Christians in the Middle East

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Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, home of many Arab Christians

Don Belt wrote in National Geographic: “Huddled alongside Jewish converts in the caves of Palestine and Syria, Arabs were among the first to be persecuted for the new faith, and the first to be called Christians. It was here in the Levant—a geographical area including present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories—that hundreds of churches and monasteries were built after Constantine, emperor of Rome, legalized Christianity in 313 and declared his Levantine provinces holy land. Even After Arab Muslims conquered the region in 638, it remained predominantly Christian. [Source:Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009 -]

“Ironically, it was during the Crusades (1095-1291) that Arab Christians, slaughtered along with Muslims by the crusaders and caught in the cross fire between Islam and the Christian West, began a long, steady retreat into the minority. Today native Christians in the Levant are the envoys of a forgotten world, bearing the fierce and hunted spirit of the early church. Their communities, composed of various Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects, have dwindled in the past century from a quarter to about 8 percent of the population as the current generation leaves for economic reasons, to escape the region’s violence, or because they have relatives in the West who help them emigrate. Their departure, sadly, deprives the Levant of some of its best educated and most politically moderate citizens—the people these societies can least afford to lose.” -

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Arab Christian in Israel and Palestine

Don Belt wrote in National Geographic: “For anyone living in Israel or the Palestinian territories, stress is the norm. But the 196,500 Palestinian and Israeli Arab Christians, who dropped from 13 percent of the population in 1894 to less than 2 percent today, occupy a uniquely oxygen-starved space between traumatized Israeli Jews and traumatized Palestinian Muslims, whose rising militancy is tied to regional Islamist movements that sometimes target Arab Christians. In the past decade, “the situation for Arab Christians has gone rapidly downhill,” says Razek Siriani, a frank and lively man in his 40s who works for the Middle East Council of Churches in Aleppo, Syria. “We’re completely outnumbered and surrounded by angry voices,” he says. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009 -]

Edward Said and his sister in 1940

“Western Christians have made matters worse, he argues, echoing a sentiment expressed by many Arab Christians. “It’s because of what Christians in the West, led by the U.S., have been doing in the East,” he says, ticking off the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. support for Israel, and the threats of “regime change” by the Bush Administration. -

““To many Muslims, especially the fanatics, this looks like the Crusades all over again, a war against Islam waged by Christianity. Because we’re Christians, they see us as the enemy too. It’s guilt by association.” Mark and Lisa, like Arab Christians everywhere, conduct an ongoing argument about whether to leave their homeland for good. Mark has one brother in Ireland, another in San Diego, and he lived in the U.S. for a few years. He got his green card and was working in California when he and Lisa were married, in Jerusalem, in 2004. She tried living in San Diego for a while but was homesick for her family, so the couple moved back After Nate was born. -

“Living as Arabs in the U.S. After 9/11 was an eye-opener for them. “It’s funny,” Mark says, “what Americans think about things. They’ve never heard of Arab Christians. They assume all Arabs are Muslim—terrorists, that is—and that Christianity was invented in Italy or something. So when you say, I’m an Arab Christian, they look at you funny, like you just said, The moon is purple. I had one lady ask me, ‘What does your family think about you being a Christian? I suppose they must have been very upset!’” -

Arab Christians in Syria

Don Belt wrote in National Geographic: Christian “communities in Syria offer a reminder, beneath the hostilities of today, of how closely related the two religions really are. There are oases of tolerance—once widespread, now less so—where Christians and Muslims attend one another’s weddings and funerals and worship at one another’s shrines. In some monasteries Christians still prostrate themselves in prayer—a Byzantine-era practice that early Muslims may have admired and adopted. Some churches still conduct services in Aramaic or Syriac, languages that predate Islam. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009 -]

“When the Muslim Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased. But many Christians converted to Islam anyway, preferring its emphasis on a personal connection with God to the oppressive hierarchies of the Byzantine Church. The grandson of the last Christian governor of Damascus, who grew up to be the theologian St. John Damascene, listened to the newcomers talk about Islam—its acceptance of the Old and New Testaments, its esteem for Jewish prophets, its veneration of Jesus and Mary—and concluded that it was another of the many Christian heresies making the rounds of the Byzantine Empire, beyond the reach of church authorities in Constantinople. It never occurred to him, even writing many years later, that Islam might be a separate religion. When later caliphs imposed heavy taxes on Christians, conversions soared among poor villagers. For those early Arab Christians, whose word for God was (as it still is today) Allah, accepting the tenets of Islam was more like stepping over a stream than vaulting a chasm. -

Arab Christians and Muslims at an Orthodox Covent in Syria

Our Lady of Saydnaya in Syria

Don Belt wrote in National Geographic:“One Afternoon I climb to Our Lady of Saydnaya, a cliff-top Greek Orthodox convent in Syria that has weathered the storms of empire since 547. Once inside I find myself not among Christians but in a crowd of Muslim families who’ve come seeking the blessings of the Virgin Mary, whose powers of healing and fertility have drawn people in need for nearly 1,500 years. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009 -]

“As my eyes adjust to the gloom of the candlelit inner sanctum, I watch as a woman in a head scarf offers her baby, wrapped in a blanket, to the centerpiece of the shrine. There, surrounded by soot-blackened icons, a brass template covers the image of Mary, said to be painted by St. Luke, which inspires even though hidden from view. With her eyes closed and lips moving in silent prayer, the baby’s mother presses his face gently against the metal plate for a long moment. Later, outside, I meet the woman and her family, who’d driven up from Damascus after Friday prayers at their mosque. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009 -*]

“Wary of strangers, they would offer only the name of their sick child, Mahmoud. Just seven months old, swaddled in a green blanket, he lay still as death with his eyes closed, barely breathing. His face was a dark grayish brown. “The doctor said he can’t do anything for Mahmoud and that we should send him to America for an operation,” his mother says. -

““That’s impossible, so we need a miracle instead. I’m a Muslim, but a long time ago my family used to be Christian. I believe in the prophets— Muslim, Jewish, and Christian—and I believe in Mary. I’ve come here so that my boy will be healed.” Such scenes respect the Levant’s history of coexistence between Muslims and people of other faiths, which dates from the earliest days of Islam. -

““You can’t live alongside people for a thousand years and see them as the children of Satan,” observes Paolo Dall’Oglio, an earthy, bear-size monk who hosts Muslims in interfaith dialogue at Deir Mar Musa, the sixthcentury desert monastery he and his Arab followers restored between Damascus and Homs. “On the contrary, Muslims are us. This is the lesson the West has yet to learn and that Arab Christians are uniquely qualified to teach. They are the last, vital link between the Christian West and the Arab Muslim world. If Arab Christians were to disappear, the two sides would drift even further apart than they already are. They are the go-betweens.”

Baghdad Christians

Emmanuel Delly, the Chaldean cardinal of Baghdad

Loveday Morris wrote in the Washington Post: “A choir dressed in crimson robes sang ancient hymns below a Christmas star strung with fairy lights at a recent service in the Iraqi capital, the heavy scent of incense hanging in the air. But the season here has a somber edge, and the priest has a serious message for his congregation: Stay.Just a year ago, an Advent service at St. George’s Chaldean Catholic Church would have drawn 300 to 400 worshipers, says the Rev. Miyassir al-Mokhlasee. But now only around 75 people are scattered across its pews. [Source: Loveday Morris, Washington Post, December 22, 2014 ~~]

“Ringed by concrete blast walls and police checkpoints, the church has seen its congregation shrink for the past decade. The instability and violence following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 have driven many Christians out of the country. The nation’s Christian population has plummeted from more than a million to what community leaders estimate is less than 400,000 today. ~~

“Ayad Imad, 22, a Catholic resident of the middle-class Baghdad neighborhood of Zayouna and sales manager for an international cigarette firm, is one of them. This Christmas will be his last in Iraq, he said. His parents have sold their house and cars. As soon as his father finishes a round of medical treatment, the family will travel to Turkey, where they plan to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s asylum program, with the hope of being resettled in North America, Europe or Australia. ~~

“They might have to wait a long time before they reach one of those destinations. But Imad doesn’t care. He has spent years lobbying his family to emigrate from Iraq, but his father had not wanted to leave his elderly parents behind. “At first my father insisted we stay,” he said. “But my father’s had a job, a career. My grandfather is an old man, he’s lived. Now it’s my turn to live my life, and there’s no future here.” “If it stays this way, we will shrink to nothing,” said Father Mokhlasee, sinking his head into his hands. “We believe that God wants us here for diversity in the region. Unfortunately, people are afraid of the future, and they are leaving.” ~~

“One of Iraq’s most senior Christian religious figures, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako, has accused the United States of being “indirectly responsible” for the exodus of one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities, pointing to the chaos caused by the 2003 invasion. In the sectarian warfare and lawlessness that followed the outbreak of war, Christians were often caught in the crossfire or targeted for kidnapping. In Imad’s neighborhood, Christian shops have been attacked for selling alcohol, and many have closed down.” ~~

Iraqi Christians Flee Violence

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, there was wave of violence against Iraqi Christians in Iraq, forcing many to flee the country or make their way to relatively safe Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Iraq. According to a 2010 reportfrom the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, "only half of the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community is believed to remain in the country, with Christian leaders warning that this flight may mean 'the end of Christianity in Iraq." [Source: Leila Fadel and Ali al-Qeisy, Washington Post, November 17, 2010 ]

Leila Fadel and Ali al-Qeisy wrote in the Washington Post: “There are an estimated 500,000 Christians in Iraq, but minorities, including Christians, make up a "disproportionately high percentage of registered Iraqi refugees," the report said. Without tribes or militias to protect them, minority communities are among the most vulnerable here. A fledgling Iraqi Security Force plagued by corruption - and, in some cases, infiltration by militias and extremist groups - has failed to protect minority communities and many other Iraqis.

Christian populations in Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria

“The commission recommended that the secretary of state list Iraq as a "country of particular concern" for international religious freedom this year. Yonadem Kanna, an Assyrian legislator in Iraq's parliament, said that leaving is not the answer and insisted that many are staying. He noted that bombs targeting Muslims just days after the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation killed more people. And he complained about European countries that have urged Iraqi Christians to emigrate. "There are international voices trying to pull us out, and in tandem, these attacks are pushing us out. I say shut up and let us live in our country," Kanna said. "This was timed for the formation of the government, the extremists are attacking everybody, especially the most vulnerable people and especially the easy targets that can capture the attention of the world."”

“The new wave of displacement could devastate an already dwindling Christian community. Some worry that if something doesn't change, there will soon be no Christians left in Iraq. Political and religious leaders from across ethnic and sectarian lines have called on Christians to stay. But many Christians said that after years of violence and devastation, they must go. More than 46 churches and monasteries have been bombed since the start of the Iraq war.”

Violence Against Iraqi Christians

Leila Fadel and Ali al-Qeisy wrote in the Washington Post: “In Baghdad Our Lady of Salvation church, once a vibrant center of prayer in this predominantly Muslim city, is nearly empty now.” In October 2010, “in a more than four-hour siege, gunmen shot their way in and killed at least 58 people, sending a message that Christians, among many others, are not safe in Iraq. The names of the dead are pasted on the floor in the center of the church and surrounded by lighted candles. But the window glass is missing, destroyed by blasts and gunfire, and craters dot the ground - all reminders of the four suicide bombers who carried out the deadly attack along with other gunmen. “"Yes, we may shed some tears. We may have sadness, but we will not give up," the Rev. Mukhlis Shasha preached to about 50 people during one of a series of special Catholic Masses for the dead this week. Some that came to pray, sitting against plaster walls gouged with bullet holes, were not Christians, but neighbors who had come to pay their respects. [Source: Leila Fadel and Ali al-Qeisy, Washington Post, November 17, 2010]

“Just a few weeks before the Oct. 31 massacre, more than 350 people regularly attended Sunday Masses here. But now, many from this ancient Syriac Catholic community have fled. Others are too afraid to attend Mass in a place they think is being targeted by extremist groups and militias that have plagued the country during more than seven years of war. "People tell me the Bible says if the land does not want us we must leave," Shasha said. "I tell them you have to stand tall in these lands. If we all leave the country, who will remember this massacre, who will witness the resurrection of this church again?"

boys at the YMCA in Jerusalem

“Since the attack, Christian homes across the capital have been hit by bombs, two Christian men were killed in Mosul and Christian families have made their way out of the country or fled to the much safer northern Iraq, where Kurdish security forces control the area. Christians have not been the only victims of violence in the past month, but the attacks against them are disproportionate to the size of the vulnerable minority.

While many more mosques and Islamic shrines have also been hit, Christian worshipers said this week that the Iraqi government has shown that it can't keep them safe. "They can't protect us. Let them protect themselves first," said Waleed Jamil Butrous, a parishioner who survived the shooting, huddled in a back room with one man and 10 women and children. The politicians "are not men. We are the men. We were the ones here, who go out with no guards. The nation will lose the Christian community. I'm leaving, others are leaving." “Outside, Federal Police are now stationed to protect the church. “"We're not scared for ourselves," added his wife, Sahera Marzana. "We're scared for our children."”

Iraqi Christian Church Remains Open Amid Violence

Leila Fadel and Ali al-Qeisy wrote in the Washington Post: “Despite the violence, Shasha, the priest, said the church doors will never close. When the bombs hit Christian homes last week, 15 families came to sleep at the church for safety before fleeing to the north. On Wednesday, the priest gave his final sermon for the dead, at the end of three days of mourning. He stood in front of the robes that two other priests wore that day, the day they were killed while presiding over a Sunday evening Mass."The priest must lead to strengthen the faith," he said after the Mass. "If you have faith, it will strengthen you, because death is not the end." [Source: Leila Fadel and Ali al-Qeisy, Washington Post, November 17, 2010 ]

“Men he does not know have come to the church and threatened him. He has been told to leave Iraq if he wants to stay safe. But Shasha said he won't, and he hopes others will choose to stay, too. "I'm staying, even if it means I will become a martyr," he said. “Many have stopped attending services and taken their rosaries off their rearview mirrors. Christian women in more conservative areas of the capital are donning the Islamic headdress to blend in. "Christians are afraid everywhere, but this does not stop my faith and my goal," Shasha said. "Christianity was spread with 12 people. We only need 12 people."

“In another part of town, the mostly Sunni Arab district of Dora, others echoed Shasha's resolute stance. Last week, a bomb detonated at Hussam Khairi Yousif's house, shattering glass and reducing one room of the Christian family's home to rubble. Muslim neighbors ran to help, then cleaned up the debris with Yousif's family and helped rebuild. This is his home, he said, and he will stay. "Outsiders want to break the bond between the Iraqi people, and we understand the game," he said. "Why would I leave my home? I have the support of my neighbors and friends who are Muslim. When the terrorists blew up our fence and our room, the Muslims helped us rebuild, not the Christians. Here I'm surrounded with people who love my family and me. I will never leave my country to be a stranger in another." But others have lost hope. "I am a stranger in my own land now," said a Christian who was too afraid to share his name. "Why not be a stranger in a strange land now? I don't recognize my country."

Iraqi Christians Under Islamic State

Latin Church in Mosul

Loveday Morris wrote in the Washington Post: “Conquests by extremists from the Islamic State, known for their cutthroat brutality and intolerance for other religions, have delivered another blow to Christians in their historic heartland. For the first time in well more than a millennium, the plains of Nineveh and its provincial capital of Mosul have been virtually emptied of Christians. Islamic State fighters, who control the northern region, had ordered Christian residents to convert, pay a tax for keeping their faith or face execution. [Source: Loveday Morris, Washington Post, December 22, 2014 ~~] ~~

“Religious sites such as Mosul’s tomb of Jonah, the ancient figure whose story of being swallowed by a whale is told in the Christian and Muslim holy books, have been blasted apart. Other minorities such as the ethnic Shabak and the long-persecuted Yazidis have faced similar mass displacement and killings in the once richly diverse region.” ~~

Raya Jalabi of Reuters wrote: “Islamic State ravaged Christian areas, looting and burning down homes and churches, stripping them of all valuable artifacts and smashing relics. The damage in Qaraqosh, a town 15 km (10 miles) west of Mosul also known as Hamdaniya, was extensive, particularly to the town’s ancient churches. The Church of Immaculate Conception was burned by Islamic State militants. Before the militant onslaught, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian settlement in Iraq, with a population of more than 50,000. But today, only a few hundred families have returned. Entire congregations have moved overseas, such as the Syriac Orthodox congregation of the Church of Mart Shmony. [Source: Raya Jalabi, Reuters, December 24, 2017 ]

The 12,000-strong Chaldean Christian community the northern Iraqi town of Teleskof was forcibly displaced. Faced with a choice to convert, pay a tax or die, many Christians in the Nineveh Plains, chose to flee. Most sought refuge in nearby towns and cities, but many sought permanent asylum abroad. Though the militants were only in Teleskof for a few days, residents only began returning home earlier this year.

The Islamic State offensive in the summer of 2014, in IS fighters overran Mosul, convinced mani Iraqi Christians that it was time to leave.” According to to the Washington Post: “Many who pack up and go don’t tell their friends and neighbors, virtually disappearing overnight. In the precarious security environment, families fear that they will become a target for kidnappers in the days before they leave the country, as word spreads that they are cash-rich after having sold assets such as houses and cars.” ~~

Christmas After Islamic State for Iraq's Christians

Reporting from the Northern Iraqi town of Teleskof, Raya Jalabi of Reuters wrote: Inside the newly renovated Church of Saint George, Hayat Chamoun Daoud led children dressed as Santa Claus singing “Jingle Bells” in Aramaic. Like every other resident of Teleskof, this was Daoud’s first Christmas back home in three years, since Islamic State militants overran her town.“It’s so special to be back in my church, the church where I got married, the church I raised my children in,” the school headmistress said, tears in her eyes. [Source: Raya Jalabi, Reuters, December 24, 2017]

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate, congregants gathered for midnight Mass on Sunday surrounded by scorched and blackened walls, still tagged with Islamic State graffiti. They also sat on donated plastic chairs - the church has not yet been able to replace the wooden pews the militants used to fuel the massive fire which engulfed the church.” Local Christians “celebrated their first Christmas together again at the town’s main church, which was overflowing. Hundreds of congregants, dressed in their finest, poured in to pray and receive communion from Father Salar Bodagh, who later lit the traditional bonfire in the church’s courtyard, a symbol of renewal he said. “Despite the obvious joys of being able to celebrate openly once again, it was a bittersweet Christmas for most across the Nineveh Plains, the epicenter of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities which can trace their history in the country back two millennia.

“Though Iraq declared full victory over the militants just two weeks ago after a brutal three-year war, the damage done to Christian enclaves was extensive, and left many wondering whether they could overcome their recent history. Most families will require tens of thousands of dollars to repair their homes and replace their stolen goods. But most say they can overcome the material damage, unlike the forced separation of their families.

“On Saturday afternoon, Father Butros Kappa, the head of Qaraqosh’s Church of the Immaculate was trying hard to summon any sense of hope to deliver his congregation during Christmas Mass. “We’ll have a Christmas Mass like in previous years, but this year, ours will be a joy soaked in tears, because all of our people have left Iraq,” said Father Kappa. Holding Mass in the singed and upturned ruins of his church was therefore important, he said, “to remind everyone that despite the tragedies that have befallen us, we’re still here.”

Surrendered Islamic State fighters

“In Teleskof, 30 km (20 miles) north of Mosul and itself one of the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world, some families were skipping Mass altogether upset at their forced dispersal.“We usually celebrate with our entire family,” said Umm Rita, as she prepared the traditional Christmas Day dish of pacha (sheep’s head, trotters and stomach all slowly boiled) at her home. “But how can we be happy this year? Our brothers and sisters, even my own daughter, her husband and child I’ve never met have all moved away.”

“Community leaders estimate more than 7,000 of Teleskof’s residents are now scattered across Iraq and it’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, the United States, Australia, Germany, Lebanon and Jordan. Amid ongoing tensions between the central government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds after a referendum on Kurdish independence was held over Baghdad’s objections in September, Teleskof’s residents fear violence once again. “We just want to live in peace,” said Umm Rita. “We are more anxious now than when Islamic State was in our homes.”

““Our community has been gutted,” said Firas Abdelwahid, a 76-year-old former state oil employee, of the thousands who have sought permanent shelter overseas. Watching children play by the church bonfire, he felt melancholy. “But what do we expect? The past is tragic, the present is desperate and well, there is no future for us Christians in Iraq.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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