Whether the words are “Merry Christmas” or the more politically correct “Happy Holidays,” late December merriment is a given in many parts of the Western world. Either in honor of Jesus’ birth or just because it’s a colorful, glittery season, warm-hearted toasts to friends and loved ones are in order.
And it’s not unusual to hear cautionary warnings here in the United States such as, “Be sure to remember the less fortunate during the holidays.” Or, in more concrete terms, “Your donation is the gift that keeps on giving.”
All of this makes perfect sense in Western countries, where there’s plenty to celebrate and plenty to share.
But what about the rest of the world? For example, what kind of Christmas can Christian communities in the Middle East expect – not only in the little town of Bethlehem, but beyond?
Apart from Israel, the region once known as the “Cradle of Christianity” is now comprised of Muslim-majority states.
In fact, in the lands of Judeo-Christian beginnings, the people representing those two pre-Islamic faiths are either dwindling or gone altogether. 850,000 Jews were expelled from their ancient homelands between 1948 and 1970. It is estimated that less than 50 Jews remain in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon combined.
And now Christians face the same fate.
In Egypt, the Middle Eastern country with the largest Christian population – at least 10 percent of the population – Christians are at great risk.
In August, at least seven Copts were killed and more than 200 churches and other Christian religious structures, homes and businesses assaulted in the worst attack on Copts since the 14th century. In October, Islamists on motorcycles opened fire on a Coptic wedding party, killing four, including two children. On December 18, a Christian husband and wife were assaulted by Muslim Brothers, who spotted a cross hanging from their car’s mirror.
Many believers who can flee Egypt are doing so; the rest are bracing themselves far continuing waves of violence.
In Syria, in a civil war that has killed more than 100,000, radicalized jihadis are increasingly targeting Christians. Earlier this month, 12 nuns from the village of Ma’alula were kidnapped; abductions, torture, mass killings and beheadings of Christians are reported frequently. An estimated 200,000 Christians have fled Syria; many are living in tents and recently faced days of sub-zero weather during a deadly winter storm.
In Iraq, Canon Andrew White, who is sometimes called the Vicar of Baghdad, reports that Christians are “frightened even to walk to church because they might come under attack. All the churches are targets… We used to have 1.5 million Christians, now we have probably only 200,000 left… There are more Iraqi Christians in Chicago than there are here.”
Meanwhile, an Iraqi imam declares that “wearing red Santa hats is the same as being converted to Christianity; this is a conversion ceremony introduced secretly by the Christians…” According to Sharia law, the imam’s statement is license to kill.
Christians in the Middle East may well celebrate the birth of Jesus with candlelight, prayers and good wishes. But an ever-deepening gloom has fallen, eclipsing festivities. Fear is pervasive, and the sudden demand to “convert or die” is a very real danger. Secular pundits have lamented this; Jewish historians have taken note. Even Britain’s Prince Charles has spoken out on behalf of Middle East Christians.
Yet, strange as it seems, there is little or no outcry from America's churches. Considering their deep roots in biblical history, you’d think they’d be paying closer attention.
A great champion for religious freedom, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) is well aware. He aptly observed, in remarks to the British Parliament, that today “…the Patriarch Abraham would have a difficult time surviving in Iraq. Jonah would be hard pressed to make it to Ninevah. And Paul could scarcely travel the road to Damascus.”
Along similar lines, British MP Sir Tony Baldry pointed out that nowadays, in the face of Herod’s edict against Bethlehem’s infants, Joseph would be ill-advised to flee to Egypt with his little family.
Jesus would not be safe in today’s Egypt or anywhere else in the region.
And neither are his followers.
Lela Gilbert is author of "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" and co-author, with Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians." She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in Jerusalem. For more, visit her website: www.lelagilbert.com. Follow her on Twitter@lelagilbert.