The majority of Christians in Israel will not be celebrating this week, as they are Greek Orthodox, and their Christmas falls on January 7.
But this is still a good time to take stock of religious freedom in our region.
Earlier this month, the head of the Church of England wrote in the Sunday Telegraph
that millions of Middle Eastern Christians are on the verge of “imminent extinction.”
“In the birthplace of our faith, the community faces extinction,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby wrote, calling it “the worst situation since the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.”
Christians face government harassment in Egypt, leading them to emigrate in record numbers.
Lebanese Christians fear Hezbollah’s growing power in their country, along with an influx of Syrian refugees. Turkish Christians are also facing oppression by their government. And in Iraq, the Christian population has been nearly wiped out, but those remaining are trying to rebuild their lives.
Closer to home, the Christian Palestinian population is in a constant downward trend.
Christians have long been fleeing Palestinian-controlled areas in light of systemic abuse. Terrorists affiliated with then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat famously raided and trashed the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002, holding monks hostage.
Last year, Christians were only 2% of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, less than half their numbers a generation ago.
In 1950 in Bethlehem, Jesus’s birthplace, 86% residents were Christians. In 2017, they were only 12%.
In Gaza, there were 6,000 Christians when Hamas took control in 2006, but as of 2016, there were only 1,100. Hamas has murdered Palestinian Christians for their faith, and commandeered the Gaza Baptist Church for combat, because it’s one of the tallest buildings in Gaza City.
Despite this, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas still claims to be a defender of Christians and the Palestinian leadership on the whole thinks it ought to control Christian holy sites – all the while denying history at those sites.
Palestinians like to claim the “Jesus was a Palestinian,” even though he was Jewish. And despite the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem to the New Testament, many deny that there was any Temple at all.
These denials continue to this day, but the most famous one may be when Arafat told then-US president Bill Clinton that the Jewish connection to Jerusalem was a falsehood.
Clinton told Arafat that he’s wrong; as a Christian, he knows the Jewish Temple was there.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the Christian population has stayed mostly stable at around 2%, growing by about 5,000 in the past 20 years.
Christians are free to worship in Israel without persecution or pressure from the authorities.
The latest controversy with the churches in Jerusalem shows the stark difference between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East.
The crux of the dispute is about management of land owned by the Greek Orthodox church, on which private Israelis reside.
Jerusalem residents are concerned that when the church sells the land to third parties, their homes will be endangered, whereas the church wants to use their vast tracts for must-needed funds.
This is not a matter that limits Christian worship or that would impact or harm the vast majority of Christians in Israel – though that is not to make light of the dispute, which should be resolved.
In any case, President Reuven Rivlin intervened in favor of the churches Saturday night, so no changes are currently being made.
Religious freedom is such in Israel that there was been a growing trend of Israeli Christians enlisting in the IDF, even though they are not required to do so, out of patriotism and appreciation for Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with some of these soldiers on Sunday to wish them a happy holiday.
As Christmas approaches, we should appreciate living in a country with these freedoms, and hope, in these bleak times for Christians across the Middle East, that their situations will improve.
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