The Christians of Israel: A Remarkable Group

The Christians of Israel: A Remarkable Group
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In the nightmarish maelstrom that defines the Middle East today, there are few places of refuge for Christians. While Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Libya are disintegrating and Egypt is embattled, the Christians are in dire trouble in a region that is increasingly Islamic radical. Yet, abandoning the Middle East would be painful for most Christians. Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, lived in the Galilee and was crucified in Jerusalem. Many Christian holy places from the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Annunciation are in Jerusalem and others are in Israel or the West Bank. In Iraq and Syria Christians face enslavement, torture, massacres and crucifixion at the hands of ISIS. ISIS sees them as the dread Crusaders who need to be destroyed or repressed. ISIS marks Christian houses with an N for Nazarene to single out their victims. Unlike the Jews after 1948, the Christians have no state to go to. Only Lebanon could be a place of refuge but the Christian population has plunged in 100 years from 78% to 34% of the country. In the 12 years since Saddam Hussein was overthrown by American military intervention, almost a million Iraqi Christians have fled Iraq or been killed. Barely 500,000 Christians remain behind. In Iraq Christians are less than 4% of the population but 40% of the refugees. In Syria, 30% of its 1.5 million Christians have fled the country. The Arab Christians are further divided between Eastern and Western Churches in over a dozen denominations. In Lebanon some Christians support Hezbollah while others oppose the radical pro-Iranian Shiite group. The Christian population, through low birth rate and massive emigration, has dropped from 20% of the Middle East in 1900 to 4% today and will drop to 3% by 2050. The stateless Christians, unlike the Jews after 1948, lack a military, secret police or government. Without a strong state or patron they are often hopeless in the face of repressive states or movements. The United States and Europe, though heavily Christian, have provided little military protection or financial aid to the embattled Christians. President Obama won't even label ISIS as Islamic fundamentalist. By contrast, the 160,000 Israeli Christians live as citizens in a democratic First World country with freedom of religion, rule of law and open elections. Christians can move anywhere, even building a number of churches recently in Tel Aviv. The government safeguards the Christian holy places and is lenient on the right of return of Christian refugees. Since 1967 Christian, Islamic and Jewish holy sites are open to pilgrims of all religions. The Christian churches own a significant part of Jerusalem, including the land on which the Knesset sits. Their greatest problem often comes from the Muslims. Most Arab Muslims are relatively satisfied with Israel but a growing minority, especially in the north, is virulently anti-Christian, using physical attacks, provocative speech and seditious billboards. These radicals call the Christians, "the descendants of apes and pigs." While Bethlehem was once 90% Christian, today it is 65% Muslim. After 2007 the Hamas takeover of Gaza led to the remainder of the Christians fleeing to the West Bank. While the Christian element in Israel dropped from 8.0% in 1910 to a projected 1.8% in 2025, the Christians plummeted from 11.6% of the West Bank and Gaza in 1910 to a projected 1.0% in 2025. Today 60% more Christians live in Israel than in the Palestinian territories. A small new Christian party, B'nai Brith, calls on its youth to serve in the Israeli army and hundreds each year do so. Its leader, Reverend Nadaff, declares, "We love this country." Israeli Christians have several problems. One is lacking the benefits given to Israelis who serve in the army. Another is the provocative defacing and vandalizing of Christian monuments and cemeteries by a group of radical Jews. Christians complain of the high cost of land and housing. Their small size and internal divisions make them a peripheral political force. Outside of the Gulf States with over a million mainly Asian Christians laborers, Israel is the only place in the Middle East where the Christians are growing in number. They are excelling in education, doing well in business and feeling relatively safe from their radical tormentors. In today's troubled Middle East, that is a remarkable feat.

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