Dwindling of persecuted Christians in Holy Land most unreported story
Bethlehem, at one time a majority Christian town, is now less than a third Christian. Nazareth and Jerusalem have also seen their Christian communities shrink substantially. The plight of Palestinian Christians throughout the West Bank, Gaza and areas within Israel are among the most underreported stories of Christian persecution in the Middle East.
By Paul Stanway
12/27/2010 Israel and the Palestinian territories (Calgary Herald) – One of the staples of television news over the Christmas holiday is coverage of celebrations in the Holy Land, providing a familiar and comforting nod to the ancient roots of Western civilization.
Even in our increasingly secular society, images of Christians worshipping in Nazareth and Bethlehem provide welcome confirmation that we have a long and substantial history – even if we’re fuzzy on the details. It all looks so traditional and Christmassy.
Unfortunately this comforting image depends to a large extent on a dwindling number of embattled Christian communities. We are, in fact, witnessing the twilight of Christianity across much of the Middle East.
Not so long ago Bethlehem was a majority Christian town – about 80 per cent – and now is down to less than a third. Nazareth, too, has seen its Christian population almost halved in recent decades, and in Jerusalem itself the Christian community has fallen from a slight majority 80 years ago to below two per cent today.
Christians are leaving the West Bank, in particular, to escape the instability and a long-standing Muslim boycott of Christian businesses that has ravaged the community’s economic foundations.
This is history the West has largely forgotten and ignored. Your average European or North American will certainly be more familiar with the story of the Palestinians and the much-publicized grievances of the Arab world in general.
London’s The Telegraph newspaper recently quoted Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on the stunning lack of interest in the West over the decline of Christianity in its homeland. Most people are unaware that it was the faith of millions across the region before Islam, and has clung on tenaciously through many centuries of persecution.
“The level of ignorance about Middle-Eastern Christianity in the West is very, very high”, he said. “A good many people think the only Christians in the Middle East are converts or missionaries. I have heard some quite highly placed people, who ought to know better, saying that.”
Indeed. The notion that Christianity is a foreign, western implant in the Middle East – and a pretty recent one at that – is very apparent. That also happens to be the excuse used by militant Islam to persecute the region’s remaining Christians, so they suffer as surrogates of a society that barely knows they exist.
So with time, it seems Christians are destined to effectively disappear from the region that produced the faith. As one report puts it, “there are today more Christians from Jerusalem living in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem itself.”
With so much of our news and current affairs concentrated on the world’s embattled minorities, it seems strange indeed that we are so unfamiliar with the plight of these ancient Christian peoples of the Middle East.
Perhaps they are inconvenient reminders of a religious and cultural past we would rather forget. Except for those fleeting images at Christmas.