Christmas in the Middle East not too merry

Christmas season is not very jolly for most Christians in the Middle East. Israel has the only growing Christian community in the region, while the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq has become a safe haven for those fleeing for their lives.

By Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

Christmas season in the Middle East is a mixed bag for the Christian population.  Christians have lived in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity for over 2,000 years.  As a result of persecution and discrimination, especially over the last few decades, Christianity is shrinking fast and now constitutes no more than about three percent of the region’s population, down from as much as 20 percent a century ago.

With the rise of Islamic extremism, there are very few islands of stability in the Middle East for the Christian populace.  The Arab Spring unleashed a new torrent of violence between Sunnis and Shias and against other religious minorities.

The only place with growth underway in its Christian population is the Jewish State of Israel.  Christianity is one of the recognized religions in Israel and is practiced by more than 169,000 Israeli citizens who represent about two percent of the population.  In recent years, the Christian population in Israel has increased significantly due to the presence of foreign workers from a number of countries.  Nine church denominations are officially recognized in Israel, and new churches are opening every year.  Arab Christians are among the most educated groups in Israel, and they have top positions in many areas of Israeli society.

As of 2014, Israel recognizes native Christians who identify as descendants of the ancient Aramean people rather than as Arabs.  David Parsons of the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem told World Israel News (WIN), “Israel is so different for Christians compared to surrounding countries.  Christians in the Holy Land of course have the unique opportunity to live where Jesus was born and lived.  Israel is also the only democracy and the Christian community has rights and they are secure.  The Israeli government recently gave the Christians their own identity that is not Arab nor Muslim and recognizes them as part of the Aramaic community that is based on the ancient Aramaic language that Jesus and his apostles spoke.  They preached around the world in Aramaic, so this is a very important development for the community.”

Nearly 175,000 Arab Palestinian Christians lived the Palestinian Authority when it was created in the 1990s.  The Christian population in the PA has declined steadily due to persecution, emigration and low birth rates.  The current number is under 75,000 in the PA and fewer than 1,000 in Hamas-controlled Gaza, which used to be home to over 3000 Christians.

‘They ran away from the Palestinian Authority’

Knesset member Dr. Anat Berko (Likud) was furious when she heard PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas recently claim to be the protector of the Christian community in the Holy Land. Berko told WIN, “Look at the numbers.  There were large Christian communities in Ramallah and Bethlehem.  They ran away from the Palestinian Authority, the numbers tell all.  Abbas cannot even protect himself.”

Berko is in close contact with the local Christian community and is monitoring developments. She told WIN, “You have an Islamic emirate in Gaza and you have the Palestinian Authority.  It’s about time that the world admits that the only ones who take care of the Christian people in this region are the Israelis.  We even see more and more Christians going to the Israeli army.  I encourage them and sent them Christmas and New Year’s greetings.  I support our Christian soldiers in the army, and I am very involved with Christian leaders who encourage and recruit soldiers.  I am also encouraging Christian women to participate in the Israel National Service.”

Berko says she supports the notion of Christians maintaining their unique identity.  “I visit Christian villages regularly because I believe that they are an integral part of our country.  They speak about their identity not as Arabs, but as Arameans,” she said.

Glimmer of hope in Egypt, Kurdish areas

Outside of Israel, the situation for Christians is not very bright.  Parsons told WIN there is a glimmer of hope in Egypt.

“The Copts are a huge community, about eight million strong in Egypt.  Their situation was terrible under President Morsi.  But under President al-Sisi there is improvement and he has even visited their churches,” Parsons said.  Regarding much of the rest of the Middle East, Parsons speaks of the horrors that the Christians communities have faced.

“The worst areas are in Syria and Iraq, where there has been a real bloodbath for the past decade.  The Christians are the most vulnerable community and they don’t even have armed militias to protect them,” he told WIN.

While Parsons applauds the fight to defeat Islamic State in those countries, he says the war has taken its toll on the Christian community, adding that the Christians have another friend in the region.  “Many Christians fled their homes to reach the Kurdish autonomous areas in Iraq.  Kurdish Muslims accept the Christians, there is tolerance and a feeling of unity that you do not find in any other Muslim area in the Middle East,” he said.