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Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, represents in microcosm why Christian numbers have fallen so drastically in that part of the world. In 1990, Christians were still a majority in the birthplace of Jesus at 60 percent; today they number only about 15 percent of the population with many of these wanting to emigrate. The reason they wish to leave, they say, is that they feel threatened and discriminated against by their Muslim neighbors. One young Christian who wants to leave asked the German reporter interviewing him about Christian persecution not to mention his name or he would be “a dead man.”
“Either they would blow my brains out or accuse me of collaboration with Israel,” he said. “Then I would also be tortured.”
The torments Bethlehem’s Christians have had to endure from the Muslim majority, according to the young man, extend from insults in the marketplace to rape and murder. Even the souvenir shops around the Church of the Nativity have to pay off Muslim gangs, all of which makes for a climate of fear that drives Christians away and allows Islamist bullies to thrive.
“Our church leaders and the Christian politicians also are afraid and don’t want to make things even worse. That’s why they stay silent,” he said.
The only good news for the church in the region is that the number of Christians in Israel and states of the Arabian Peninsula are rising. This is due to the arrival of Christian guest workers from countries like the Philippines and Sudan. Israel has also had a community of Russian Christians. But while Christians in Saudi Arabia are forbidden from practising their religion, those in Israel enjoy religious freedom.
“We have in Israel and Palestine a new community of 40,000 Filipinos…without mentioning Indians and Sudanese,” said Fouad Toual, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Pope Benedict called upon the synod to find a way to allow the Middle East’s Christians “to live with dignity in their own homeland” and believes drawing the world’s attention to their plight would help in this respect. While commendable goals, they are, however, doomed to failure.
Christians in the Middle East have been cynically abandoned by the West, especially by western European governments, their traditional protectors, who have capitulated before Islam and whose citizens are now experiencing in their cities some of the same harassing treatment Middle Eastern Christians know all too well. Some Europeans believe Western Europe itself is on the verge of religious civil wars and wonder who will save them. Middle Eastern Christians also do not control the region’s oil supply and have no powerful lobby in Washington.
But the main reason the sad situation of Middle Eastern Christians will remain the same, if not worsen, after the synod is that their Islamist persecutors are immune to change. One cannot deal with fanatics, often violent, who believe they are on a mission from god to convert the whole world to Islam. When President Obama was in Cairo, for example, he spoke against Egypt’s discrimination against Coptic Christians, but his remarks made no impression on authorities. Tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities are still often high to the point where an eventual massacre of Christians is a distinct possibility.
The Christians of the Middle East have lived on their lands centuries before Islam’s appearance and are the soul of their religion. They are the true heirs of the original Christianity. Despite the pope’s good wishes and due to the world’s indifference, they are, tragically, destined to disappear. And for that, we will all pay a price.
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