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In Sunday’s Santa Fe New Mexican the editorial team appropriately brings up the need to consider the severe persecution being “suffered by Christians in the Middle East” [Our View, March 27, 2016] The editorial states that the “U.S. State Department, House of Representatives, and European Parliament have formally declared that the actions of ISIS against Christians amount to genocide.” The editorial concludes by urging readers “Whether through sending money, offering prayers – and more concretely, helping refugees find shelter – the world cannot ignore the persecution of the faithful where Christianity was born.”
In the Levant (generally referring to the Near East countries of Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and Turkey) Hassan Mneimneh informs us [from the Fikra Forum, December 10, 2015]:
Iraq’s Christian population has dwindled from nearly 10 percent just over a decade ago to the low single digits today. Only the Iraqi Kurdistan region … safeguard[s] a Christian presence…the conflict in Syria offers Christian Syrians, who also accounted for about 10 percent of their society, an awful choice … either support a brutal regime with little chance of survival … or else align with opposition forces, which mostly promise Christians mere “protected” status rather than equality. Many faced with these choices have opted to leave; the pressure on those remaining is mounting.
In Palestinian society, the discourse of a secular democratic state has been displaced by the reframing of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Muslim-Jewish terms. This new rhetoric diminishes the space — ideological, social, or political — accorded to Christian Palestinians. In Jordan, the small Christian community (of about 5 percent) benefits from solemn support from the monarchy and cordial relations with Muslim Jordanians…[but] the rise of grassroots religious extremism is raising the level of concern even for this generally prosperous and successful Christian minority.
But it is in Lebanon, where the concept of Christian-Muslim coexistence has been enshrined as an official principle of state and society, that another kind of deep damage has affected intercommunity relations. Lebanon is home to the only expressions of national Christian politics in the region — political movements explicitly aimed at furthering the interests of Christians as a collective, in the context of national harmony and against any potential threat.
The New York Times did an expose on the decline of Christianity in the Middle East in July, 2015 (“Is This The End of Christianity in the Middle East?”). It claims that “In Iran and Turkey, [Christians are] all but gone.” In Lebanon, “their numbers have shrunk over the past century, to 34 percent from 78 percent of the population.” Peggy Noonan sums it up: “Jihadists are de-Christianizing the Mideast, where Christianity began.”
What the Pope and these other bodies, including the New Mexican editorialists, fail to mention is there is one place in the Middle East where Christian communities have thrived, indeed all religions are protected: Israel. While Christians have been persecuted by Islamic leaders in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere, and while Christians have been emigrating from these states where possible, the data are clear that the Christian populations in Israel have been growing.
After the 1948 Arab-Israel War (which ended officially in the 1949 armistice) there were 34,000 Christians in Israel proper (without the West Bank and Gaza Strip, re-acquired by Israel in 1967; Israel withdrew from Gaza completely in 2005). According to the official Israeli Census Data, the Christian population grew by 454 percent from 1949 through 2014:
|Year||Israeli Christian Population|
While the percent of Christians as part of Israel’s population has not increased over time, primarily because of the higher reproductive rates of observant Jews and Muslims, the lower reproductive rates of Christians, and the large immigration waves of Jews (aliyah), the absolute increase indicates a favorable climate for religious tolerance and multiculturalism in Israel.
The same cannot be said for the Palestinian-controlled West Bank and Gaza. Population figures are a bit sketchier in theses Palestinian territories because of less reliable surveys and demographic data (see also here for difficulties of understanding demographic trends in the West Bank and Gaza). In Gaza, Christians are being forced to convert to Islam. As reported in 2012, the 3500 Christian Gazans have dwindled to perhaps 1500 over the past few years (perhaps the number is lower now, though it was hard to find data) in a total Gaza population of 1.7 million. In the West Bank the CIA FactBook states that there are perhaps 1-2.5% of the population, or 30-50,000 Christians resident. The CIA FactBook further is clear, “the proportion of Christians continues to fall mainly as a result of the growth of the Muslim population but also because of the migration and the declining birth rate of the Christian population (2012 est.)”
However, this statement conflicts with the finding of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which in a 2011 study claimed that the number of Palestinian Christians overall has remained fairly steady at or around 50,000 for many years. The JCPA states, “The demographic data about Palestinian Christians are frequently distorted to portray, inaccurately, a community that is swiftly declining or on the verge of extinction. Often this is done to bolster criticism of Israel.” The common narratives expressed by Palestinians is considered in detail in the JCPA Background Paper on the Palestinian Christian Population by Ethan Felson. [Note: this paper does not always come up when searched for, so it is being provided as a pdf download: Christian Population in West Bank & Gaza – 2011 report.]
Many Christians find the environment of the West Bank more difficult, partially because of the security barrier erected following the massive suicide bombings of the second intifada, and partially because Palestinian Muslims have caused more difficult circumstances. A special issue of the Middle East Quarterly in 2001 includes an article by Daphne Tsimhoni which states,
The second intifada that began in September 2000 further deteriorated the position of the Christians in the PA, particularly those in the quiet, largely Christian town Beit Jala. Armed Palestinian elements chose Beit Jala (near Bethlehem) as their base for sniping at the neighboring Jerusalem quarter of Giloh. Their goal was self-evident – to direct international attention and retaliatory bombardment of this Christian town by the Israelis.
Since 2001 the Bethlehem Christian population has declined however, now approximating only 15%, down from 90% in the early 1900s, and 40% in 2000 [see Rennert, 2013]. A good resource to better understand the Christian population of the Palestinian-controlled areas can be found here.
Help us educate the Santa Fe community about this positive aspect of Israel…
Write a letter to the editor of the New Mexican, pointing out the welcomed cultural diversity in Israel, the only place in the Middle East where Christians are full citizens, and whose numbers have been growing. Tips on good letter writing can be found on our website here.
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