I celebrated Christmas last week with entirely new intention and understanding. In December, I visited Israel as part of a delegation of Hispanic-American leaders, under the auspices of a private educational organization called The Face of Israel. During our trip, I had the privilege to travel the country and to meet with the Rev. Gabriel Naddaf, a native Arabic-speaking Israeli Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth, the city where Jesus Christ began his own ministry.
As Father Naddaf spoke to us, we began to grasp that his presence in the Holy Land is more than a symbolic nod to the origins of Christianity. It is, in fact, one of the world’s most powerful and hopeful testaments to the continuity and living potential of Christian identity in the Middle East today. Father Naddaf’s very existence is a statement of courage and resolve in the face of an increasingly hostile and volatile region. What he told us has transformed my understanding of the Middle East, and of my responsibility to it as a Christian — and as an American — living in the 21st century.
At least since Sept. 11, 2001, when I served in the White House — and perhaps even more so in the past year with the emergence of the Islamic State — the world has been forced to reckon with the spread of Islamic extremism. Perhaps less obvious, however, are the implications of this violent threat for non-Muslims in the Middle East. Christians, in particular, have a rich and beautiful history in the region, extending all the way back to the life of Jesus. But according to Father Naddaf, in the past century Christians have gone from comprising 20 percent of the regional population to just 4 percent. Demographic changes may have many causes, but this dramatic downturn for Christians in the Middle East is owed in part to the rise of Muslim extremism.
Sitting in Nazareth, our delegation learned that in the past 10 years, 100,000 Christians have been killed each year because of their faith — many of them in the Middle East. Father Naddaf spoke to us about how less than a quarter of the millions of Christians who once lived in Iraq and Syria remain. These people trace their roots back to the inception of some of the world’s oldest and most storied Christian communities, but now they are subjected by Islamic extremists to the most heinous of threats and crimes imaginable. Those who can escape flee for their lives, while those who remain face all manner of degradation and discrimination, including financial and political disenfranchisement, and forced conversion, rape and even execution.
Within the borders of Israel, however, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the Christian population is growing. Israel provides Christians with security, freedom of worship, excellent education, employment, health care and other rights and opportunities beyond what is available in many parts of the Muslim world. Father Naddaf and other Christian priests of various denominations, both within and beyond Israel and the Middle East, are clear: One of the safest places for Christians in the Middle East today is Israel.
Even as a lawyer, former judge and law professor at a Christian university, seeing the status of Christian citizens of Israel in the context of their plight across the broader region has given me a whole new appreciation for the blessings of liberty and rule of law. I cannot help but feel grateful that my Christianity has never made me a target of persecution in my home — which is more than many Christians in other Middle Eastern nations can say.
At the same time, as the highest-ranking Hispanic-American in executive government to date, I have carried my minority identity with me my entire life. I do not take for granted the significance of prominent Christian Arabs in Israeli society like Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran and Knesset member Hana Sweid. These and similar examples from Israel, combined with the dire straits facing Christians across the Middle East, remind us of why the United States and other countries where freedom and equality rein must stand by Israel on the front lines against the terrorism and intolerance of Islamic extremism.
In the spirit of Christmas, let us consider how we celebrate while others cannot. If Father Naddaf’s message is not to be delivered in vain, then we must strive to do more — especially in honor of the birth of Christianity — to ensure that Christian life in the Middle East does not disappear on our generation’s watch.
Alberto R. Gonzales served as U.S. attorney general from 2005 to 2007 in the George W. Bush administration. He is dean of the Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, Tennessee.