The enduring symbol of Christmas, spanning the world’s diverse Christian cultures and the history of two millennia, is the nativity scene inspired by the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Artistically synthesizing the two gospel stories, the nativity scene is infused with profound Christian meaning and symbolism.
John the Baptist, whose own birth is linked to Jesus’s in Luke’s account, exhorts Christians to “prepare the way of the Lord,” and traditionally many do so during the Christmas season by meditating on these tender devotional scenes. One of the earliest surviving is a 5th-century bas relief from Naxos, Greece. Whether modern nativity scenes are modeled on the famous “live crèches” staged by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, those painted by Renaissance artists, the Baroque Neapolitan crèches (one is displayed in the White House), or simple folk versions, they remain popular worldwide.
This year, one aspect of the nativity scene deserves special reflection. Gathered around the manger that serves as the Christ Child’s cradle are representatives of three ancient religious groups indigenous to the region: Mary and Joseph, the first Christians; the shepherds of Bethlehem, the Jewish “city of David”; and the Magi, the name for Zoroastrian priests, who followed a celestial sign from their home in the East looking for the “King of the Jews.” (Though not depicted in the nativity art, John the Baptist himself attracted many followers, some of whom never converted to Christianity and became known as Sabean Mandeans.)
These figures in the Christmas story represent the principal monotheistic religions of Middle Eastern antiquity. It would not be until six centuries later that Islam arose in the Arabian peninsula. Even today, the Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and a group the Zoroastrians inspired, the Yezidis, as well as the Sabean Mandeans, constitute the main non-Islamic religions in the Greater Middle East.
But this is coming to an end. Since 2004, a relentless wave of Islamist terrorist attacks targeting Iraq’s indigenous Christians has prompted that group to flee en masse. At the time of Saddam Hussein’s fall, the number of Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Armenians, Syriacs, and other Christians in Iraq was estimated at 1.4 million. Half of these Christians have since fled, and some observers speculate that this may well be the last Christmas in Iraq for the half remaining. In fact, it’s not just the Christian community that faces existential threats, and it is not just in Iraq. Every one of the indigenous religious communities evoked by the nativity story is disappearing from the region’s Muslim-majority countries.
Religious demographics are kept as state secrets in the Muslim Middle East, and most of those countries’ governments have not conducted a census in decades. Still, while the data are soft, it is established that Christians are by far the largest remaining non-Muslim group, and that they are clustered principally in Egypt, Iraq, and the Levant. It is estimated that they number no more than 15 million, a minute fraction of the region’s overall population. Lebanese scholar Habib Malik writes that these Christians are in a state of “terminal regional decline.”