by Albert Barkan
The demographics of the Middle East over the last century show a drastic trend in the religious composition of the region. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Christians comprised 14% of the population of the Middle East; now, according to a 2015 article in the New York Times, that number is down to somewhere between 3-4%. On a national level, the statistics are similarly alarming. In one century, Lebanon’s Christian community has gone from being a majority to just a bit over a third of the nation’s population. In Iraq, only a third of the nation’s Christian population exists at its 2003-level, and in Syria a third of the nation’s community has fled the country since the start of the bloody Civil War in 2011. The numbers speak for themselves. There is a cleansing of Christianity occurring in the region.
What is to blame for this catastrophic decline? One answer is the rise of fundamentalist Islamic movements such as ISIL, which have targeted and destroyed churches, kidnapped individual adherents of the faith, forced conversions, and even beheaded Christians. With the Arab Spring, things worsened, as strongmen who sought to protect religious minorities toppled over as the floodgates opened for more rigid, intolerant extremism. With no end in sight for the bloody wars in Iraq and Syria, and with the overall geopolitical future of the region uncertain, one must ask if there is any glimmer of hope, any respite for the future of Christianity in the region?
The answer lies in Israel, the only Middle Eastern nation where the Christian population is growing.
Declaring independence in 1948, Israel is, in its essence, a Jewish State – a nation meant to be the fulfillment of the two thousand year old dream for Jewish statehood. Persecuted in the diaspora for centuries, Jews sought to reestablish themselves as a self-governing entity in their historic homeland. Yet, as of February 2016, about 24% of Israel’s population is not Jewish. Instead, this one-fourth of the populace is predominantly Arab, of which seven percent is Christian. Outside of the Arab population, there are also thousands of Christians who are of Russian background, having arrived in the last two decades as a result of Israel’s Law of Return, which stipulates that people who are of another faith but of at least partial Jewish descent can immigrate; in 2005, 59% of immigrants to Israel from Russia were not considered Jewish under traditional religious law. Overall, there are currently 120,000 Christians living in Israel, and the number is growing.
In Israel, Christians enjoy full rights equal to their Jewish counterparts, and are protected under the law. They practice their religion freely and have access to holy sites which are protected by Israeli authorities. Whereas in Syria churches are bombed, in Israel they thrive. While it is true that there have been incidents of religious sites being vandalized by both hardline Jews and Muslims, these have been anomalies rather than trends, and when they occur the perpetrators have been brought to justice. There is even an Arab Christian on the nation’s Supreme Court, Salim Joubran.
Christians, in particular Arab ones, have also stood out in their levels of education. In fact, a 2014 study showed that Christian Arabs have higher rates of eligibility for a high school diploma than Israeli Jews. According to the report’s author, Hanna David: “For many years Christian Arabs in Israel have enjoyed the highest levels of matriculation and educational achievement.”
In recent years, renewed efforts have also been made to further integrate Christians into mainstream Israeli society. These efforts have been spearheaded in particular by a Greek Orthodox Priest, Father Gabriel Nadaff, who has called for voluntary Christian service in the Israel Defense Forces (service is only mandatory for Jewish citizens.) Thanks to Father Naddaf’s efforts, enlistment into the IDF amongst Arab Christians has skyrocketed from about 35 per year in 2012 to over 150 today. According to Nadaff, “Israel and the Middle East, it is where Christianity began. If there are no Christians in the Middle East, then what’s the significance, for example, of Christians in China? It is like if there would be Jews in Germany and France, but not in Israel. Something would be missing.”
Last semester, Eagles for Israel, Boston College’s official pro-Israel advocacy group, invited Jonathan Elkhoury to speak on campus. Elkhoury is a Lebanese Christian whose family fled their native country in 2000 when faced with the threat of extermination by the terrorist Islamist group Hezbollah. Seeking refuge, Jonathon told the audience, his family found acceptance and tolerance in Israel, where he has lived ever since and where he even served in the army.
Jonathan’s story is reflective of the fact that while Israel remains an inherently Jewish state in its mission and nature, it is, ironically enough, the only place in the Middle East where it is completely safe for people to be Christian, and one where Christians can prosper without any widescale governmental or other social impediments towards their success. With the rise of radical Islam in political vacuums and the proliferation of countries like Saudia Arabia, which require all its citizens to be Muslim and discriminates against worship of any other religion, the State of Israel remains a beacon of hope for religious pluralism in an uncertain region.
In light of this situation, it is more important than ever that Christians both in America and around the globe recognize the importance of Israel’s safety and security in a region surrounded by enemies. When voices on college campuses and on international television programs call out the Jewish State as oppressive or even genocidal, Christians must stand up and tell their side of the story – of how in Israel they have a permanent friend and an ally.