Last Rites in the Holy Land?

The world’s most ancient Christian communities are fleeing their birthplace.

July 23, 2007 issue – He refused to leave Baghdad, even after the day last year when masked Sunni gunmen forced him and eight co-workers to line up against a wall and said, “Say your prayers.” An Assyrian Christian, Rayid Albert closed his eyes and prayed to Jesus as the killers opened fire. He alone survived, shot seven times. But a month ago a note was left at his front door, warning, “You have three choices: change your religion, leave or pay the jeziya”—a tax on Christians levied by ancient Islamic rulers. It was signed “The Islamic Emirate of Iraq,” a Qaeda pseudonym. That was the day Albert decided to get out immediately. He and the other 10 members of his household are now living as refugees in Kurdistan.

Across the lands of the Bible, Christians like Albert and his family are abandoning their homes. According to the World Council of Churches, the region’s Christian population has plunged from 12 million to 2 million in the past 10 years. Lebanon, until recently a majority Christian country—the only one in the Mideast—has become two-thirds Muslim. The Greek Orthodox archbishop in Jerusalem, where only 12,000 Christians remain, is pleading with his followers not to leave. “We have to persevere,” says Theodosios Atallah Hanna. “How can the land of Jesus Christ stay without Christians?” The proportion of Christians in Bethlehem, once 85 percent, is now 20 percent. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who trace the roots of their faith back to Saint Mark’s preaching in the first century, used to account for 10 percent of their country’s population. Now they’ve dwindled to an estimated 6 percent. “The flight of Christians out of these areas is similar to the hunt for Jews,” says Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-Italian author and expert on Islam, himself a Muslim. “There is no better example of what will happen if this human tragedy in the Arab-Muslim world is allowed to continue.”

Nowhere is the exodus more extreme than in Iraq. Before the war, members of the Assyrian and Chaldean rites, along with smaller numbers of Armenians and others, constituted roughly 1.2 million of the country’s 25 million people. Most sources agree that well over half of those Christians have fled the country now, and many or most of the rest have been internally displaced, but some estimates are far more drastic. According to the Roman Catholic relief organization Caritas, the number of Christians in Iraq had plummeted to 25,000 by last year. Of the 1.7 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, half are Christians, says Father Raymond Moussalli, a Chaldean vicar who now says mass every night in a basement in Amman. “The government of Saddam used to protect us,” he says. “Mr. Bush doesn’t protect us. The Shia don’t protect us. No Christian was persecuted under Saddam for being Christian.”

Over the centuries, the region’s Christians have frequently made common cause with their Muslim neighbors. Leaders of some Christian factions even backed Hizbullah during last summer’s Lebanon war, and Arabic-speaking Christians in the Palestinian territories have regularly sided with the Muslim majority against the Israeli occupation. Five years ago Palestinian militants found sanctuary from Israel’s tanks inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Nevertheless, old relationships are crumbling now. When Pope Benedict XVI quoted a medieval scholar’s critical comments on the Prophet Muhammad, last September, furious Palestinians reacted by torching at least half a dozen churches on the West Bank. About 3,000 Christians remain in Gaza—many of them seeking new homes somewhere else. “We’re living in a state of anxiety,” says Hanady Missak, deputy principal of the Rosary Sisters School in Gaza City. Militants ransacked the school’s chapel during the battle between Hamas and Fatah last month. Crosses were broken and prayer books burned.

At least a few moderate imams are speaking out against attacks on Christians. “I ask the culprits to return to the Holy Qur’an and reread it,” said Sheik Muhammed Faieq in a recent sermon at the Mussab Mosque in the Baghdad suburb of Dora, where jihadists have waged a cleansing campaign against Christians. “Forcing people to leave their religion or properties is contradicting Islam’s traditions and instructions.” For many in the Middle East, the admonition comes too late. “There is no future for Christians in Iraq for the next thousand years,” says Rayid Paulus Tuma, a Chaldean Christian who fled his home in Mosul after two of his brothers were gunned down gangland style. His pessimism is shared by Srood Mattei, an Assyrian Christian now in Kurdistan: “We can see the end of the tunnel—and it is dark.”

With Kevin Peraino in Jerusalem, Salih Mehdi in Baghdad, Barbie Nadeau in Rome and Mandi Fahmy in Alexandria

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 16, 2007.
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