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Christianity's Savior in the Middle East -- Israel

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With one exception, Christians throughout the countries of the Middle East are at risk or on the run, their churches burned, their property expropriated, their personal safety in peril from thugs intent on beatings, rapes, and murders.

The one exception -- where Christians flee to rather than from, where they increase rather than decrease in numbers -- is Israel.

A century ago, the Middle East was about 20 per cent Christian. Today, following waves of persecutions, the proportion is 4 per cent and falling. Some fear that the Middle East -- the very birthplace of Christianity -- may soon be all but emptied of Christians.

Gaza, for example, is continuing to lose its few remaining Christians -- 3,000 of them all told, or about one-sixth of 1 per cent of the total population -- amid anti-Christian violence and an Islamist government that increasingly limits Christian institutions.

In Israel, the history of decline is reversed. The Christian community of 34,000 at the time the modern state of Israel was created in 1948 has more than quadrupled to 158,000. Part of that quadrupling stems from a natural population increase -- the Christian fertility rate modestly exceeds the 2.1 children per woman required to maintain a population. Most of it stems from Christian immigration into Israel, often following upheavals in neighboring countries or far-flung parts of the world.

The economic turmoil associated with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s led to one major influx of Christians. Under Israel's immigration laws, anyone with a Jewish grandparent (or the spouse of someone with a Jewish grandparent) is entitled to Israeli citizenship upon landing in Israel, leading many Russian Christians to settle in Israel in pursuit of a better life. Likewise, Christians with Jewish blood from poor countries in Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe migrated to Israel to escape economic hardship.

Wars and conflicts also boosted Israel's Christian population. After Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2000, it granted refuge to several thousand Christian Maronites in Lebanon who had been allied with Israel, to avoid their expected slaughter at the hands of Lebanese Muslims. Israel also has absorbed Christian refugees from African and Asian countries, including Vietnamese boatpeople. Upheavals aside, Christians come to Israel to work, then marry and remain. Or they join relatives through family reunification provisions.

Israel's Christian population would be larger still but for reluctance -- by both Israelis and Christians -- to face the political consequences. After Israel in the 1967 Six Day War won the West Bank, including Jerusalem and the nearby Christian satellite town of Bethlehem, it decided to incorporate Jerusalem within Israel's borders and to separately administer Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank.

Five hundred and fifty Bethlehem leaders then asked Israel to incorporate Bethlehem within Israel's borders, partly because Bethlehem's economy depended on Jerusalem, partly to maintain ready access for Christians to pray at two of Christendom's holiest shrines, Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was born, and Jerusalem's Church of the Sepulchre, where Jesus was buried. But Israel declined, fearing the international condemnation that would follow an annexation as well as the prospect of ruling over Bethlehem's substantial Muslim population.

Bethlehem tried once again, this time prior to Israel's intent under the 1993 Oslo Accords to turn over Bethlehem and other areas of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat. "Bethlehem will become a town of churches devoid of Christians, if you transfer the area to the Palestinian Authority," said the Christian Mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, in trying to convince Israel's then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to keep control of Bethlehem. Rabin agreed but only on condition that the heads of the Christian church officially and publicly request that Bethlehem remain under Israeli rule.

The church declined, unable to unambiguously embrace Israel for fear of Muslim revenge against Christians in the Holy Land and beyond. Christians then left in large numbers -- thousands reportedly applied for Israeli citizenship, most left for North America and other countries welcoming to Christians. As a result of such mutual fears, an exodus of Bethlehem's Christians made it a Muslim majority town, its Christian proportion now estimated to be as low as 10 per cent to 15 per cent.

While Christians, including Arab Christians, fare poorly in the Muslim world, many fare well in Israel, in some measures outperforming Jews. Arab Christians graduate from high school at a higher rate than either Jews or Muslim, they score higher, and in higher education are far likelier to be accepted in medical schools. Twenty-five per cent of Israel's Arab Christians work in academic professions, the same as Jews. And Christians in Israel have, of course, complete freedom of religion.

But until recently, the loyalties of Israel's Arab Christians were split, with many identifying with their Arab more than their Christian heritage, and few feeling loyalty toward the nation of Israel. Sympathy for Arab Muslims, for example, prevented Arab Christians from enlisting in the Israeli armed forces. That may be changing, however, with signs that Arab Christians may be aligning themselves with Israel and Zionism.

"People see what is happening now in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. They understand where we are living. I tell them, 'For 65 years we have given to the Arab communist parties; 65 years and they have done nothing!'" says Bishara Shilyan, founder of "Sons of the New Testament," a new political party in Israel that is appealing to Christian Arabs who no longer trust Muslim Arabs to protect their interests, and who want to see themselves as full citizens of Israel, not least by enlisting in the Israeli Defense Forces.

"We want to be fully integrated into Israeli society," says another leader in the movement, Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest based in the Israeli town of Nazareth, Jesus's home town, now populated mostly by Muslims. Seen as a traitor to fellow Arabs, Father Naddaf has received numerous death threats. His son, who intends to enlist in the Israeli armed forces, was beaten to the point of needing hospitalization. But the movement is growing, to the pride of Israel's Jews. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to protect Naddaf's family and all Christians Arabs in Israel who want to share in the Zionist dream, and why wouldn't he, in the face of sentiments like these:

"(My son) believes in what I do, that we all have a home here, that he also needs to give to the country," Naddaf elaborates. "The country gives him his rights, and should receive what it is due in return. We all need to live here in peace, and protect the existence of the country that we live in, since our future is here."

Lawrence Solomon is a National Post columnist and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research. LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.