Suffering with Bethlehem

By Guest Blogger Lord David Alton

As we turn our eyes towards Bethlehem this Christmas our focus should be on the Christians living today in the lands of the Bible.

For 2000 years Christians have been woven into the very fabric of the Middle East.   Yet, as Pope Benedict has warned“Churches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence”. They have faced asphyxiation in Iraq, persecution in Saudi Arabia, execution in Iran, decimation in Palestine, suffering and hardship in Egypt, and they share in the deadly daily terrors of Syria.

During his visit to Lebanon earlier this year, Benedict told these courageous Christians that they should “fear not, for the Lord is truly with you. Fear not because the universal Church walks at your side and is humanly and spiritually close to you.”

This is a moment to reflect on whether, in reality, we do walk with the persecuted Christians of the Middle East; whether weare at their side – both humanly and spiritually and whether we have any understanding of the scale of their suffering.

Reflecting on a different wave of persecution St.Maximilian Kolbe – the saint of Auschwitz – said that “The most deadly poison of our times is indifference.”     We risk the sin of indifference, captivated, as we are,  by the imagery of the New Testament – the babe in the swaddling clothes and the mother and her child – but ignoring those trapped by waves of intimidation and violence: their faith their only crime.

We can marvel at the broken stones on the archaeological sites of Judaea and Galilee, Ephesus and Nineveh, or gaze at the stunning wonders of Byzantium, hear the beautiful liturgies of the Chaldeans, Marionites, Syrianis, Copts, and other ancient Christian traditions, but remain strangely indifferent to the living stones – the Christians of 2012.

Throughout this past year the crisis for Christians in the Middle East has deepened and 2013 promises to be no better.

The region’s biggest Christian population is in Egypt – and during the Arab Spring they joined with Muslim neighbours in the heady pro-democracy demonstrations in Tahrir Square.  They had barely taken their banners home before Salafi groups began to foment sectarian violence against the Copts. The Egyptian Muslim novelist, Alaa al-Aswany, put it well when he said:

“We can expect Islamists to use the democratic system merely as a ladder to power, which they will climb up and then kick away so that no one else can use it.”

That is precisely what has happened and why, last month, with the publication of a new Constitution in Egypt, which entrenches both Sharia law and, by edict, President Morsi as a virtual dictator, moderate Muslims, secularists and Christians were back in Tahrir Square demonstrating again, but this time against the new regime.

None of this bodes well for Egypt’s Christians.  In November, a blindfolded boy pulled one name from a list of three to select Egypt’s new Coptic Pope, Bishop Tawadros, as the leader of the region’s largest Christian minority.

Pope Tawadros will be leading a church under systematic and unremitting attack. Little wonder that more than 100,000 Copts left Egypt over one recent nine month period , coerced into that, according to the Director of the European Union of Human Rights Organisations, “by threats and intimidation of hard-line Salafists, and the lack of protection they are getting from the Egyptian regime.”

Paradoxically, 2000 years ago the Holy Family of Bethlehem found a safe place of refuge in Egypt – after fleeing the violence and mass murder of children by Herod. They wouldn’t find a safety there today.

And what would they find in Bethlehem?

They would find a town where, in 1947, the population was 85% Christian but is said to be now as low as 15%. There would be few Palestinian Christian families to take them in, as Christians now constitute only 0.5 per cent of the population – around 50,000 who now  live in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

If they were fortunate enough to find a sympathetic innkeeper he would warn them to keep their heads down and to think about emigrating – joining the 70% of Christian Arabs who now live abroad, from Sydney to Detroit, Toronto to Berlin.

In nearby Lebanon they would find a Christian population which has declined from 75% to 32%.  In Iraq, the cradle of the ancient churches, but now the scene of their annihilation, they would join hundreds of thousands who have been part of an exodus of Biblical . In the 1987 census, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today there may be fewer than 150,000. As one Christian source in Iraq comments: “The attacks on Christians continue and the world remains totally silent. It’s as if we have been swallowed up by the night.”

And what if they took the road to Damascus?

Many Iraqi Christians did, indeed, take that road, fleeing to what they imagined to be the safety of Syria  – only to find themselves  cruelly caught between a rock and a hard place. Aid To The Church In Need has reported on one village where 12,000 people are trapped in a village without bread and other basic necessities.

That excellent charity recently brought   Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo to Britain and I met him in Parliament

He told me about the impact of the civil war in Syria on his diocese of Aleppo, its ancient Christian community and relations between the faiths.

Speaking movingly about the extreme suffering of people he called on the British Government to do more to stand up for an individual’s right to choose his or her religious faith. Does anyone really believe (other than the British foreign Office) that Syria’s Opposition is likely to do this.

How you treat minorities is the test of a country’s claim to be civilised and religious freedom has been described as the pinnacle of all other freedoms.  Consider that claim in the context of the depredations occurring in Syria and across the region.

Bishop Audo paints a dire picture of an innocent population being caught in the crossfire. “Aleppo, the city I love so much and where I have been bishop this past 20 years, is now devastated – much of it in ruins.” Cultural collaboration and stability have been replaced by fear and anarchy.

Syria had long been regarded as a shining example of peaceful co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Druze. The Christian communities in Syria have made up around 10% of the population (approximately 2.6 millions) and are one of the largest minorities in the country. Inevitably, as the violence has escalated many Christians have chosen to flee. The city of Homs has lost an estimated 80,000 of its Christian inhabitants.

According to Bishop Audo: “All but a few of the faithful were forced to leave after a wave of persecution – all the churches desecrated”.

The Bishop of Aleppo understands the appeal of leaving Syria but he is also certain that the presence of Christians in the region is a safeguard for those Muslims who believe in tolerance and co-existence and that without their presence the whole region will be poorer.   He is firm in his conviction that Arab Christians have a vital contribution to make to Syria and the whole Middle East region. It’s a pity that Western leaders don’t believe that too.

So, in wishing you and your loved ones a blessed and peaceful Christmas, let’s not forget the plight of the Middle East’s beleaguered Christian communities and resolve in 2013 to take seriously Pope Benedict’s appeal to be “humanly and spiritually close to them.”

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