Christmas brings our thoughts to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, a town the carol remembers as lying still, in deep and dreamless sleep.
Alas, Bethlehem now knows little stillness or sleep and, if Mary and Joseph were to arrive, life might be even more difficult–and the flight to Egypt come earlier.
Bethlehem’s Christians, gathered around the Church of the Nativity–one of Christianity’s holiest sites–were shaken last year when 200 Palestinians, firing Kalashnikovs, knocked down the church doors to escape the Israelis. They remained inside for 39 days, while eight people were killed and more than 25 were wounded. Never before had armed men been in the Nativity.
In the last three years, several thousand of Bethlehem’s Christians, perhaps five percent of the population, have left. They have gone for many reasons. One is simply that life is very, very harsh under the intifada and Israeli military action. Another is the rising power of radical Islam. A Pew survey in June found that Palestinians judged Bin Laden the “world leader” most likely to “do the right thing,” with 71-percent support. Next was Arafat with 69 percent. (Jacques Chirac came third at 32 percent). Surveys in October by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research put support for Arafat’s Fatah at 28 percent, with Hamas at 21 percent, and the total Islamist vote at 29 percent.
Like its parent, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas fights to reestablish an Islamic caliphate, and its founding covenant proclaims “the Koran is its constitution” and “the law governing the land of Palestine is the Islamic sharia.”
Islamization pressures now reach beyond Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and their kindred. The draft Palestinian constitution says, “Islam is the official religion in Palestine,” and makes the “principles of the Islamic sharia” a “main source for legislation.” Textbooks, PA television, and government-sponsored preachers now stress Islamist rather than nationalist themes. In a sermon broadcast on official television in 2000, Ahmad Abu Halabiya, of the PA’s Fatwa Council, declared: “Allah the almighty has called upon us not to ally with the Jews or the Christians, not to like them, not to become their partners, not to support them, and not to sign agreements with them. And he who does that is one of them, as Allah said: ‘O you who believe, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies, for they are allies of one another.’”
Under this pressure, Christians throughout the Middle East are fleeing their homeland. At the end of the 19th century, they were a quarter of the Holy Land’s population. Today they are barely a 40th. A similar exodus is taking place throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including Chaldeans and Assyrians from Iraq, Copts from Egypt, and Syriacs from Turkey (victims of Turkish Hezbollah before it turned its attention to bombing synagogues in Istanbul). This drain has given rise to fears that the Church’s original home will become little more than a Christian museum.
With Islamic conquest and occupation of the Middle East beginning in the seventh century, Christianity has a very long history of migrating. Over the last two millennia its demographic center has moved from the Holy Land, through Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, then to Spain. Now it lies just north of Nigeria: Two-thirds of the world’s Christians and four-fifths of its active Christians live outside the West.
Their Christmas joy is also shadowed by pain and fear, since this is the peak season for anti-Christian attacks in Pakistan, India, Sudan, Nigeria, and beyond. The U.S. has issued terrorist warnings to westerners in Indonesia, but the likeliest targets are churches throughout the country–there were Christmas Eve church bombings in 18 cities three years ago, and terrorists arrested this year had maps of Christian meeting places. This is also a time when the Chinese and Vietnamese governments are prone to arrest their unregistered believers.
But fear is only one part of the tale. For most, even in the heart of suffering, the larger story is hope. If I may repeat from my book Their Blood Cries Out:
Christians are African women who rise at dawn to greet the rising sun in a wailing chant of thanks to god. They are Indian untouchables cleaning up excrement from the streets. They are slaves in Sudanese markets. They are Chinese peasants flip-flopping by rice fields, or pedaling bicycles through Shanghai, or rotting in prison. They are Mexican tribal people, driven from their ancestral homes. They are Filipino maids, misused throughout the world. They are Arab women who have been raped and had acid poured on them to remove distinguishing Christian marks. And, overwhelmingly, they are people who, given a moment’s time, space and freedom, live life with joy, enthusiasm, gratitude, and hope.
For them, as for many of us, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Bethlehem tonight.
–Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom.