I have just been on a visit to Israel. It was the run-up to Easter week when I reached Jerusalem. There, on the Via Dolorosa, numbers of priests, monks, and nuns and accompanying pilgrims were doing the Stations of the Cross, a penitential walk up a twisty and uneven alley. You see Catholics, Evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopians, Armenians, in what looks like a representation of Christianity and its history of splits and dissent. And passing them, jostling, shouting, evidently proving their indifference to this religion and trying to distract, are porters, youths pushing hand-carts, merchants, salesmen, tourist guides, in a vast hubbub that militates against prayer.
Someone likely to know told me that there are in fact only 14,000 Christians in Jerusalem, including native Arabs and the international religious community. Not so long ago, there were many more. The Arab Christians are unable to resist Islamism. Muslims are taking over the Christian quarters of East Jerusalem as well as outlying Christian suburbs like Beit Jala and Beit Sahur. One day a Christian Arab cab-driver wanted to take me to Bethlehem. It wasn’t safe. An undercover Israeli squad had just shot dead the four local Islamic Jihad leaders who were in the process of calling on town notables and intimidating them. 250,000 people are supposed to have turned out at the funeral of these four – and that in a town once eighty percent Christian, but where Christians are now a disappearing minority.
Have Christians no place in the Muslim world? Islamist radicals talk about Christians as “Crusaders” as though fighting to the death the wars of the Middle Ages. In his latest outburst Osama bin Laden promises to take frightful revenge for the Danish cartoons, and he blackguards the Pope. In Algeria, Monsignor Henri Tessier, Archbishop of Algiers, says that Catholics experience a pressure that borders on persecution. Father Pierre Wellez and a doctor friend of his have just received prison sentences in Algeria for praying openly outside a prayer hall. One of the most frightening moments of my life was in Cherchell on the Algerian coast when I went to look at what I thought was a French colonial church, but in fact had been converted to a mosque. Out poured the worshippers to fling stones, and my daughter and I had to run for it. Two Austrians have been taken hostage in Tunisia supposedly to pressure their government to withhold aid to the coalition in Afghanistan. In Iraq, Paulos Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic of Mosul, has just been kidnapped, and his corpse found. In Gaza, the church and the YMCA of the miniscule Greek Orthoxox community have been burnt out. Several churches in Pakistan have been bombed with much loss of life.
Muslim fanaticism and intolerance is not going to succeed even in the medium term. Thanks to the humanity of its founder, Christianity thrives and acquires strength when it is persecuted. Everyone can tell the difference between a martyr unjustly killed for his faith, and a martyr who kills himself and others for his faith.
Meanwhile the newspapers publish photographs of Mikhail Gorbachev flanked by Franciscan friars on their way to the church of Saint Francis of Assisi. The former general secretary of the Soviet Communist party, a party dedicated to stamping out religion as “the opium of the people” in the famous sneer of Karl Marx! Gorbachev a self-declared devout Christian! What an example of Christianity’s power of regeneration, and in the end, it seems to me, that is what the imams and the mullahs and bin Ladens are really afraid of.