As our minds turn once again to the baby that was born in Bethlehem two millennia ago, amidst social unrest, foreign occupation, political turmoil and religious zealotry, we might reflect on the fact that journeying from Nazareth to Bethlehem is as fraught with danger as ever it was, and the olive-growing, grape-cultivating, sheep-rearing peasants are still losing their land to Herod or Caesar, while the people watch and wait for the coming of the Messiah. The tribal confederacies echo through the centuries, and the essential quasi-anarchism of the state endures.
There are still prophets proclaiming their visions of peace and political autonomy under the God of Israel, and then there are the fanatics whose quest for domination thrives on fomenting political tensions and societal upheaval. They are militants who corrode trust and trample over dreams with prolonged guerrilla-style spiritual warfare; and sometimes acts of terrorism, suicide bombs, political assassination and religious desecration.
It is into the contemporary context that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem Hosam Naoum wrote their joint article highlighting the cry of patriarchs and church leaders in Jerusalem, who are concerned that Christians throughout the Holy Land have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by “fringe radical groups”. They describe “countless incidents” of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, as well as attacks on churches. The holy sites are vandalised, burned and desecrated, they told us, and Christian worshippers are harassed and intimidated as they go about their daily lives. The objective seems to be to cleanse the Old City of Jerusalem from all Christians – even those in the Christian quarter.
In 1922, at the end of the Ottoman Era, Christians in the Holy Land were estimated to number 73,000; about 10% of the population. In 2019, Christians constituted less than 2% of the population of the Holy Land: a massive drop in just 100 years.
..in East Jerusalem, the central place for pilgrimage and the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – where Christ is believed to have been crucified – there is steady decline. Church leaders believe that there are now fewer than 2,000 Christians left in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The interesting thing is that while there are undoubtedly some radical extremist Jewish groups who are intent on purging the land of goyim and recreating a Davidic kingdom that will have no end, the cause of the decline in the number of Christians in the Holy Land is not down to Israeli “settler communities, and travel restrictions brought about by the Separation Wall”. It really isn’t the security barrier built to stymie terror attacks from the West Bank which has caused “a steady stream of Palestinian Christians leaving the Holy Land to seek lives and livelihoods elsewhere”. As the President of the Board of Deputies Marie van der Zyl explains:
In the past century, both in Israel’s heartlands and the West Bank, the demographics show that the Palestinian population has increased significantly. If the overall Palestinian population has greatly increased, but the Palestinian Christian population has significantly declined, then clearly there are more complex reasons than those raised in the article, which appeared to attribute this decline to Jewish settlers and the barrier built to halt the wave of terror attacks of the Second Intifada.
The curious thing is that the Archbishops note: “In Israel, there is some increase in the overall numbers of Christians. The imminent reopening of St Peter’s Anglican Church in Jaffa, which has been closed for over 70 years, is encouraging.” And also that “Christians in Israel enjoy democratic and religious freedoms that are a beacon in the region.”
And yet the increase in the number of Christians in Israel, and the democratic and religious freedoms in Israel, are mentioned en passant, almost treated like footnotes in an article about Christian persecution and decline in the Holy Land. How do Arab Christians fare in Gaza under the authority of Hamas? Are they permitted to speak about their faith and worship freely? Are they permitted to speak about the Messiah and proclaim the gospel in the public square? Are they permitted to proselytise and make disciples to grow their numbers? Do they feel overwhelmed and oppressed by Israel’s security barrier, or by diminishing freedoms, educational paucity, collective insecurity and economic hardships caused by the Palestinian Authority?
If Christians in Israel are actually flourishing and increasing, which “fringe radical groups” are really responsible for the decline in the number of Christians in the Holy Land? Perhaps a glance at the plight of the Copts over the border in Egypt might provide a clue. Or perhaps some consideration of those who are targets of persecution in Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran, Algeria, Qatar…
Amidst all the trauma, suffering and sorrow in the Middle East, Israel really is a beacon of light in the region. So, to echo the Archbishops of Canterbury and Jerusalem, “..let’s get real this Christmas. When we sing O Little Town of Bethlehem, or Once in Royal David’s City, let’s hear the voice of the church of the Holy Land — and thank them [and especially Israel] for their gift to all of us. Let’s pray for their flourishing and their future: a future intertwined with the future prosperity and common good of all communities.”
And let us reflect on the message of hope and of good news for all people: Jesus, the light of the world, who will never be extinguished.
A very happy and blessed Christmas to all readers and communicants.