Recent attacks in which 44 worshippers were killed in a church in Iraq, and 21 perished in a church bombing in Egypt, drew attention to the persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East. Sadly, a Christian exodus from the Middle East has been going on for some time.
For instance, Iraq's Christians once numbered 1.5 million out of a total Iraqi population of about 30 million. Now there are an estimated 850,000. The same decline has occurred for decades in Egypt, Syria, Iran and in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Jesus’ birthplace, Bethlehem, is a Christian town only in a historical sense; very few Christians actually live there anymore. Christians have to deal with terror attacks, mob violence, official discrimination and unofficial economic boycotts by their neighbors and fellow citizens.
The exception to this rule in the Middle East is in Israel, with its population of roughly 150,000 Christians which has grown about 400 percent from 39,000 since 1949. Some facts about this community:
- While Israel is often called “the Jewish state”, Christian citizens of Israel are full, equal citizens under the law.
"We see ourselves rooted in Israeli society with a real respect for Jews as they see themselves, and we follow the Jewish liturgical calendar and observe many of their holidays, like Sukkot and Hanukkah," explained the Rev. David Mark Neuhaus, the vicar for the Hebrew Speaking Community in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
- Israel’s Christians and their sites are exceedingly diverse, including Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Latin, Marnonite, Syrian Orthodox and others.
- Most Christians in Israel are also Arabs, creating a unique integration of religious, cultural and national identities.
- Israel naturally plays host to many of Christianity’s holiest sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. This was the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and the empty tomb.