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.”
The majority are Egypt’s Copts, numbering between 8 and 12 million. A year ago, Coptic worshippers were massacred during a Christmas Eve attack on their church in Naga Hammadi in southern Egypt, and several Coptic villages have been targeted by pogrom-like mob violence. In recent decades, Lebanon’s Christians have seen a sharp drop in their numbers, down from the majority there to one-third of the population, about 1.5 million. Syria has about 1 million; Jordan, about 185,000. The West Bank has about 50,000, and Gaza, 1,000 to 3,000. In Turkey, the site of Constantinople, which was the center of Byzantine Christianity from the 4th to the 15th century, some 100,000 Christians remain, less than 0.2 percent of the population. Iran counts about 300,000 Christians. Not all those who have fled from Iraq have left the region. About 60,000 have found refuge in Syria, for example. However, their presence is tenuous: They are barred from working and aid from abroad is scarce; some of the women have turned to prostitution, according to the Chaldean Catholic bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, SJ.
The Persian Gulf region and northern Africa have long since been “cleansed” of their indigenous Christian churches. Native Christians — mostly evangelicals, probably numbering in the thousands — worship largely in secret; Saudi Arabia has only one publicly known native Christian, the oft-imprisoned and extremely courageous Hamoud Saleh Al-Amri. Foreign workers, including over a million Christians, now living in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are denied rights of citizenship and, in the former, even the right to have churches. Morocco summarily deported scores of foreign Christian educators and social workers last spring.
The other religions have contracted even more sharply in the Muslim Middle East. Since the establishment of the state of Israel, some of the region’s Jews voluntarily left Muslim-majority countries; but as many as 850,000 of them, such as the Jews of Baghdad sixty years ago, were driven out, forced to leave land and possessions behind, by freelance terror and government policies. The parts of Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen that had been great Jewish centers since Old Testament times now have Jewish populations numbering in single, double, and triple digits, respectively. Estimates of Morocco’s native Jewish community, now the largest in the Arab Middle East, range from 2,000 to 6,000. Iran is home to 20,000 or so Jews. Turkey has 25,000.
Zoroastrians, based on the plains of Iran since their religion’s founding somewhere between 1800 and 1500 b.c. by the devotional poet Zarathustra, are estimated to number between 45,000 and 90,000. Iran scholar Jamsheed Choksy has documented (see “Religious Cleansing in Iran,” by Nina Shea and Jamsheed K. Choksy, July 22, 2009) a “steady decline through emigration away from Iran since the Islamic Republic’s intolerance toward minorities began in 1979.” Iran’s largest non-Muslim community is the Baha’i, founded after Islam in Shiraz, in southeastern Iran, and severely repressed as a heresy; Baha’is in Iran number about 350,000. Non-Muslim communities collectively have diminished to no more than 2 percent of Iran’s 71 million people.
Yezidis, who draw upon Zoroastrian beliefs, are found in northern Iraq; hundreds of thousands of them have fled in recent years, leaving half a million still in their native land. Sabean Mandeans, mostly based in Baghdad and Basra, are down to one-tenth of their pre-2003 population of 50,000.
In past centuries, Islamic conversion by the sword and pressures under the grossly discriminatory dhimmi system took their toll on the Middle East’s “People of the Book” (Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians). Now, factors such as lower birth rates, and emigration because of conflict at home and economic opportunities abroad, are commonly offered to explain these communities’ accelerating decline. Less plausibly, the region’s rulers, Western academics — many of whom they fund outright or otherwise provide inducements to — and religious leaders they essentially hold hostage also blame Zionism.
But the leading, and most obvious factor, one that was on full display during the Baghdad church massacre this October is rarely openly acknowledged or discussed: that is, the rise of extremist Islamist movements and the fact that most of the region’s governments finance, sympathize with, or appease them, or are too weak to keep them under control.
The fact that within the Muslim Middle East indigenous non-Muslim religious communities across the spectrum — Christians of every denomination, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabean Mandeans, Yezidis, Baha’is — are all rapidly heading toward extinction, while Muslim sects flourish in the same areas, points to this underlying phenomenon of Islamic radicalism.
Writing on this issue, Fouad Ajami eloquently put it this way: “The Islamists are doubtless a minority in the world of Islam. But they are a determined breed. Their world is the Islamic emirate, led by self-styled ‘emirs and mujahedeen in the path of God’ and legitimized by the pursuit of the caliphate that collapsed with the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. These masters of terror and their foot soldiers have made it increasingly difficult to integrate the world of Islam into modernity. . . . But the borders these warriors of the faith have erected between Islam and ‘the other’ are particularly forbidding. The lands of Islam were the lands of a crossroads civilization, trading routes and mixed populations. The Islamists have waged war, and a brutally effective one it has to be conceded, against that civilizational inheritance.”
We in the free West have a duty toward these endangered communities, especially Iraq’s besieged and abandoned Christians. Donations can be made to the Catholic Chaldean Federation; St. George’s ecumenical congregation in Baghdad, led by Anglican canon Andrew White; and the Assyrian-aid organization associated with Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana of the Assyrian Church of the East. Gazing on the crèche this Christmas, let us prayerfully reflect on what each of us can do to help.
— Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.