In the MidEast, only Israel does Christmas

By Robin Shepherd, December 29, 2010
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Consider the following two images of this year's Christmas. At the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, the Associated Press wrote, "bits of dried flesh and blood remained stuck on the ceiling" following the October 31 massacre of 68 worshippers by an Islamist militant group threatening that Iraqi Christians would be "exterminated". A terrified group of 300 huddled together in the church to make the best of a desperate predicament.

Just under 550 miles to the west, by contrast, Christmas looked more like the festive occasion it is supposed to be as 100,000 Christians thronged the central square of Bethlehem, making merry around the Church of the Nativity. Officials said it was double last year's number and the highest for a decade.

There is an important sense in which the contrast can be deceptive. The Christians of the Holy Land are a fast diminishing breed. In 1950 they made up 15 per cent of the population. Today it's just 2 per cent, and with fierce persecution in Hamas-run Gaza and increasing intolerance in the PA-run West Bank, Christians are finding life harder by the year.

Nonetheless, those two contrasting images of Christmas still tell us much about the world we live in. The Christians of Israel and the areas it (directly or indirectly) administers benefit from a pluralistic Jewish political culture which recognises that freedom is merely theoretical without a security environment to protect and nurture it.

For all the best efforts of the US and its allies, Iraq remains hostage to the depravities of militant Islam. And it is far from exceptional. From Nigeria, where the Christmas period saw churches burned and 38 worshippers slaughtered, through Saudi Arabia where it is illegal to walk the streets wearing a cross, all the way to the Philippines, where 11 were wounded after a bomb exploded during a Christmas mass, the persecution of Christians in areas of the world where Islam holds sway is a growing fact of life.

This doesn't quite fit the politically correct narratives of Muslim victimhood that we are enjoined to believe in. Islamist violence, we are told, is merely a product of desperation, the last resort for a people with grievances. Of course, anyone who has observed the fanatical antisemitism rife in Muslim societies across the Middle East knows that the roots go much deeper. But now that Christians are being targeted too, perhaps a wider Western audience will finally wake up to the reality that something much more elemental is at work, and that it threatens all of us.

That's not the Christmas message most of us in the Christian world want to hear. But the message, it seems, is being delivered nonetheless. Perhaps it's time to take note.

Robin Shepherd is Director, International Affairs, at the Henry Jackson Society

Last updated: 2:31pm, December 29 2010