As a kid growing up in Evangelical churches, I would occasionally hear about the ultimate in Christian travelthe Holy Land tour. And the tour would be followed up some months later by a slide show showing where its members had gone. The slides featured ancient stone buildings, panoramic views of Jerusalem, and sunglass-wearing Americans standing atop of the Mount of Olives with the golden Dome of the Rock in the background. But I don’t remember anyone ever talking about the Christians living there. There were pictures of churches, sure, but did anyone actually go to church there?
It was an empty space that was passed over in silence in my childhood, but it’s something I began thinking about more frequently after my conversion to the Orthodox Church in college. I joined the Antiochian Orthodox Churchfounded by Ss. Peter and Paul in Antiochand I began to meet the people who went to church in the Holy Land.
This empty space in the American Christian imagination opened up for me again this past week when I read about the controversial comments made by Senator Ted Cruz at the In Defense of Christians (IDC) conference in Washington, D.C., which was organized to raise awareness of the ongoing genocide of Christians that has been unleashed by radical Muslim groups such as ISIS. “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you,” Cruz said. But the conference wasn’t about Israel. It was about the ongoing slaughter of Middle Eastern Christians. When Cruz announced that he would not stand with them because they did not stand with Israel, he essentially consigned these people and their families and flocks to slaughter because they did not share his politics on the most controversial state in their region.
I was similarly struck when the Arabic letter nun (“N”) for Nasrani (“Nazarenes”) began to take over the profile pictures of many friends on social media. The West had learned that Iraqi Christians were being targeted by ISIS and that this letter was being painted on their homes to mark them out for extermination. It reminded us of the Holocaust and the Star of David that Jews had to wear under Nazi rule. #WeAreN began to trend on social media in solidarity.
And yet while I wondered at Americans waking up to the fact that there are Christians in Iraq (or, increasingly, were), I wondered at why my fellow countrymen don’t seem to realize that the whole Middle East is home to Christians. At roughly 18 million strong, Christians constitute 5 percent of the total Middle Eastern population (though no one is sure of the real number), a little less than the population of Florida. Ten percent of Syrians and of Egyptians are Christian. Forty-one percent of Lebanese are Christian. Americans are so used to thinking of the Middle East as Muslims surrounding an island of Jews that it rarely occurs to them that there might be some Christians in the birthplace of Christianity.
I am married to an American of Palestinian ancestry. People sometimes ask me if that means my wife is Muslim. She is not. She is an Orthodox Christian. Her father is an Orthodox Christian. His father was an Orthodox Christian. And so on. They’re actually not really sure how far back their Christianity goes, but the family originally came from Antioch (which is now in Turkey but was a major Syrian capital in the Roman Empire). I once asked when the family became Christian. One of my wife’s relatives answered, “When Jesus rose from the dead.” There’s a good chance that that’s roughly correct.
When the Apostles made their missionary journeys to the uttermost parts of the earth, history doesn’t say that they skipped the rest of the Middle East and headed straight for Europe. No, they immediately began founding Christian communities right in their own neighborhood. Two major Syrian citiesAntioch and Damascusfigure quite large in early Christian history. They are mentioned in the New Testament. They are still home to Christians.
Granted, when many American Christians think of “the Holy Land,” they don’t usually think beyond the borders of Israel. But Jesus went beyond those borders (e.g., to Tyre and Sidon, both Lebanese cities, as well as to Egypt in his youth), and the Apostles certainly did. And who can forget the Hebrew heritage in Egypt? Or that Abraham was from what is now Iraq? The Middle East is the very cradle of Christianity and its Jewish inheritance.
But even if we have a hard time wrapping our heads around the presence of Christians in the Middle East, we can look for them right here in America. The most numerous ethnic group of Middle Eastern peoplethose identifying as “Arabs”has a presence of about 1.7 million people in America. Of those, 63 percent are Christians. (Muslims account for only 24 percent of Arab Americans.) The average Arab in America is a Christian. And I live in a valley in Pennsylvania with thousands of Syriansmore than any other congressional district in America, and as the civil war in their native land continues, their numbers here are growing. Most Syrian Americans are Christian, too.
So why is the Middle Eastern Christian voice not just so unheard but so unknown in America? It may be that their local spokesmen are not very well-organized. It may be, as some say, that they are “too Christian for the Left and too foreign for the Right.” And it may also be because of moments like Senator Cruz gave us at the IDC conference, where he effectively announced that he did not care that they were being slaughtered because they didn’t share his position on Israel“speaking truth to the powerless,” as one commenator I read put it.
But their voice needs to be heard, and it needs to be heard now. American Christians’ inability to see Middle Eastern Christians for who they arenot just fellow Christians, but human beings who are suffering and dyingcontributes to the marginalization of some of the most persecuted people in the world, hastening their erasure from history.
Will we notice before the last Christian liturgy is held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Holy Fire that comes miraculously from it every Easter is no longer greeted by “Christ is risen”? Or will this generation witness the end of Christianity in the place where it began?