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7.22.2009 Middle East Christians hit the road ..
Asia Times Online

DAMASCUS - Attacks on six churches in Iraq early this month and the targeting of Christians across the country have served as a microcosm of the difficulties facing Christians in the Middle East today. Migration, whether forced or to pursue a better life and employment opportunities elsewhere, has seen Christian numbers in the Middle East drop dramatically.

In 1948 Jerusalem was about one-fifth Christian but today that number stands at 2%, the New York Times reported in May. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Christians now account for about 30% of the population, where they once made up around 80% of its inhabitants. In Lebanon, where Christians continue to hold significant political and social sway, their numbers are considerably higher than elsewhere in the region but are believed to be falling. A region that a century ago was 20% Christian is about 5% today, with the figures still dropping fast.

Uneasy existence for Christians
The rise of political Islam and conservative thought across the region has been regarded as a refutation of an all-encroaching and consuming globalization. Radical Islam has also been identified as a political body with which to oppose a West whose interests in the Middle East have led it to be perceived as an exploiter and as responsible for the damage brought to Iraq and the Palestinian territories and for the siphoning off of oil.

Religion has become more politicized, and with divisions between Islam and the West gaining currency across the world, Christians in the Middle East increasingly feel caught in the middle. Identity has become a major issue for Muslims as a sense of inferiority (in terms of technology and popular culture) and attack reverberate around a region where foreign powers have attempted to conquer and collude for centuries. As a consequence of being a minority and as their numbers continue to shrink, Christians often feel vulnerable in a region that gave birth to the faith of 33% of the entire world.

During his visit to the Holy Land in May this year, Pope Benedict XVI lamented, "While understandable reasons lead many, especially the young, to emigrate ... the departure of so many members of the Christian community in recent years" is a "tragic reality".

Asaad Abrash, who lives in Saidnaya, a Christian town 35 kilometers north of Damascus, said, "Of course we as Christians identify ourselves with Europe and even America because of our religion. The fact that there are well-paying jobs in the West means that even in spite of visa difficulties, the lure is very strong."

Aiham Farah, who lives in the wealthy Christian neighborhood of Kassaa in Damascus, said the reasons for leaving are obvious. "My brother has been living and working as a doctor in the US for over eight years: 80% of doctors who graduate from the medical school here go abroad to continue their education and the States is one of the best places for that.

"The American government has a policy of granting them permanent residency and they can earn salaries unimaginable in Syria, so it's hard for them to get back home after finishing because of the situation they got used to [in terms of] living and everything prevent them from starting over in their home country. So they just think about visiting here. Work is more stable, education is better there so it's hard to see my brother coming back."

Christians in Iraq: Undercurrent of violence
In Iraq, the fall of the Ba'ath regime and the violence that followed have seen sectarianism spiral as Sunni and Shi'ites have engaged in regular partisan attacks for years. Though less documented, Christians have also been targeted. Half of Iraq's 1.4 million Christians have reportedly fled the country since the US-led invasion in 2003, although accurate figures are difficult to track down.

On July 12, the Church of the Sacred Heart in Baghdad's al-Mohandiseen district was the scene of a car bomb that killed four people. During a 48-hour period, 32 other people were wounded in seven attacks in different parts of the country, leading to re-imposed curfews in the Christian towns of Hamdaniyah and Talkif, close to Mosul. In the same period, a Christian government official, Aziz Rizko Missan, was shot dead in the northern city of Kirkuk.

"I fear the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East," said Jean Benjamin Sleiman, the Catholic archbishop of Baghdad, following the attacks on Christians.

More than 10 Christian sects are scattered, mainly in Damascus, Aleppo and the midlands, making up almost 10% of Syria's population. Substantial efforts have been made to portray Syria as a sanctuary of toleration compared with neighboring Lebanon, Iraq and in the Palestinian territories, where religious-fueled violence has been going on for years. "Syria is the best country for any Christian to live in the Middle East - people don't differentiate between each other's religion and that has been the reason why things are so bad in the Middle East," said Farah.

In other countries, however, little has been done to stem the tide of Christian emigration. For governments in the Middle East, there is good reason for that. "We're not so sure we want our expats to return because they provide an important source of money through remittances that run down through the whole economy," said Abdullah Dardari, Syria's deputy prime minister for economic affairs.

In a region that is home to the most important historical sites for Christians, many in the region fear bringing attention to their religion. Julia, a Syriac Catholic, moved back with her family to Syria after living in the United States for several years. Preferring not to reveal her full identity, she said, "As a Christian living in a Muslim country, there are many things that I have to think about before I go out. For example, the culture affects how I dress. If I want to go to the store, work or even to my university, I need to make sure I don't wear something that might draw attention to myself. I think it also affects where I work; a couple of years ago I had an interview for a job where I appeared to fit the profile of the type of employee they needed but I didn't get the job. I think it was because I'm a Christian and all the employees were covered. Sometimes, I feel that I shouldn't wear my cross necklace if I'm out in public in certain areas of the city such as on the bus or non-Christian areas."

For some Christians there is a sense of duty to stay in the Middle East, it being the birthplace of the religion. "When I came to visit, I noticed this gap right away, but I stayed true to my religion because I'm proud to be a Christian - even in this country," said Julia.

Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist.