Last Rites in the Holy Land?
The world's most ancient Christian communities are fleeing their birthplace.
Gary Knight / VII for Newsweek
Peace On Earth? Good will is too rare around the Church of the Nativity
By Rod Nordland
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."
Gary Knight / VII for Newsweek
Unprotected: Father Moussalli in Amman
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.