Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Decline of Christianity in the Holy Land

Dear Parish Faithful,

(I actually wrote this last week, but failed to send it out before I left for my trip. The subject matter, however, remains quite relevant.)

Christ is Risen!

I just completed an article entitled "Mideast Christians Declining in Influence" from today's New York Times. It was more than a little depressing. The article was prompted by the fact that Pope Benedict XVI is now on a pastoral visit to the region. The author of the article, Ethan Bronner, writes the following:

"But as Pope Benedict XVI wends his way across the Holy Land this week, he is addressing a dwindling and threatened Christian population driven to emigration by political violence, lack of economic opportunity and the rise of radical Islam. A region that a century ago was 20 percent Christian is about 5 percent today and dropping."

He then quotes the Rev. Jean Benjamin Sleiman, Roman Catholic archbishop of Baghdad, who shared this bleak forecast for the future: "I fear the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East." Speaking of the effects of the war in Iraq, we are informed that "of the 1.4 million Christians in Iraq at the time of the American invasion in 2003, nearly half have fled." Christians were attacked for working with Americans, and church bombings together with the murder of both clergy and lay members of the various Christian communities, have led many to flee.

A few more distressing statistics reveal that in 1948, Jerusalem was about one fifth Christian, while today the Christian population of the city is 2 percent. Also, in Bethlehem, "where the Church of the Nativity marks where Jesus is said to have been born, Christians now make up barely a third of the population after centuries of being 80 percent of it."

Further, we read that "A century ago there were millions of Christians in what is today Turkey; now there are 150,000. There is a house in Turkey where the Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last days, yet the country's National Assembly and military have no Christian members or officers except temporary recruits doing mandatory service. Violence against Christians has risen."

The cradle of Christianity is now facing the harsh reality of being empty of any real signs of a Christian presence:

"Since it was here that Jesus walked and Christianity was born, the papal visit highlights a prospect many consider deeply troubling for the globe's largest faith, adhered to by a third of humanity - its most powerful and historic shrines could become museum relics with no connection to those who live among them."

There is no comfort to be taken when looking ahead into the future. There are no current forces at work that would arrest this slow but steady exodus to the West on the part of Middle Eastern Christians. The Christian communities of the West are there to absorb them and give them a spiritual home free from persecution, as well as the possibility of some economic stability. The prospects for a Christian revival in the Middle East are, therefore, pretty dim. This "bad news" must always be evaluated within the greater context of the Good News of Christ crucified and risen. As disheartening as the demise of Christianity in the historic Middle East is, we must always be open to the providence of God working within these conditions. What may be obscure to us in the present, may yield meaning and purpose in the future. As of now, we should be mindful and prayerful toward the remaining Christians of the Middle East who believe and worship under difficult conditions.

Fr. Steven

Photo: Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. More photos of the Holy Land at

For a strong elaboration of the issues in this meditation, proceed to our Orthodox Q&A Forum.

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