And then there were none

Beirut, Bethlehem and Cairo - Far from spreading cheer this holiday season, Pope Francis has been in a Grinch-like mood. “There will be lights, parties, Christmas trees and Nativity scenes,” he said in late November. “It’s all a charade.” As the Vatican unveiled its own giant spruce, he sounded downright depressed: “We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognise the path to peace.”

It is easy to see why the pope is so downhearted. Look no further than Bethlehem, where young Palestinians throw stones at Israeli soldiers manning the wall separating the West Bank from Israel. From afar, the Israeli tear gas looks like the smoke from frankincense, of the sort that pilgrims burn when visiting the Church of the Nativity. But there were few pilgrims this Christmas—they were too scared.

Most victims of war and terrorism in the Middle East are Muslims, since they are by far the majority of the population. But the tiny Christian minority often feels singled out. Their numbers are declining where the fighting is worst (see chart). Overall, the proportion of Middle Easterners who are Christian has dropped from 14% in 1910 to 4% today. Church leaders and pundits have begun to ask whether Christianity will vanish from the Middle East, its cradle, after 2,000 years.

An exodus is under way. Many Christians feel more at home in the West and have the means to get there. Some are leaving because of the general atmosphere of violence and economic malaise. Others worry about persecution. A recent video of three Assyrian Christians in orange jumpsuits being made to kneel before being shot in the head by Islamic State (IS) jihadists fuelled this fear—though IS treats many other groups equally badly.

Fewer births, virgin or otherwise

The Christians who remain tend to have fewer babies than their Muslim neighbours, according to the Pew Research Centre. Regional data are unreliable, but in Egypt the fertility rate for Muslims is 2.7; for Christians it is 1.9.

Mosul, in northern Iraq, was once home to tens of thousands of Christians. Perceived as supporting the Americans, they were targeted by insurgents after the invasion. A wave of killings in 2008, including that of the local Chaldean archbishop, seemed to mark the low point for the community. Then came IS. When the jihadists entered the city in 2014, they reportedly tagged Christian houses with an “N” for “Nazarene”, and gave their occupants a choice: convert, pay the jizya, a tax on non-Muslims, or face possible death. Most fled. In July 2014 IS announced that the city was free of Christians.

Many who left Mosul went to Erbil, the Kurdish capital of northern Iraq, where they have trouble finding work or obtaining public services. Even there, some refugees chafe at the enforcement of Muslim customs. “You wouldn’t want to live there,” says Samir, a Christian refugee now in Lebanon. In general, Christians complain that their Muslim neighbours are growing increasingly intolerant.

Some retort that Westerners exaggerate tales of Christian persecution to justify interventionist policies. “There is talk as if the West is genuinely interested in Christians, but most of the time they only use them for their own political ends,” says Mitri Raheb, pastor of a church in Bethlehem. He says that the Israeli occupation hurts Palestinian Christians far more than persecution by Muslims, but provokes less outrage in the West.

Christian leaders are in a tough spot. “I cannot preach to people: ‘Do not leave,’” says Father Raheb. But other priests have. In an open letter published in September one of Syria’s most senior Catholic leaders, Melkite Patriarch Gregory III, wrote: “Despite all your suffering, stay! Be patient! Don’t emigrate! Stay for the church, your homeland, for Syria and its future!” Rankling many, he then urged Europe not to “encourage Syrian Christians to emigrate”. A refugee from Mosul says the pleas go “in one ear, out the other”.

In the decades before the Arab spring, many Christian leaders lent their support to authoritarian rulers in return for the protection of Christians—and their own lofty status. But the deals broke down when the dictators fell or wobbled, leaving Christians in a predicament. “In Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was removed, we lost a million Christians,” said Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, Lebanon’s Maronite Christian Patriarch, to AFP in 2012. “Why? Not because the regime fell, but because there was no more authority, there was a vacuum. In Syria, it’s the same thing, Christians do not back the regime [of Bashar al-Assad], but they are afraid of what may come next.”

Christian leaders have often supported whichever strongman is in power. The late Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic church, the largest in the Middle East, backed Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former dictator, and discouraged Copts from joining the protests that would eventually topple him. In 2012 Shenouda was succeeded by Tawadros II, who supports the current strongman, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. He has described the Arab spring as being more like a “winter, plotted by malicious hands” in order to break up the region into smaller states.

Yet the Copts have gained little from their leaders’ loyalty. Mr Mubarak stood by as relations between Christians and Muslims deteriorated and sectarian violence increased. Mr Sisi is seen as better than the Islamist government that he toppled. A draft law would make it easier to build churches. But Copts are still expelled from villages for such crimes as falling in love with a Muslim.

Even in Lebanon, where Christians were once a majority and still hold considerable power, their political leaders have disappointed. Under the country’s unique system, government posts are shared out based on sect. The presidency goes to a Maronite, the largest group of Christians. But in recent decades many Christians have left. Muslims are now a majority, and want power to match their numbers. Christian political leaders complain of persecution, but many seem more concerned with enhancing their own power. Bickering between politicians has left the presidency vacant for 18 months.

Oddly enough it is the Gulf, home to the most conservative brand of Islam, which has welcomed the largest number of Christians recently, though not from Iraq or Syria. A wave of migrant labourers from the Asia-Pacific has dramatically increased the share of Christians in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which had few before. Tolerance varies between countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, bans the practice of Christianity (though many Christians worship in private). The UAE restricts proselytisation, but has otherwise supported its Christians. The number of churches in the country has grown from 24 in 2005 to 40 today. The emirate’s rulers often provide churches with free land, water and electricity. But these new Christian enclaves may not last. Migrant workers in the Gulf cannot easily become citizens or put down roots.

In any case it is the loss of ancient communities that most concerns church leaders. “Christians are not guests in the Middle East,” says Father Paul Karam, the president of Caritas, a Catholic charity, in Lebanon. “We are the original owners of the land.” But none of the Christian refugees who spoke with your correspondent plans to return home. “We don’t belong there,” says Samir, who expects Iraq soon to be empty of Christians altogether.