fighting ended in 1990, but that was shattered this summer. The conflict with Israel killed more than 1,000 people and caused an estimated $4 billion in damage to the country’s infrastructure.

Hezbollah, a private Islamic militia funded primarily by Iran, started the fighting when its forces crossed into Israel to ambush Israeli troops. The militia’s leading cleric, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, launched the attack without any input from Lebanon’s elected coalition government, which includes many Christians, including the president, Emile Lahoud. The conflict stoked fears among Christians and some Muslims that the militant movement spreading throughout the region may transform Lebanon into an Iranian-style Islamic republic.

“This last war made the Christians lose hope,” said Guita Hourani, a Lebanese Christian who is associate director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center.

“Hezbollah refuses to disarm, and they have a political plan and an ideology that does not fit with what Christians and most Lebanese want, which is a functioning democracy that is pluralistic and open. Space for freedom of expression and freedom of faith is being closed off.”

Lebanese Christians were able to talk about their concerns before the war, but now they are afraid to speak freely, she said.

“People are fearing for the future and trying to get out,” she said. “This war is going to impact the emigration of Christians more than anything we have seen. If other countries open their doors, there will be an exodus.”

‘A savage polarization’

The latest catastrophe for Middle Eastern Christians is in Iraq. One of the region’s oldest Christian communities is under fire as sectarian fighting increases and the country’s new political leaders veer toward a religious-based Islamic government.

“The Iraqi Christians are increasingly targeted, and many churches have been threatened, so they are joining the larger exodus from Egypt, from Palestine, from Lebanon,” said Fawaz Gerges, author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy and director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

“This means disaster for the Middle East. Christians serve as a bridge between the Muslim world and the Judeo-Christian world, and if you rid the Middle East of its bridge you are punching a big hole in the idea of coexistence.”

The rise in fundamentalist Islam is one of many factors causing Christians to leave. They also are departing in search of educational and employment opportunities and, in the case of Palestinian Christians, because of conflicts with Israel.

In the region where the three great world religions began, Jews, Christians and Muslims are living more separately than ever. Their religious doctrines call for tolerance, but in practice they are drawing apart.

“There has been a savage polarization,” said William Dalrymple, author of From the Holy Mountain and other works about Christians in the Middle East.

“In this pulling-apart of a very rich tapestry, the Christians have by and large left the Middle East to places less heavy with history, places like Australia, Sweden and Detroit.”

Middle Eastern Christians who stay are often caught in the middle. Many Muslims assume Christians are pro-Western because they share a Christian bond with the West. At the same time, many Westerners are suspicious of them because of their Arab roots.

Christians also leave because they have a better chance to advance in more peaceful and affluent countries. Some can emigrate relatively easily because of family ties in the West. Many already speak English, making it easier to get jobs or places in good schools.

The emigration has changed the makeup of Lebanon, where Christians were in the majority when the country achieved independence in 1943. Now they are a shrinking minority.

In the highland villages of the Mount Lebanon range, where Christians have lived in the bracing mountain air for centuries, most young adults already have departed. The majority of the residents are either older than 60 or younger than 18, said Filamina Farhat, a weary resident of Kfar Sghab (pronounced Far-Zab) who has seen the community dwindle in her 66 years.

Her village, surrounded by fertile land that produces delicious cherries and pears, is in the Christian heartland of Lebanon. The mountains are dotted with shrines to the saints, but the town¹s roads are named after the cities in Australia where most of the former residents now reside.

It is jarring to see a “Perth Road” in the middle of Lebanon, but it reflects that more of the town’s residents live overseas than in the town.

“We have more than 17,000 people from this village living in Australia, and 3,000 in America, and only about 700 people living here,” Farhat said. “The young people became educated and left. What choice do they have? They can’t make a living here.

“I’m sad because we work very, very hard to work the land and educate them, and then they leave.”

‘We cannot forget’

Christians are not blameless. In the pleasant village of Kfar Matta, with scented mountain air and green shade trees, residents say they will not let the Christians move back in because Christian militia forces led a massacre against townspeople in 1983.

The fighting was part of “The War of the Mountain,” which pitted Christian forces against the Druze, an independent religious group that shares some of its core beliefs with Islam.

“As long as we are alive, we cannot forget,” said Hani Al Gharib, a Druze resident who insists the Christians must stay out. “They came in and killed my father; they shot him in the mouth. They killed my cousins, they killed our young people. We lost 109 people. The only way there can be reconciliation is if we kill 109 of their people.”

Christian militia fighters also have been blamed for the notorious 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut.

Christians and Druze lived in harmony for centuries, but Kfar Matta, like many communities in the Middle East, has become a place where only one religious group dwells. There was an impressive stone church, but it was dynamited and lies in ruins.

At the same time, some towns that were once exclusively Christian are changing as Muslims buy property put on the market by Christian families who are emigrating. This has caused some friction as Christians find their sphere of influence shrinking.

In the prosperous village of Bishmizzine, Christians initially banded together to buy all the properties put up for sale to prevent Muslims from moving in. The strategy worked at first, but it became too expensive over time. Now Muslims have bought up about 15 percent of the village, town officials say.

Fawzi Moufarij, mayor of Bishmizzine, said he is trying to maintain friendly relations between the town’s Christians and Muslims now that the effort to keep Muslims out has failed.

“We wish we could have bought all the properties,” he said. “The original people of this village are being replaced by Muslims. They want to be a major power here, and there have been some incidents, some fights. Mostly we are getting along. But Christians are deeply concerned about the future. We don’t know where we are heading.”

The mayor has grown accustomed to seeing people he has known all his life pick up stakes and disappear, sometimes forever.

“It’s very sad, he sad. It’s a village of ghosts.”