A Christmas message

As much as most any other group in the Middle East, Christians serve as a barometer of tolerance and freedom.

Pope, eyes closed, praying at Christmas 311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Pope, eyes closed, praying at Christmas 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
It’s Christmas again, in the place where it all unfolded. And this year, more than in some in the recent past, there is a welcome, visible presence of Christian visitors – on the streets of Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, in Nazareth, in the Galilee.
Many are from America and Western Europe, but there are especially large contingents from Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as from India, the Philippines and other Asian locations.
This is a sight that befits the universal Christmas message of peace. Indeed, part of the rise in Christian tourism may be ascribed to recent calls by Pope Benedict XVI to his flock to visit the Holy Land, to serve as messengers of peace in a war-torn region where few have suffered more than Christians.
Apparently, the faithful are listening. An estimated 100,000 Christian tourists have been visiting Bethlehem over the weekend, double last year’s influx. In 2010 as a whole, 2.4 million Christians have visited, half of them pilgrims – figures higher than at any time in recent years, including even in the 2000 millennium year. In 2009, the total figure for all tourists, of all faiths, was just 2.7 million.
The most immediate peace-promoting effects of a strong Christian turnout have been economic.
Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov and his Palestinian counterpart, Khouloud Daibes, eying the potential for a financial boost, have reached out to Christians.
Tourism makes up about 15 percent of the Palestinian GDP, which is expected to grow by 8% this year.
Boosting Christian tourism is part of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s pragmatic “facts on the ground” approach to building a viable Palestinian state.
As regards Hamas-controlled Gaza, the IDF has made a special gesture of peace. Despite the current escalation in Hamas-facilitated terrorism, the army enabled about 500 Christians out of a community that is said to number 3,500 – mostly Greek Orthodox but also Catholic – to leave the Gaza Strip to visit family and loved ones and take part in mass in Bethlehem.
This represents the largest number of Christians to receive exit permits since Hamas violently took over Gaza in 2007. Two years ago, Gaza’s Christians marked Christmas under fire; Hamas’s incessant barrage of rocket attacks on Jewish communities in the South had forced Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead.
Overall, Christians’ well-being in this part of the world remains at risk. The steady trend of Islamization sweeping the region has exacerbated the already delicate position of many Christian communities. In the past, Christian Arabs could play down their religious differences with their Muslim neighbors by supporting secular ideologies such as Nasserism, Pan-Arabism, Communism and nationalism. But this is no longer so widely the case. Copts in Egypt, for instance, have gradually been marginalized and regularly suffer violent discrimination.
In Iraq, the situation has become unbearable. The ancient community there has been halved from about a million in 2003, and it continues to dwindle, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
It’s easy to see why. On October 31, an al-Qaidalinked terrorist group attacked Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad during Sunday evening mass, leaving at least 58 people dead, after more than 100 had been taken hostage.
Interestingly, while the indigenous Christian population has been gradually falling throughout the region, there has been a parallel influx of Christian immigrants, mostly foreign workers. This is true not only in Israel, but also in Gulf states that rely heavily on foreign labor.
For instance, in Saudi Arabia there are well over a million Catholics, primarily Filipinos and Indians, who have temporary permits to work but are not allowed to openly practice their religion. Theirs must be a particularly subdued and sad Christmas this year.
AS MUCH as most any other group in the Middle East, Christians serve as a barometer of tolerance and freedom.
Their plight underlines this region’s tensions, hostilities and intolerances. If their situation improved, it would mean that the general moral environment in the region had improved.
It seems fitting to hope, at Christmas, that through their continued presence in the Middle East and their prayers, Christians will indeed help bring peace to this part of world. All of God’s family would benefit from it.