Several people are concerned about the future of Christians in the Middle East. They ask: What is the future of Christians in the Middle East? In my opinion, this is the wrong question. The right question should be, “What is the future of the Middle East without Christians?” Instead, of focusing our attention on statistics and Christian presence, we need to highlight our mission. We are witnesses and agents of the kingdom of Christ. This kingdom is the hope for the Middle East as well as the rest of the world.
Allow me to unpack my thoughts in the context of Israel-Palestine. Many people lament the fact that our numbers are dwindling. There are only 35000 Christians in the Palestinian territories. There are less than 2000 Christians in Gaza. There are 177000 Christians in Israel proper of which more than 140000 are Palestinian Christians who hold Israeli citizenship. Israel proper has 8.9 million people of which 1.8 million are Palestinian citizens of Israel. The followers of Christ in Israel proper are less than 2% of the population. The Palestinian territories including the Gaza Strip have over 4.5 million people. Put differently, from the river of Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, there are 13 million people of which only over 200.000 people are Christians.
Other people lament the fact that our Christian presence is dwindling. We have established many schools, many hospitals, and many non-profit organizations that highlight the contribution of Christians to the Palestinian society. This visibility of Christians is decreasing because many other groups are establishing their own schools and organizations. Thus Christian organizations will soon become invisible in many places.
The decrease of Christians is no doubt related to social, political, and religious factors. In Israel-Palestine, for example, every decade we have at least two to three wars. Thus we live in a context of hatred, enmity, segregation, and violence. On the one hand, there is an oppressive Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories and a harsh siege on Gaza. On the other hand, there is a rise in radical Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism. Christians are caught in between. The Christians in Gaza has to endure a strict Islamic context while the Christians in Israel are unwanted in a country that seeks to establish a Jewish State. But the solution is not a self-pity party!
In light of this painful reality and the strong political polarization, Christians are called to be witnesses for Christ. Both Muslims and Jews seek to change the name of Christ. Muslims call him Issa while most Jews call him Yeshu. The latter is a curse. It is an acronym for the expression: “May God obliterate his name and memory!” We, as Christian, are called to spread the name of Jesus as savior, lover, and Lord. We live in a context of hatred and therefore we must advocate the love of God and neighbor. We need to advocate the logic of love in politics, education, media, and many other circles in the public square. We live in a context of exclusion and therefore we are required to demonstrate an inclusive love as Christ taught us. Palestinian Christians are called to love both Palestinians and Jews. Loving the Jews does not mean hating Palestinians or vice versa. On the contrary, love by its nature seeks to empower the object of our love to become like Christ.
In short, in this Christmas season, we as Palestinian Christians call upon the whole church to take the whole gospel to all the nations in the Middle East. In this Christmas season, we call upon you to visit the land of Christ and sing the gospel as well as the Christmas carols with the Middle Eastern church, the living stones. This gospel entails being an eye for the blind, legs for the crippled, a mother for the orphans, a home for the refugees, a voice for the mute, and a garment of mercy for the helpless. It not only addresses individual sins but also systemic sins. It lifts up the name of Jesus as a lover, a peacemaker, and an agent of justice for both Palestinians and Jews without discrimination or inequality. It empowers the church to become like Christ and to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. This is a better way for celebrating the birth of Christ. Merry Christmas to all of you!
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