The Christians who still live in the Holy Land face a Christmas that will be far from happy, merry or bright. They are a persecuted minority.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…” This hymn, and dozens like it will be sung all over the world soon, as they are every Christmas. Cards depicting the scene of the holy birth will decorate millions of houses. Nativities will be set up in homes, in shopping malls, in churches. But as people prepare to celebrate the humanity of a man known as Jesus of Nazareth, his homeland is no longer a safe place to be for those who follow him.
There are 14 million Christians throughout the Holy Land but they are a rapidly dwindling minority. Many of them are so desperately vulnerable that they feel they have no choice now but to emigrate. In Iraq alone, since the fall of Saddam, a startling two-thirds have fled. Since 2003 at least a million have left. Most of them went to Syria. Now they face a second wave of displacement as they are no longer protected there. There have been reports of rape, murder and attacks directed at them and the Christian community lives in terror. When they feel they have to run for their lives they head for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. It is said that the ancient Syrian Armenian community has all but gone.
Egypt has seen churches being burnt and anti-Coptic rioting. In Gaza and on the West Bank, Christians are caught up in chaotic uncertainty. To be Christian in the Holy Land, the birthplace of Jesus, is to live in fear. The Vatican has confirmed as credible the estimate that 100,000 Christians are killed every year for their beliefs.
Historian Tom Holland has noted how deeply ironic it is, that two devoutly Christian leaders, George W. Bush and Tony Blair, brought about, inadvertently, the final demise of Christianity in the Middle East by invading Iraq. Now the Arab Spring has proven the final knell, as Christians are all too easy targets for extremists and are living in dire jeopardy.
The major Christian celebrations are still national holidays in Syria, and this is testament to the fact that Syria has long been a sanctuary for Middle Eastern Christians. One of the oldest parts of Damascus is the Christian Quarter at Bab Touma. Islamic and Christian communities used to live side by side in such ease, that sacred spaces were shared. There was ethnic and religious tolerance, mutual respect and understanding. Now, along with so much in Syria, that harmonious co-habitation has been ripped apart.
Speaking about his deep concerns for the beleaguered Christians of the Middle East, has been HRH Prince Charles. At an inter-faith reception he said he is very troubled by what he calls the “intimidation, false accusation and organized persecution” to the Christian faith communities. It is a problem affecting Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Iraq as well as other Arab countries. The prince says it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to the targeting of these Christians by “fundamentalist Islamic militants.”
The birthplace of Jesus and the founding site of Christianity now has less than 4 percent of Christians making up the entire population of the Middle East and North Africa; a number that has dropped dramatically over the past 100 years. Prince Charles sees this as a great threat to possible peace in these regions as Christians are renowned for their bridge-building capabilities. He himself had been trying to build a bridge between Islam and Christianity for the last 20 years, but these efforts have been beset by those with “vested interests” in destroying them.
The prince’s bridge-building metaphor is set in stone above a mosque in the Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri, south of Delhi. The mosque is an astounding piece of Muslim architecture. Yet over the arched gate which leads to the interior, is this inscription:
Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen.”
Both the Mughal Emperors Akbar and Jehangir were devoted to Jesus and Mary. They did not see this as at all at odds with their Muslim faith. Esteemed historian, William Dalrymple, an expert in the Middle East, has explained the archaic connections between the two religions, more united in similarities than in difference.
The sayings of Jesus, such as this one, make up hundreds of references in ancient Arabic literature. They originate from a variety of sources, some from early Christian texts like the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, some from the four canonical gospels, and others from oral tradition. Curiously, Islam has retained these where Christianity has not.
These sayings, Dalyrymple reasons, “fill out and augment the profoundly reverential picture of Christ painted in the Koran.” It is only his divinity that is questioned. Mary has more mentions in the Koran than she does in the entire Gospels and is in fact the only woman ever given her proper name therein. She is held, as is Jesus, to be a “model for Muslims.” The old Mosaic laws, like circumcision,are accepted in Islam, as is a great deal of both the Old and the New Testaments. This is hardly surprising, Dalrymple reminds us, when both Christianity and Islam grew from the same culture of the ancient world of the Middle east.
A 16th century painting of a nativity scene now in the British Library symbolizes this. Mary is in the center with the baby Jesus on her knee. Yet she leans on an Indian throne and is attended by Mughal servants. The three wise men are dressed as Jesuits. There is no stable, no cattle lowing, no shepherds and no sheep. This is because Islamic lore contends that Jesus was born under a palm tree beside an oasis. Therefore, in this painting, Mary sits under a palm outside a haveli, all the better to reach up and pluck fruit whilst she is in labor.
This picture, combining the two traditions, is many hundreds of years old. It shows that the celebration of the birth of Jesus was long accepted as a subject of common ground. Indubitably there are differences, but the history of Islamic-Christian relations has long, respectful roots.
The profound concern of the Prince of Wales about the persecution of the remaining Christians in the Middle East has been supported by Prince Ghazi of Jordan. He has said that Christians were in the Middle East 600 years before Muslims. Indeed, he went on, “Arabs were perhaps the first non-Hebrew Christians in the world and became Christians during Jesus Christ’s own lifetime.”
Pope Francis has also expressed his worries. In a tweet under his Twitter handle of @Pontifex he wrote, “We cannot resign ourselves to think of a Middle East without Christians. Let us pray every day for peace.”
Pray for peace seems an apt response at this time of year when “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All Men” is the primary message of hope. For the Christians of the Holy Land, facing a Christmas that will be far from happy, it is all they can do.
By Kate Henderson