When Sen. Ted Cruz told an audience of Middle Eastern Christians that they have no better friend than Israel, he stated the literal truth: the Assyrian Christians of Iraq’s north are at greater risk than any Christian population in the world, and their only effective defenders are the Kurdish Peshmerga, which was trained and armed by Israel almost from inception. These facts are widely known. Why, then, did Sen. Cruz’s remarks provoke an eruption of Jew-hatred? A large part of the audience could not control its rage, and drove their keynote speaker from the podium.
There’s a history, and a sad one. I published the essay below in 2009 and reprint it here to help put this event in context. It is a dark day indeed when the government of Egypt can see its way clear to an alliance with Israel against radical Islamists, but many (and perhaps most) Middle Eastern Christians can’t bear the idea of an alliance with Israel. It does not augur well for their survival in the region.
The closing of the Christian womb
By Spengler (crossposted from Asia Times Online)
A century ago, Christians dominated the intellectual and commercial life of the Levant, comprising more than one-fifth of the 13 million people of Turkey, the region’s ruling power, and most of the population of Lebanon. Ancient communities flourished in what is now Iraq and Syria. But starting with the Armenian genocide in 1914 and continuing through the massacre and expulsion of Anatolian Greeks in 1922-1923, the Turks killed three to four million Christians in Turkey and the Ottoman provinces. Thus began a century of Muslim violence that nearly has eradicated Christian communities in the cradle of their religion.
It may seem odd to blame the Jews for the misery of Middle East Christians, but many Christian Arabs do so – less because they are Christians than because they are Arabs. The Christian religion is flourishing inside the Jewish side. Only 50,000 Christian Arabs remain in the West Bank territories, and their numbers continue to erode. Hebrew-speaking Christians, mainly immigrants from Eastern Europe or the Philippines, make up a prospective Christian congregation of perhaps 300,000 in the State of Israel, double the number of a decade ago.
The brief flourishing and slow decline of Christian Arab life is one of the last century’s stranger stories. Until the Turks killed the Armenians and expelled the Greeks, Orthodoxy dominated Levantine. The victorious allies carved out Lebanon in 1926 with a Christian majority, mostly Maronites in communion with Rome. Under the Ottomans, Levantine commerce had been Greek or Jewish, but with the ruin of the Ottomans and the founding of Lebanon, Arab Christians had their moment in the sun. Beirut became the banking center and playground for Arab oil states.
The French designed Lebanon’s constitution on the strength of a 1932 census showing a Christian majority, guaranteeing a slight Christian advantage in political representation. With the Christian population at barely 30% of the total and 23% of the population under 20 – Lebanon’s government refuses to take a census – Lebanon long since has lost its viability. The closing of the Christian womb has ensured eventual Muslim dominance.
Precise data are unobtainable, for demographics is politics in Lebanon, but Lebanon’s Christians became as infertile as their European counterparts. Muslims, particularly the impoverished and marginalized Shi’ites, had more babies. In 1971, the Shi’ite fertility rate was 3.8 babies per female, against only 2 for Maronite Christians, or just below replacement. Precise data are not available, but Christian fertility is well below replacement today.
Even before the 1975 Lebanese Civil War, infertility undermined the position of Lebanon’s Christians . The civil war itself arose from the demographic shift towards Muslims, who saw the Christian-leaning constitution as unfair. Christianity in the Levant ultimately failed for the same reason that it failed in Europe: populations that are nominally Christian did not trouble to reproduce.
Lebanon was a Catholic project from the outset, and the Vatican’s thinking about the region is colored nostalgia for a dying Christian community and a searing sense of regret for what might have been. If only the State of Israel hadn’t spoiled everything, many Arab Christians think, the Christian minority would have wielded enormous influence in the Arab world. It is true that in many Arab countries, Christians comprised a disproportionate share of merchants and intellectuals. But the same was true of the 130,000 Jews of Iraq before 1947, who owned half the businesses in Baghdad.
Contrary to the Arab narrative, the peak of Arab Christian influence occurred a generation after the founding of the State of Israel, when Boutros Boutros-Ghali became Egypt’s foreign minister in 1977, and Tariq Aziz became Foreign Minister of Iraq in 1983. In fact, the founding of the State of Israel propelled Christian Arabs into leadership positions in Arab governments. The Arab monarchies installed by the British in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq failed miserably in their efforts to crush the new Jewish State in the 1947-1948 War of Independence. Young military officers replaced the old colonial regimes with nationalist governments, starting with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup in Egypt.
Nationalism opened the door of political leadership to Arab Christians. The Syrian Christian Michel Aflaq founded the Ba’ath party which later took power in Syria and Iraq. The rise of secular Arab movements with strong Christian influence was a response to the Arab failure to prevent the founding of the State of Israel. After the Turkish destruction of Orthodox Christian populations in the Levant, the Arab Christian elite – for centuries graced by not a single name the world remembers – saw its chance to shine. Lebanon, previously a backwater, and the pugnacious Maronite population, a marginal group except for their ties to France, improbably emerged as the focal point of Levantine Christianity.
But Arab nationalism failed just as miserably as did the monarchies invented by the British after the Turks were thrown out. Having rolled the dice with Arab nationalism, Arab Christians were left with diminished leverage and declining numbers on the ground in the advent of political Islam. Both in politics and demographics, the Arab Christians largely had themselves to blame. Understandably, they find it more palatable to blame the Jews.
A case in point is Father Samir Khalid Samir, a Jesuit of Egyptian Arab origin who prominently advises Pope Benedict XVI on Islam. I reviewed his fine book 111 Questions on Islam last March . Samir is circulating what he calls a “Decalogue for Peace”, leaked August 9 on the website of veteran Vatican analyst Sandro Magister .
According to Samir:
The problem goes back to the creation of the state of Israel and the partition of Palestine in 1948 decided by the superpowers without taking into account the population already present in the (Holy) Land. There resides the real root of all the wars that followed. To repair a serious injustice committed in Europe against a third of the world Jewish population, Europe (supported by the superpowers) decided to commit a new injustice against the Palestinian population, who are innocent of the martyrdom of the Jews. The original decision-making was shaped largely as reparation by the superpowers for doing little or nothing to end a systematically organized persecution against the European Jews as a ‘race’.
Samir’s plan includes international troops on Israel’s borders, recognition of the Palestinian right of return, an international commission to decide the future of Jerusalem – in short, what the Israelis would consider the end of their sovereignty and the liquidation of the Jewish State. That a prominent Vatican Islam expert would take such a stance speaks volumes about the power of nostalgia.
There is not a single fact in place in Samir’s presentation.
Leave aside the fact that the League of Nations in 1922 confirmed the object of the British mandate to establish a homeland for Jewish people in Palestine, and that preparations for the Jewish State were complete before World War II. Leave aside also the pope’s Biblical belief that the Jews are in the Land of Israel because God has commanded them to be there. The fact is that most Israelis, contrary to Samir, descend not from the Jews driven out of Europe by the Holocaust, but rather from Jews driven out of Arab countries after 1947.
There were 600,000 Jews in Israel on the day of its founding; an additional 700,000 were expelled from Arab lands, including Iraq, where the Jews had lived for 1,000 years prior to the arrival of the Arabs. By expelling the Jews, the Arab countries created a population concentration in Israel that made possible the country’s emergence as a regional superpower. The results were an exchange of populations of roughly equal numbers, Palestinians leaving the new State of Israel and Jewish refugees arriving from Arab countries.
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.
 See “Fr Samir’s 111 Questions on Islam“, published in First Things on April 30, 2009.
 See Fr Samir: “A Decalogue for Peace in the Middle East” by Sandro Magister.
See also this 2010 post on the First Things website.