Two thousand years ago, Palestine was under harsh Roman rule. Jews were allowed to worship at their Temple in Jerusalem, but owing to the multiple hardships they faced under occupation, many had abandoned their homeland, settling in far-flung colonies throughout the Roman Empire.
When the new faith of the Christians first took root, it too faced persecution from two distinct sources: from an intolerant religious establishment in Jerusalem that saw the new faith as a challenge to its authority and from threatened Roman rulers who were concerned that the new group would be a destabilizing force.
Through the ages, Christian communities have survived throughout the Middle East, facing down war, persecution, and foreign rule. And they remain a presence up to the present day. The indigenous Christians of the Arab East are organized into churches whose diverse rites reflect the complex and turbulent history of this region. Throughout the liturgical year, these churches celebrate their ancient rites in the all the places memorialized in the bible - in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Antioch, Sidon and Tyre, in Egypt and Iraq, and sites further east.
This year, however, as Arab Christians gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the promised "peace on earth, good will to men" will appear, at best, as a remote dream. Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, remains under Israeli occupation with its residents, both Christian and Muslim, cut off from their lands by an oppressive 30-foot-high concrete barrier and by massive settlement colonies. The resultant loss of freedom, land, and opportunity has taken a very real toll on the fabled "little town". Christians can pray, to be sure, but they cannot freely move about, engage in commerce, provide for their families, or insure for the future of their children. An immediate impact of these policies has been the crippling of Bethlehem's world-renown Mother of Pearl and olive wood craft industries. A further result of the pressure of occupation has been the exodus of many of the town's young.
If all is not well for Christians in the birthplace of Jesus, they are immeasurably worse in several other Levantine countries. Continuing sectarian conflict in Iraq, and now in Syria, have placed the ancient Christian churches in those countries at risk.
The US invasion of Iraq led to a break-down of order leading to insurgency and ultimately to sectarian conflict. As armed groups cleansed neighborhoods and communities of their rivals, defenseless Christians were caught in the middle and were deliberately targeted by violent extremists who bombed their churches and businesses. During the first five years of the American occupation of Iraq, more than one-half of Iraq's Christians were forced into exile. Those who remained lived and prayed in fear for their safety.
Syria, despite the brutality of its authoritarian regime, was once known for its openness to religious diversity. The country, which had provided a welcoming refuge for Christians fleeing Iraq, is now in the throes of a long and increasingly violent civil war.
The Syrian conflict, which began as a protest movement for freedom that the regime attempted to brutally repress, has since devolved into an increasingly violent civil war. Over time, the fighting has taken on a sectarian dimension which has been aggravated by regional powers who have further transformed it into a proxy war.
Caught in the middle, as one Syrian has termed it "between the anvil of the regime and the hammer of violent extremists," the country's Christians have paid a dear price. Scores of churches have been destroyed and two bishops have been kidnapped by shadowy extremist groups. The famed ancient Aramaic-speaking town of Maaloula has been over-run by an al Qaida affiliated group that is holding captive the nuns from that community's monastery. In the face of this violence and destruction, almost half of Syria's Christians have joined their Muslim compatriots as refugees. Those who remain in the country live in fear for their future.
Egypt is home to the region's largest Christian community - the Coptic Church which represents between eight to ten percent of the country's population. Owing to its size and influence, this community has thrived despite long-standing problems with discrimination, intolerance, and violence. Beginning with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however, the situation for Christians worsened. Following the July 3rd deposing of the Muslim Brotherhood government by Egypt's military, there was an unprecedented acceleration of violence against Coptic churches, businesses, and communities, as extremist groups supportive of the Brotherhood accused the Christians of siding with the military.
For the time being, the Christians of Lebanon appear to be secure. Because Christians constitute over a third of Lebanon's population and because they have built strong institutional ties in all areas of governance, they have so far been insulated from the storms brewing in the region. While Lebanon has received the largest number of Syrian refugees, the war has not spread across its border. Nevertheless, many Lebanese remain concerned that the cancerous sectarian Syrian conflict may yet infect their homeland.
Jordan, despite housing huge numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, has so far remained stable owing to the country's wise leadership and its tolerant culture. It is the one bright spot in the Levant. King Abdullah II has championed inter-faith dialogue and sponsored programs calling for mutual respect among different religious communities.
If Jordan is a model of religious harmony, so are the some of the smaller Gulf countries. This Christmas, for example, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Iraqi Christians living in the UAE will all pray openly in an environment free from fear. Last Christmas season, I was in Abu Dhabi teaching at NYU. The churches in that city host services in all of the different languages spoken by those who work in the country. And on Christmas, the country's Muslim leaders even come to church as a sign of respect for their Christian Arab neighbors.
The current situation for Christians in the Middle East may be worrisome, but it is not unique to this region and it can change. Many other countries and regions of the world (including my own) have lived through bloody civil wars and known periods of deadly religious-motivated intolerance. And as Jordan, the UAE, and a few other Gulf countries make clear, the problems facing Arab Christians today do not come from Islam. Rather they spring from war, occupation, and the extremist ideologies that originate in war. What the region needs, therefore, is an end to war and repressive violence. It also needs wise leadership that will hold up the value of mutual respect among religions and the benefits that accrue from diversity - both being essential features of Islamic history.