Pray for the little town of Bethlehem

By Rowan Williams (THE TIMES, 23/12/06):

One warning often made and systematically ignored in the hectic days before the Iraq War was that Western military action — at that time and in that way — would put Christians in the whole Middle East at risk. They would be seen as supporters of the crusading West. At the very least, some were asking, shouldn’t we have a strategy about how to handle this?

Well, we didn’t have one. And the results are now painfully adding to what was already a difficult situation for Christian communities across the region. Iraq’s Christian population is dropping by thousands every couple of months and some of their most effective leaders have been forced to emigrate. In Istanbul, the Orthodox population is a tiny remnant, and their Patriarch is told by some of the Turkish press that it’s time he left. In Egypt, where Christian-Muslim relations have been — and still are — intimate and good, attacks on Christians are notably more frequent.

As well as finding asylum difficult to get, it’s not unknown for Arab Christian families fleeing to the UK to find that their children are told in school that “they must be Muslims really” and so are hived off with Muslim children for special activities. And that simply illustrates that we, from the Government downwards, are seriously badly informed about Middle Eastern Christians.

Yet for centuries they have played a crucial role in practically all of those nations we now regard as uniformly Muslim, even Iran. They have been a reminder for both the Arab world and the West that “Arab” and “Muslim” are not the same — and that Muslim nations have a history of coping hospitably with Christians on their doorstep. As Christian populations migrate, it all fuels the myth in East and West — that Islam can’t live with other faiths and that the East-West collision is an irreconcilable clash of faiths and cultures.

Yet Christians can genuinely be part of the solution. In Lebanon, Christian communities offered the most promising schemes for lasting peace during the summer’s conflict and peace plans developed by the Maronite Church are widely acknowledged as bringing the most realistic contribution to the search for peace between warring factions.

Of course Christian communities don’t have a blameless history in the region. But they have something special to say. To the Westerner, they say: “Remember that Christianity didn’t start in England or even Rome; it’s a Middle Eastern faith.” To Muslims, they say: “Remember that Islam would not have spread as it did without the way being prepared (as the Koran itself says) by the other local religions — by Christians and Jews. Remember that there are ways of being authentically Arab, non-Western, that don’t have to be Islamic.”

These communities will survive only if fellow Christians in the West decide to pay a bit of attention. This doesn’t mean using clumsy political or military pressure to “protect” them, in ways that only reinforce the idea that they’re Western allies and so must be unreliable. That’s happened too often in the past. It means being willing to protest when they are ill-treated; to make contact with them, to set up links between local churches here and in the Middle East; to remember when we visit the region that they exist and need friends. It’s not that these Christians are being persecuted by Muslim governments on the whole. It’s a matter of rising tides of extremism, which governments are as keen to check as anyone.

Speaking up for and befriending the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East is good for them and for Muslims too; it’s a reminder of the healthier and saner relationship between the faiths that existed in many parts of the Middle East for long tracts of its complicated history.

It comes home most poignantly in the Holy Land itself. I have spent the past two days with fellow Christian leaders in Bethlehem, its Christian population down to barely a quarter. There are some disturbing signs of Muslim anti-Christian feeling, despite the consistent traditions of coexistence. But their plight is made still more intolerable by the tragic conditions created by the “security fence” that almost chokes the shrinking town — the dramatic poverty, soaring unemployment and sheer practical hardship of travelling to school, work or hospital. The sense of desperate isolation is felt by Christians more acutely than most.

Once heavily represented among the professional classes, many feel they have no choice but to leave. One Christian Palestinian friend said to me: “I never imagined that people like us would find ourselves hungry, unemployed, facing daily violence.” Some of the people who would be most helpful in making Palestinian society stronger and more democratic feel they have no future in the Holy Land: to the zealots on one side they are potential terrorists, to the zealots on the other they may be seen as infidels. And unfortunately it’s the zealots who make the running.

The first Christian believers were Middle Easterners. It’s a sobering thought that we might live to see the last native Christian believers in the region. It’s not a problem we can go on ignoring if we care about the health and stability of the Middle East; we need to confront it, not by weighing in with firepower but by making real relationships with the communities there and working at trustful contacts with those Muslims who understand their own history and want to live in a lively, varied culture.

This Christmas, pray for the little town of Bethlehem, and spare a thought for those who have been put at risk by our short-sightedness and ignorance; and ask what you might do locally to raise the profile of these brave and ancient Churches.