Christians in lands across Middle East face uncertain time this Christmas

iraqichristian_1546687c1.jpgRima, whose sister was murdered by Saddam Hussein’s officers, is going to America. Hani, another Christian, is off to Sweden after being kidnapped by a Baghdad militia. Michael Marody, whose cousin was likewise abducted but did not come back alive, is heading for Australia.

War-torn, anarchic Iraq, however, is not the only place in the Middle East that will see fewer Christians celebrating this Christmas. The region that was Christianity’s birthplace is witnessing an unprecedented modern-day exodus – victims of radical Islam, the global economic crisis, and new currents of sectarian feeling from both Arabs and Jews alike.

In Bethlehem, the lights are on for Christmas, but its resident Christians have dwindled from four-fifths of the population since the Second World War to just a quarter today. One by one, the carpenters who hand-craft the wooden figurines that feature in Nativity scenes worldwide are shutting up shop, hamstrung by the difficulties of working in the Palestinian West Bank.

“Every year we have obstacles,” complained Elias Giacaman, a Bethlehem woodcarver who can trace his ancestry to the Crusades. Crates loaded with unsold likenesses of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus fill the floor of his workshop, which has cut its workforce from 18 to six. “After the Intifada – and three or four years of curfews – there was the Lebanon war, the economic crisis and all the time we have the (security) wall. Last year things picked up, but this year it is bad again.”

Such tales of misery are repeated both in neighbouring cities and neighbouring lands. In Jerusalem, Orthodox Jews spit on passers-by wearing crucifixes. In the other Palestinian enclave of Gaza, Christian shops have been firebombed. In Egypt, meanwhile, a string of businesses owned by Coptic Christians were burned down in riots in the southern province of Qena last month. “Copts are in a continuous state of fear,” said the diocesan bishop, Anba Kirillos.

Pope Benedict touched on the insecurities of his Middle Eastern flock during a tour of the region earlier this year. “The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect all the people of the Middle East,” he remarked.

But while the Pontiff’s statement sought to avoid finger-pointing, Iraqi Christians like Mr Marody are less hesitant. “We were driven out,” he said bluntly. “They bombed our churches. They killed us deliberately so we would leave. It was organised.”

The sweeping sectarian violence of Iraq is well documented, though the suffering of its once million-strong Christian community has been less prominently recorded.

As many 600,000 have fled abroad since 2003, while hundreds of thousands more have moved to safer areas in the north, abandoning once thriving Christian communities in Mosul, Baghdad and the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

Mr Marody’s cousin in Baghdad was particularly vulnerable, as he owned a liquor store. It was a trade that Christians traditionally dominated during Saddam’s secular rule, but which put them in the firing line post-war as the city became dominated by Islamist militias.

At first, after he was seized from his car, a ransom was demanded. Later, when the family were unable to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars demanded, they were told to go to a roundabout in Sadr City, Baghdad’s impoverished Shia suburb. They, they found his body – bearing not just gunshot wounds but burn marks from cigarette ends.

“An artist draws cartoons in Denmark, and they blow up churches in Iraq,” Mr Marody said bitterly. “A five-year-old child was killed – not a Danish child, but an Iraqi child.

“The Pope talks about Muslims and mosques in Germany, and we have explosions two or three days later. We are the biggest losers of this war, and yet we are the original inhabitants.”

Mr Marody, Rima and Hani are all members of the Chaldean Catholic church, one of the region’s vast number of sects, whose antiquity is shown by its continued use of Aramaic, the ancient language of Christ.

As he spoke to The Sunday Telegraph, the Aramaic liturgy drifted out from Mass in the small church where he worships in Amman, Jordan, where many Chaldeans have fled and where Mr Marody, too, is waiting to join his family in Australia.

There is little evidence of a widespread Muslim resentment towards Iraq’s Christians, far from the only victims of the country’s post-war sectarian violence, which is estimated to have cost around 80,000 lives. However, they have sometimes been targeted by al-Qaeda-backed extremist groups. Last week, bombers struck two churches in Mosul, killing a baby and wounding at least 40 people, among them schoolchildren.

In similar attacks in July, a wave of six simultaneous bombings of churches killed five people and injured scores more. Christian government officials have also been singled out. Last year, Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, was kidnapped after his bodyguards and driver were shot dead. His own body was found in a shallow grave two weeks later. The threats, though, came not just from violence motivated by religion. Ordinary Christian families, who did well in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as doctors, teachers and academics, were also uniquely vulnerable to Iraq’s post-war criminal gangs. As middle-class professionals, they were attractive targets for kidnappers – and because they lack the tribal structures of Iraq’s Muslim communities, they were less able to organise street militias to deter such attacks in the first place.

Across the Middle East, a Christian population that stood at 20 per cent a century ago has now sunk to under five per cent. Yet the rise of radical Islam is not the only factor. In the Occupied Territories, Christians suffer alongside Muslims from Israeli policies, most recently the new “security wall”.

Arab priests claim that Israel deliberately turns a blind eye to violence against Christians, hoping they will leave and make it easier to portray the conflict as one between Jews and Muslims.

That is denied, but incidents of harassment by extremist Orthodox Jews cannot be. Father Athanasius Macora, a Franciscan friar in Jerusalem’s Old City, speaks sadly of the latest trend: spitting attacks by young Orthodox on anyone seen wearing a crucifix. “It has happened to me quite a number of times in the past six months, sometimes once a week,” he said. “It’s very ugly, especially when it’s kids of nine or ten doing it.”

At the other extreme, Christians in Gaza are an increasingly beleaguered community of just a few thousand. Islamic radicals have attacked, among other targets, a Christian bookstore, killing its owner in 2007.

Such attacks are condemned by Hamas, the ruling power in Gaza, but little action is taken.

The political equation with Western policies is, perhaps, simplest in Egypt, where the Coptic Christian community, ten per cent of Egypt’s total by most estimates, is closely associated with America and Western backers of its authoritarian ruler of 28 years, Hosni Mubarak.

As Mr Mubarak keeps a tight lid on opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organisations, the Christian community is an easy target for reprisals.

Sometimes, local disputes turn into conflict, as was the case in Qena last month, when Muslims attacked a Christian neighbourhood after accusing a local Copt of rape. But sometimes the violence is more directly religious: last year, Muslims rioted against a new church that was due to be consecrated in the Cairo suburb of Ain Shams.

It remains closed to this day – a serious blow in a country where to build a church requires special presidential permission and years of patience.

Those who have studied the long-term decline of the Christian presence in the Middle East insist that demographics and economics are the key factors, rather than any kind of organised sectarian conspiracy. They point out that Christians also have fewer babies, and their smaller numbers in the first place mean that emigration is more noticeable.

“Because they are smaller groups, a hundred Christians leaving makes a big difference,” said Fiona McCallum, an academic at St Andrews University who is writing a book on the state of Christianity in Jordan and Syria. “It’s important not to single out the Christians – other minorities are having the same problems.”

Many Christians say life is not necessarily easy in the West, and there are cases of exiles returning to Jordan and Syria. But for most, there is now an émigré community abroad, such in Detroit, Michigan, which now has the biggest population of Chaldean Catholics outside their original home.

“I fear the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East,” said the Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, Jean Benjamin Sleiman, at the time of the Pope’s Middle Eastern visit in May.

Father Remon Moussalli, Amman’s resident Chaldean priest, says his flock is already falling in number, with exiles moving on faster than they arrive. He sees few crumbs of comfort.

“There’s a Satanic stance against the Christians, maybe not just in Iraq but in all the Middle East,” he said. “The Christians are like the peaceful Muslims, but there are no Christian militias to protect them.”