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    Middle East
     Aug 11, 2009
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The closing of the Christian womb
By Spengler

The whole point of partition in 1948 was "taking into account the population already present" by creating an Arab Palestinian state alongside a Jewish State, contrary to Samir. Had the Arabs agreed to partition, Arabs might have surrounded and eventually absorbed a tiny refugee state. It was the not the superpowers, but rather the surrounding Arab states who did not take into account the interests of the local population, but gambled on crushing the Jewish State in its cradle.

All of this is outrageously wrong, but it is hard to have a rational argument with someone who has an existential problem. It is hard to offer solace to Arab Christians. Their elite misplayed its hand seeking influence through Arab nationalism, and now stands to lose everything to political Islam. As a culture, the Arabs are in


profound crisis - their most celebrated poet, the Syrian "Adonis", calls them "extinct" - and their decline weighs doubly upon the dwindling Christina minority. It is worth contrasting "Adonis'" gloomy assessment of Arab culture with Samir's eccentric cheerfulness; I summarized the Syrian writer's views in a 2007 essay Are the Arabs already extinct?. Nonetheless, Samir still speaks of a grand revival of Arab Christianity. As he told an Italian newspaper on the eve of the pope's departure to Israel last May:
Previously, the Nahdah, the Arab renaissance that took place between the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century was essentially produced by the Christians. Now once again, a century later, the same thing is happening, although the Christians are in the minority in Arab countries. Today the "new" elements in Arab thinking are coming from Lebanon, where the interaction between Christians and Muslims is the most lively. Here there are five Catholic universities, in addition to the Islamic and state institutions. ... Today, the cultural impact of the Christians in the Middle East takes place through the means of communication ... Many Muslims, including authoritative leaders, in both Lebanon and Jordan, but also in Saudi Arabia, have stated this publicly: we do not want the Christians to leave our countries, because they are an essential part of our societies.
It sounds a bit like Mortimer Duke in the 1983 comedy Trading Places, shouting, "Now, you listen to me! I want trading reopened right now. Get those brokers back in here! Turn those machines back on!" Samir hopes that Arab Christians will provide the leaven to lift up Arab society in general; on the contrary, as Arab society sags, it squeezes the Arab Christians out. Sadly, it is may be too late for Lebanon's Christians. "The process began at the turn of the century and it has intensified in recent years ... There are 12 million Christians in the Middle East. If the current trend continues, there will be fewer than 6 million by 2025," Hilal Khashan, political science chair at the American University of Beirut told the Beirut Star on June 10, 2007.

By way of tacit acknowledgement, the Vatican treads lightly with Tehran because the Lebanese Christians are hostages to Hezbollah, the Iranian-controlled Shi'ite militia. The Christian leader Michael Aoun has attempted to form a political bloc between Hezbollah and the Maronite parties. The Christians simply are outgunned, and the Maronites would lose in a military confrontation with Hezbollah.

The propitiatory stance towards Iran on the part of some Vatican diplomats is symptomatic of a different problem. As the center of gravity of the Church shifts towards the Global South, the Church inevitably will absorb some of the political sentiments that prevail in the Global South, including hostility towards the "colonialist" industrial world. The anti-Israeli sentiments that prevail among Third World diplomats already reverberate in the Vatican's diplomatic corps.

The Pope feels a deep pastoral responsibility to Middle Eastern Christians. On March 25, the Holy See expressed "profound concern" about Middle Eastern Christians in the Middle East in the wake of the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Archbishop Antonio Maria emphasized the pastoral function of the pope's visit, noting that he "constantly comforts Christians, and all the inhabitants of the Holy Land, with special words and gestures, coupled with his desire to make a pilgrimage in the historical footsteps of Jesus ... The wounds opened by violence make the problem of emigration more acute, inexorably depriving the Christian minority of its best resources for the future ... The land that was the cradle of Christianity risks ending up without Christians."

There is little risk, however, that the Holy Land will end up without Christians. Although Arab Christians are indeed leaving areas controlled by Muslims, Christians are immigrating to Israel itself, where the Christian community has doubled in size in the past 15 years. Some estimates put the number of Christians in Israel at nearly 300,000, twice the official count. To Israel's 120,000 Arab Christians and 30,000 others must be added Christian immigrants from Eastern European, as well as many Filipinos and others who came as guest workers and have settled in Israel.

Hebrew-speaking Catholic services are held in Israel's largest cities, and Eastern European immigrants have formed new Orthodox congregations. The new Hebrew-speaking Christian communities still are small but they promise a new kind of root for Christianity in the region.

The retirement in 2008 of Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a vocal critic of the Jewish State, was symbolic of the generational change that shifted the balance of Christian life to Hebrew-speaking Israelis. Patriarch Sabbah belonged to an older generation that blamed Israel for the disruption of Christian life in the Holy Land. In some respects Israel's Christian Arab population is well integrated into Israeli society; its children have a higher rate of university matriculation than Israeli Jews. Nonetheless, Christian Arabs tend to share the concerns of Arabs generally. More recent Christian immigrants, though, learn Hebrew and see the world through Israeli eyes.

A vibrant Christian presence in the birthplace of Christianity benefits the world community. In its own interest, the State of Israel should foster a Christian presence, as a living link between the Jewish state and Christians around the world. In their short-sightedness, successive Israeli governments have not given enough attention to Christian concerns, particularly regarding the holy places. Residual antagonism towards Christians among Israel's ultra-orthodox community represents another obstacle. Prime Minister Netanyahu made the wise gesture of meeting the pope in Nazareth during his May visit to the Holy Land.

Nonetheless, the diversity of Israel's Christian population is a positive sign for the long-term viability of Christian congregations in the Middle East. Increasingly, they will speak Hebrew more than Arabic. In the long term, the State of Israel will be viable if its inhabitants bear children and stand their ground, unlike the unfortunate Christians of Lebanon.

[1] See "Fr Samir's 111 Questions on Islam", published in First Things on April 30, 2009.

[2] See Fr Samir: "A Decalogue for Peace in the Middle East" by Sandro Magister.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman, associate editor of First Things.

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