Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

The Other Christmas Rush Is Christians Fleeing Arabia

Posted by vmsalama on January 7, 2008

 As always, I am eager to hear your thoughts!

By Vivian Salama

Newsweek

Jan 14, 2008 Issue 

Christmas is usually a time to celebrate the arrival of Christians in the Holy Land. But this year, as Patriarch Michel Sabbah of the Latin Rite Catholic Church revealed during his Christmas sermon in Bethlehem, local leaders are currently concerned with the opposite phenomenon: exodus. Speaking to the legions of Arab Christians fleeing the region, Sabbah said, “I say to you what Jesus told us: do not be afraid.”But there’s reason to be. Last year, dozens of Christians were slain in Iraq and a Syriac Orthodox priest was beheaded in Mosul. Two prominent Christian Palestinians were recently killed in Gaza. A political stalemate in Lebanon and the increased dominance of Shiite Hizbullah has made Maronites fear their traditional perks, like control of the presidency, are slipping. Even in Egypt, where religion has played little role in government, Christians now worry that the increasing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood could lead to new restrictions.

Thus many are voting with their feet. There are now just 12 million to 15 million Arabic-speaking Christians left in the Middle East, and this could drop to 6 million by 2025. Countries are being transformed: in 1956, Lebanese Christians made up 54 percent of the country; today they’re about 30 percent. Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from 1.4 million in 1987 to 600,000 today. And Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, was 80 percent Christian when Israel won independence in 1948; now it’s 16 percent. Fred Strickert of Wartburg College estimates that hundreds of thousands of Christian Arabs have been displaced in the recent years, including half a million from Iraq alone. Christian Arabs emigration isn’t new. But according to Drew Christiansen, editor of America Magazine, the tide has increased since the second intifada in the Palestinian territories and the Iraq War. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute says most Christians chose to relocate to Europe and the Americas. Some 75 percent of the United States’ 3.5 million Middle Easterners are Christian, as are large slices in Canada, France, and Brazil. Many new exiles hope to relocate to the United States: no small irony given that the instability they’re fleeing was set in motion by the United States itself.

With the exodus, ancient practices and cultures are being lost, and Middle Eastern Christians risk eventually being “amalgamated into Western Christianity,” says Christiansen. The result will be “a dilution of the diversity of Christian traditions.” But given the life or death choices many Arab Christian emigrants now face, that looks like a small price to pay.

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