Faith matters for Middle East Christians

Any religious movement encounters resistance. That is, of course, true of Christianity, which was born in the always-conflicted Middle East. The dire circumstances of Middle East Christians in the 21st century has brought them back to the fundamental faith of the first Christians.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP
Greek Orthodox clergymen clean the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Faith usually starts small: a fugitive’s wrestling match with an angel, a saint’s glimpse of the divine. That vision inspires others. They band together amid scorn and persecution. A community forms, a religion grows. Wondrous works follow.

Those are the years of the Apostles’ acts, the exodus from Egypt, the flight to Medina. Faith can fade under duress. Or it can flourish. But even when a religion becomes adorned with spires and domes and libraries of theology, the faithful frequently return to their early days for renewal, looking back wistfully at the old rugged cross, the promise of Sinai, the deliverance from peril.

In a Monitor cover story, Christa Case Bryant reports on the difficult state of Christianity in the region where it was born some 2,013 years ago. Violence and intimidation by Muslim jihadists is the newest danger, but that comes atop bad economies and discouraging demographics. Thousands of Christians have left the Middle East in recent decades for safer, more welcoming lands. Those who remain have essentially come full circle. They are hunkered down, watching over their shoulders, sustained not by numbers and power but only by faith.

When Christa went to visit the Rev. Naim Khoury’s First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, just a few miles from her home, she was reminded of how important it is not to let the general picture of decline overshadow the courage of those Christians who are holding steadfastly to their faith yet yearning for more support.

“We need somebody to stand with us, to correspond with us, to ask us, ‘We pray for you. What is your need, how can we help?’” Mr. Khoury told Christa, noting that nearly two-thirds of his congregation hasn’t had work for a decade. “If you can’t give [money], just pray. Pray for God to open opportunities for a job ... pray for strength, for believers not to be discouraged ... to keep their eyes on the Lord, to trust the Lord.”

Over the years, diaspora Christians have periodically taken up the cause of fellow believers in the Middle East. Around Khoury’s office were a clock from Australia, a plate from Scotland, a “Don’t Mess with Texas” sign. Make no mistake, however, Khoury isn’t asking for a new crusade in the Holy Land.

Land can be imbued with history and heritage. It can forge a nation. Land can be romanticized for its milk and honey; its green, green hills; or fruited plains. Land is fought for and wept over. But can rocks and hills and shrines actually be holy?

If you have visited the Holy Land you know about the sharp elbows constantly jostling for a few extra inches of denominational space at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the tensions that flare up periodically at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, the frequent clashes between sects and ethnic groups, and the most dangerous dispute of all – the one over access to the 37-acre site in the center of Jerusalem’s Old City known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Faith starts with nothing other than faith. The tragedy occurs when the treasures and territory that a faith community accumulates on its journey through history define that faith -- or worse, become a reason for intimidation and violence. The prayer for embattled Christian communities that Khoury is asking for is a prayer the whole Middle East needs – for strength and courage, for trust in the Lord more than in the land.

John Yemma is editor of the Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

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