I have a friend called Harry whose 90-year-old grandmother died a few weeks ago. Eugenie Tabourian was an Armenian Christian from Jerusalem. She and her husband fled from Turkey during the Armenian genocide of 1915 and arrived in the Holy Land, which in those days was bustling with Christians. Today, many indigenous Christians have left this golden city in search of fresher and safer pastures.
Sixty years ago, Christians constituted more than 25 percent of the overall Palestinian population in the Holy Land and almost 80 percent of the southern triangle of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Today, those numbers have dwindled alarmingly, due largely, though not exclusively, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a nutshell, Christians have lost hope in a land that once witnessed the birth of Jesus – the Hope of the world.
The first 600 years after the Day of Pentecost saw the spread of the gospel to the east of the Roman Empire with significant communities extending as far as China. These years saw a vibrant growth among the Christian churches of the Middle East. It was in the Middle East that the books of the New Testament were gathered into the canon of the Bible; in the same region, the work of the ecumenical councils clarified the great doctrines of the faith.
Philip Jenkins has reminded us of this rich period of the church in his latest book, “The Lost History of Christianity” (2008, Harper). In the year that Baptists celebrate their 400th anniversary in Amsterdam, we do well to recall with gratitude that before Smyth and Helwys, there were churches in the modern nations of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, which prospered from its location on the Silk Road trade route between China and the Mediterranean. Long before Good King Wenceslas ruled a Christian Bohemia and before Poland was Christian, there was a thriving church in Samarkand – modern-day Uzbekistan. As Jenkins observes, “Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarcely less damaging.”
The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity and the home to some of the world’s most ancient Christian denominations. But the Christians of the modern-day Middle East have been declining and disappearing in recent years because of a combination of low birth rates, emigration and increasingly – violent persecution. The plight of Hanna Massad, pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, is a shocking example of the power of fanatical extremists to terrorize a Christian minority.
My friend, Harry, has shared that over the past decade some Muslims have become increasingly less tolerant of people who do not share their faith and many consider Christians as heretics. These attitudes are in part due to an erroneous belief that all Christians in the Holy Land are politically linked to the policies of the Christian “West.” They ignite the spirit of the medieval Crusades which Osama bin Laden frequently refers to in his “messages.”
These attitudes generate economic prejudice so that Christian shops are at times the last ones to be frequented for business or Palestinian Christians are the last to receive financial aid from local authorities. Harry has told me that if you talk to a Christian ironmonger, butcher or grocer, you can detect the grave concerns simmering under the veneer of pan-Palestinian solidarity.
Arab Christians frequently experience the deep wound of a triple prejudice. Their economic viability is squeezed by Muslim neighbors. Their land is relentlessly colonized by successive Israeli governments. Worst of all, they feel they have been marginalized by the body of Christ, particularly those living in the West.
Arab Baptist Christians tell me they understand why Western Christians love the nation of Israel but are puzzled why Arab believers from the Middle East are often not included in the prayers of the global Christian family. They say to me, “Don’t stop loving the Jewish people of Israel, but please love Arab Christians as well. Find a place in your hearts for us both.”
The small yet thriving Baptist communities of the Middle East face severe challenges as they strive to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is time for the global family to show added sensitive appreciation for the life and work of these indigenous Christians who live in the Bible lands.
I urge you in your prayers to “find a place in your hearts for us both.”
David Coffey is president of the Baptist World Alliance. This column appeared previously in the April-June 2009 issue of Baptist World, a quarterly publication of the Baptist World Alliance. Click here to subscribe.