Copt killings heighten Christian alarm

Cairo, Egypt - Drive-by Muslim gunmen killed seven Christians near Luxor as they left a midnight mass for the Coptic Christmas Wednesday night.

Days earlier, Christians across northern Iraq were attacked by Muslim zealots over the Yuletide season, as they have been since Iraq collapsed into sectarian chaos in 2003.

The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity and home to some of the most ancient sects. But across the Muslim-dominated region, Christians are on the run.

There is no definitive figure for the number of Christians in the region, but it is estimated to be at most 10 million out of a total population of more than 400 million.

A region that was 20 percent Christian a century ago is now about 2 percent -- and that's dropping fast.

Islam, founded by the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century, became the dominant religion in the region as the Muslim empire expanded.

Much of the Middle East was Christian in those days. But Christians -- and others -- converted to Islam, forcibly or voluntarily, as Muslim armies surged out of the Arabian peninsula into the Levant, North Africa and southern Spain, as well as westward into Asia.

Since that time only Lebanon managed to keep a Christian majority (until the mid-20th century anyway), although Egypt's 7 million Copts, descended from the ancient Egyptians, constitute the single largest Christian community in the Arab world.

Other communities, distinct minorities, still exist in Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Jordan. There are even Christians in Iran, where the largest church is the Armenian Apostolic Church, which dates back to 300 AD.

There has been a Christian presence in Iraq since the 2nd century, mainly adherents of the Chaldean and Assyrian churches.

There are some Christians in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, mainly expatriates. In most places they are allowed freedom of worship, although in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, non-Muslim religious gatherings are banned.

But all the indigenous communities are declining because of emigration, a falling birth rate, and in some places, persecution by the Muslim majorities.

The rise of political Islam in the 20th century is widely considered to have resulted in a surge of Christian emigration to the West.

During his visit to the Holy Land in May 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lamented: "While understandable reasons lead many, especially the young, to emigrate … the departure of so many members of the Christian community is recent years" is a "tragic reality."

The violence against Christians that occurred in Iraq and Egypt over Christmas are extreme examples of Muslim intolerance, but they are by no means isolated and are often driven by political rivalries and religious extremism.

In Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, much of the fighting was between the Maronite Catholics, the dominant Christian sect, and a Muslim coalition.

Yet Lebanon remains the only Arab state with a Christian president, a Maronite, under a 1943 political covenant dividing political power between the multitude of sects in the former French colony.

But that may not be so for much longer. The Muslims, the dominant Shiites and the smaller Sunni and Druze sects, now far outnumber the Maronites, whose community is steadily dwindling through emigration as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah grows in power and strength.

Indeed, some Maronites, seeking to secure some sort of future in a turbulent region inundated by Islamic fervor, have made a once-unthinkable political alliance with the Shiite fundamentalists of Hezbollah.

It is clearly a marriage of convenience for both parties and it is not expected to last once Hezbollah achieves its objective of putting the long- downtrodden Shiites in power.

But it shows how desperate some Christians have become to retain their identity and religion as radical Islam takes hold.

Indeed, Lebanon's Christians now find themselves caught in the middle of a worsening confrontation between Shiite and Sunni Islam, which is the big battle that is coming in the region.

Israel, too, has caused dismay among the region's Christians. The creation of the Jewish state in 1948 was a disaster not only for the Palestinians, who were driven out of their ancestral lands, but for the Christians of the Holy Land where their faith was born.

Many Palestinians who fled were Christians. Like their Muslim counterparts, they have never been allowed to return, and probably never will be.

Israel's victory in 1967 added to their woes. The occupation of Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank choked the life out of their communities.