London--It has been that time of year when Christians, in the West at least, gather to count their blessings. Churches more used to the murmured orisons of shrinking congregations suddenly fill with worshipers singing carols, punctuating less-spiritual rites of frenetic spending that mimic the feast days of the faithful--Black Friday, Cyber Monday.
Only this week, on the 12th day, did the moment come for many to strip the decorative lights from Christmas trees and pack the baubles and tinsel away until next December, making room, perhaps, for darker thoughts.
Rarely, if ever, it seems, has this Western blend of belief and materialism been so remote from the experience of hundreds of thousands of Christians elsewhere struggling to cope with an unwanted and bloody collision with the Islamic exclusivism of jihadists, primarily in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. And rarely have Western worshipers seemed so reluctant to acknowledge that their faith could be entering the final stage of its long decline in the lands where it was born and first propagated.
For decades, Christian communities in the Holy Land have dwindled, squeezed between the competing claims of Israelis and Palestinians and threatened by Islamic militancy.
In Lebanon, 15 years of civil war starting in 1975 brought Muslims and Maronites into bloody conflict. In 2003, the American-led invasion of Iraq replaced the relative tolerance of Christians under Saddam Hussein with sectarian strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that drove Christians away.
Since 2011, the so-called Arab Spring has narrowed the space, forcing Christians such as Egypt’s Copts to take sides between secular and Islamic forces.
The Middle East’s demography, in other words, is being fundamentally rewritten, particularly in recent months when militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have expelled, murdered or persecuted Christians and other minorities in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
For the first time in centuries, scholars of Middle Eastern religion say, Iraq is becoming an exclusively Islamic state after hosting one of the region’s biggest Christian minorities.
“There is a feeling of ‘fin de race’ among Christians all over the Middle East,” the prominent Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi was widely quoted as saying before his death in 2011.
“Each time a Christian goes, no other Christian comes to fill his place, and that is a very bad thing for the Arab world.”
Indeed, Pope Francis told Middle Eastern Christians: “Your very presence is precious for the Middle East. You are a small flock, but one with a great responsibility in the land where Christianity was born and first spread. You are like leaven in the dough.”
Yet the plight of those communities seems to leave Christian leaders facing an insuperable dilemma. If they urge Western societies to give sanctuary to fellow Christians from the patchwork of denominations that have flourished in the Middle East, they risk accelerating the region’s de-Christianization and fanning xenophobia in European lands.
If they do nothing, they stand accused of abandoning those who share their faith.
“These are not Johnny-come-latelies,” the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said in Britain. “They have got more history of being there than we have, most of us, of being in this country.”
“There are things that can be done,” he said, “and it is better than simply draining the entire region of Christians who have been there since the time of St. Paul.”
The archbishop, the leader of the Church of England and spiritual head of the world’s 80 million Anglicans, has spoken in favor of creating “safe havens” for Middle Eastern Christians, maintaining their presence in the region while shielding them from persecution.
But with tensions again mounting across the region, and the collision between radical Islam and the West spilling onto the streets of Paris with Wednesday’s lethal attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the very notion of safety seems elusive, irrespective of faith.