The Holy Land is the birthplace of Christianity, yet it also is the very place Christianity is most in danger of disappearing, experts say.
"To think that there may be no Christians in the place where it all began is a rather arresting thought," said Mark Schnellbaecher, regional director in the Middle East and Eastern Europe for Catholic Relief Services, the overseas aid agency of the U.S. Catholic bishops.
Attacks on Christians in the Middle East have increased dramatically in the last few years, Schnellbaecher said, pointing to Iraq as an example. Although always a minority, Iraq’s Christian community had been stable and protected during the reign of Saddam Hussein. After the U.S.-led invasion toppled the dictator in 2003, militant Islamic political movements that had been repressed under Hussein "came up like mushrooms after a spring rain," he said. Members of these movements kidnapped and killed many Christians, and the survivors fled Iraq in droves.
"To in real time watch the dispersement of one of the most ancient Christian communities before your eyes is just sad," said Schnellbaecher, who is based in Beirut. "These are the kinds of things that normally happen over centuries, and here it’s happened in the course of a decade. I think it is certainly possible in my lifetime there won’t be any Christians in Iraq."
The dire situation facing Iraqi Christians is being replicated in other Middle Eastern countries, he added. This is true in Syria, which seems to be on the brink of civil war, and in Egypt, where extremist Muslim groups have forced Christians to live in fear since the 2011 revolution ousted former President Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak.
"Everyone looks to Iraq, and they see what happened to the Christian community — it’s been decimated — and they sort of wonder, is that our fate as well?" Schnellbaecher said.
And Christians are not the only ones facing violence, hostility and displacement in the Middle East, where other religious minorities also are under attack, said Michael La Civita, vice president of communications for Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency providing humanitarian support to the people of the Middle East, northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.
"It’s open season on these smaller groups," La Civita said.
Many times, religious differences are not the only reasons for hostilities, he added. Christians in many Middle Eastern countries, for example, tend to be well-educated members of the upper middle class, so anti-Christian violence is sometimes fueled by economic factors, La Civita said. These factors by no means justify such violence, he said, but they do help explain its origins.
"There is sometimes a social or economic or political reason for the violence that ensues. You have to put everything into its proper context and really look at what’s the source of some of these problems," he noted.
Although a number of religious minorities have been under attack lately, terrorist attacks on Christians in particular have tripled in recent years in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, according to Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations’ offices in Geneva. In early March Archbishop Tomasi told the U.N. Human Rights Council that such attacks increased 309 percent between 2003 and 2010.
Christians in the Middle East often feel abandoned by Western Christians, who they wish would do a better job of advocating for them or, at the very least, demonstrating some concern, La Civita said. Western Christians, for their part, often are completely unaware that they even have Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Schnellbaecher noted.
"A lot of people in the United States and Europe don’t even know that there are Christians whose first language is Arabic. You talk about Christians in the Holy Land, and I think most people think that they’re Irish Catholic nuns or something," Schnellbaecher said.
Yet Pope Benedict XVI has called on Catholics to demonstrate concern for their brethren in the Holy Land, and on March 14 the U.S. bishops’ Administrative Committee released a statement of support for Christians and all those suffering in the Middle East.
"With Pope Benedict we share a special bond with our brother bishops, especially of the churches of the East who continue to guide their precious faithful and care for them in the most difficult of circumstances. We are one with them in their witness of opposition to violence from any quarter and in their appeals for peace for all peoples and nations in the Middle East," the bishops stated. "While we have a special bond with the suffering Christians throughout the Middle East, our care extends to all peoples of faith and every nationality."
The bishops urged Christians and people of all faiths to use words and actions to sow reconciliation, mutual respect and justice rather than division, hatred and violence.
"In this way conflicts might be resolved by peaceful means and peace based on justice, freedom and security might be the new heritage of all the peoples and nations of the Middle East," the bishops wrote.
Individuals can take additional steps to ease the plight of Christians in the Middle East, according to Schnellbaecher and La Civita. Simply raising Westerners’ awareness of the existence of Christians in the Middle East is a great first step, Schnellbaecher said.
"I’ve often heard from Christians here that the fact that they’re not known is of great concern. They do feel that if their existence and their increasingly perilous situation were better known among Christians in the West … that would be very helpful in securing their futures," he said.
Once they’ve realized there are Christian communities in the Middle East, Westerners should educate themselves further so they can begin to understand why those communities are in jeopardy, La Civita said.
"My suggestion is that they find out why there is violence, and don’t just look at the numbers but look at the reasons and put everything in its proper context," he said.
Catholic media in the United States have done a good job reporting on these issues, and Catholic publications are an excellent place to begin the learning process, La Civita added. Catholic Near East Welfare Association publishes its own magazine, One, which frequently reports on the state of Christian communities in the Middle East. Various diocesan Catholic newspapers, Our Sunday Visitor and the Jesuit magazine America also have done a good job reporting on these communities, La Civita said.
Once Western Catholics are well-versed in the issues facing their Middle Eastern counterparts, they should communicate their concerns to their political representatives, Schnellbaecher said. When they realize that their constituents care about the future of these Christian communities, elected leaders can encourage diplomats to keep an eye on these communities.
If individual Christians join forces with the Catholic Church and the United States government, they can help prevent the further destruction of Catholic communities in the Holy Land, Schnellbaecher asserted.
"I think we should be OK with saying as Catholics we should be concerned with securing the future of Catholic communities in the Middle East. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that," he said.