• SYRIA \ May 08, 2001
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    Pope takes the road to Damascus as millions of Christians quit Holy Land
Pope takes the road to Damascus as millions of Christians quit Holy Land The road to Damascus may have been the highlight of the Pope's latest pilgrimage to the Middle East yesterday, but the so-called "Holy Land" is ever less Christian as the region's dwindling number of followers of Jesus Christ stage a mass exodus to the West. Religious scholars estimate that up to 10 million Christians have abandoned their homes in the largely Muslim world of the Middle East over the past 15 years, leaving ? at best ? 15 million Christians in the lands from which their faith sprang.

In a speech that appeared to favour the Arabs and is bound to anger the Israelis, the Pope said it was time to ban "the acquisition of territory by force" and supported "respect for the resolutions of the UN and the Geneva Conventions". But however much the Catholic Church trumpets the Pope's visit to the Omayad mosque and the resting place of John the Baptist, nothing can obscure the decision of the Christian population to head for a new economic life in America, Australia and northern Europe.

Iraq's 6 per cent Christian minority has dwindled to 2.5 per cent since the 1991 Gulf War, Egypt's 12 per cent Copts have fallen to 8 per cent in perhaps five years and Jordan's Christian community has halved in a decade and a half; a tragedy of unprecedented proportions for Christian leaders who remain in the Middle East.

As general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches in Beirut, Dr Riad Jarjour has repeatedly warned Christian denominations of falling numbers in the region. "Christians should stay in the land where Christ was born," he says. "Their main reason for going is economic ? but I don't believe many of them are leaving for better homes. Their departure is a tragedy for us." Christian communities believe the Muslim population of the Middle East now numbers 125 million.

In a world where many Christians subconsciously believe their religion is "Western" rather than Eastern ? American clichés about the "Christian West" and the "Muslim East" have seen to that ? the ghosts of past horrors have always reappeared to haunt relations between Muslims and Christians. Pope Urban II's bloody Crusade ended in Jerusalem in 1099 as European knights rode their horses through literal rivers of Muslim and Jewish blood.

Turkey's genocide of its Armenian community in 1915 left the bones of one and a half million Christians across Anatolia and what is now northern Syria. Although Armenians still demand recognition of their Holocaust, Catholics prefer to exercise discretion over their 88-year-old tenure of the "Holy Land" which ended when Salahadin al-Ayubi ? whose magnificent tomb lies in the Omayad mosque to be visited by the Pope ? defeated the Crusaders in what is now the occupied West Bank.

But Dr Jarjour insists ? somewhat defensively ? that the present-day Christian exodus is primarily economic. "I wouldn't say at all that there is a religious factor except in some cases like Turkey where Christians have been a little pressured recently," Dr Jarjour says. "The participation of Christians in public life, in civil society, in government positions, gives them a greater sense of security to stay and not to leave. In the last few years, we have, it's true, been witnessing some alienation of Christians in certain populations ? this makes the younger Christian generation concerned about their future."

Dr Jarjour, a Protestant, is too discreet to say that Egypt is strongly criticised for alienating its Coptic population. At least one former senior interior ministry official in Cairo has told The Independent on Sunday that Muslims control the department which gives ? and frequently withholds ? consent for the building of churches. In Saudi Arabia, the mere holding of Christian prayers in a private house can lead to brutal punishment and deportation ? a fact equally discreetly overlooked by the kingdom's friends in the US ? although Kuwait has a noble record of protecting and encouraging its small Christian community.

Gulf War sanctions are regarded as the primary cause of Iraq's Christian exodus while the latest Palestinian-Israeli conflict is prompting Catholic and Greek Orthodox families to leave. The homes of dozens of Christians at Beit Jalla in the occupied West Bank have been shelled by Israeli tanks after Palestinian gunmen have fired into Jewish homes built on confiscated Arab land at Gilo.

A 1993 study conducted by Bernard Sabella on the causes of their exodus from the Middle East concluded that the rate of Christian emigration was twice that of the general population; but the same study noted that of 750,000 Palestinians exiled from their homes by the Israelis in 1948, between 50,000 and 60,000 were Christians who went on to America and Australia. The Lebanese civil war ? in which Muslim Palestinians fought against the Christian Maronites ? provoked another Christian exodus, perhaps as many as 250,000, towards the West. Most have not returned.