Pope to Arab Christians: Keep the Faith

This was their moment. For native Christians in the Holy Land -- that small, beleaguered Arab community whose ancestors, on this very soil, were among the first to follow Jesus of Nazareth -- the visit of Pope Benedict XVI was nothing less than a godsend.

Finally, here was a western Christian who understood their predicament.

Like envoys of a forgotten world, Arab Christians embody the fierce and hunted spirit of the early Church. They worship in simple, ancient churches, some dating to the fourth and fifth centuries, and they preserve, in their rituals and liturgy, the earliest expressions of what it means to be a Christian. Relatively wealthy, well educated, and politically moderate, they are the people Middle Eastern societies can least afford to lose. Yet today they are abandoning their homelands as never before, exhausted by political turmoil, robbed of hope and opportunity, and alarmed by the rise in Islamist violence in places like Iraq and Egypt, where they make a convenient target for those who hate the West.

In the Holy Land, caught in the crossfire between Israel and all Palestinians, including Christians, their numbers have plummeted from perhaps 25 percent of the population a century ago to single digits today. Having covered these brave, close-knit communities for decades, most recently for this month's National Geographic, I consider their exit a tragic loss, and so does Pope Benedict XVI, who picked his way through the political minefields of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine this week to deliver a message of hope to Arab Christians: Keep the faith.

It's important for all of us that they do. In a land of bitter conflict, Arab Christians have always been the go-betweens, the human bridge between the Islamic world and the Christian West. Their exodus now would leave a huge void -- not only in the ancient stone churches where they worship, but also in the Middle East's depleted reservoir of hope that so urgently needs replenishing.

If the Pope's vision of Middle East peace were to be realized -- Muslims and Christians living together in a just, viable, prosperous Palestinian state at peace with Israel -- many of the reasons Arab Christians leave would disappear. But in the meantime, just having their 2,000-year history celebrated by the world's most prominent Christian is an answered prayer. According to my Palestinian friend Mark, from Bethlehem, most tourists to the Holy Land have never even heard of Arab Christians. "They think Christianity was invented in Italy or something. I had one lady ask me, 'What does your family think about you being a Christian? I suppose they must have been very upset!'"