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As Christians around the world celebrate Christmas, Rachel Avraham explores the plight of Christians in the Arab world by interviewing human rights activists and Christians from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority.
Photo Credit: Rami Amer Dabas
As Christians across the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, many Christians living in the Arab world celebrate Christmas in a gloomy atmosphere. According to a report in the Gatestone Institute, one Christian is slaughtered every five minutes in Iraq: “ISIS is using churches as torture chambers where they force Christians to either convert to Islam or die.” Within the past year, ISIS has crucified, beheaded and gang raped Christians en masse. ISIS has reportedly sold thousands of Christian women and girls as sex slaves. Some Christians under ISIS have evaded this fate by paying the Jizya poll tax but many others aren’t so lucky.
However, not only ISIS persecutes Christians. They remain oppressed throughout the region to the level that there is a mass exodus of Christians from almost every Middle Eastern country except for Israel. 20% of the Middle East’s population used to be Christian. Today, only 4% of the Middle East’s population is Christian and these numbers continue to shrink in every country in the region but Israel. Thus, in honor of Christmas, JerusalemOnline explores the plight of Christians in the Arab world.
According to Syrian human rights activist Aboud Dandachi, Christians in Syria don’t only need to be concerned about ISIS and other Islamist groups for also the so-called moderate rebel groups and Assad’s regime have also gone after them: “In Tartous, I met a Christian. He told me about how his relative in Homs had been kidnapped and held for ransom. His family paid the ransom but he still ended up being killed so the entire family decided to immigrate to Canada. They were 12 strong. They decided that they would all go together or none at all.” Dandachi noted that it was non-Islamist rebel groups that committed this atrocity: “They had a gold shop. They were gangs basically. A lot of people took advantage of the chaos. They got into kidnapping and car theft.” As for Assad, it was his government’s decision in 2012 to change the Syrian constitution so Christians could never serve as president of the country: “The President now has to be a Muslim. We never had that before.”
The situation in the Palestinian Authority is a bit better than Syria, although it is still problematic. Palestinian Christian activist John Elias Dabas noted, “The problem is not with the PA as much as with Hamas and there is a problem with getting permits out of Gaza for Christmas. Last Christmas, out of 1,400 Christians in Gaza, only 700 got permits to visit family in the West Bank and the Church of Nativity. In Gaza, they are very segregated and living in fear, not knowing what will happen next. A church in Nablus was firebombed during Pope Benedict’s visit. Minorities are attacked everywhere.” However, he noted that in the West Bank, everyone celebrates Christmas and Santa Klaus passes out presents to both Christians and Muslims. He noted that schools in the West Bank even teach general knowledge about Christianity although nothing about Judaism; this is not the case in Gaza, where neither Christianity nor Judaism are taught in public schools. Nevertheless, Dabas stressed that Hamas is too busy inciting and planning terror attacks against Israel to take too many actions against Christians.
However, international human rights lawyer Justus Weiner provided an interview to Arutz Sheva, where he asserted that the plight of Christians in the Palestinian Authority is very dire: “The persecution of Christians in the Palestinian territories is less severe than in a number of other Muslim countries. Yet, it is still discriminatory and sometimes fatal. In April 2013, the Christian Holy Family School in Gaza was set on fire. Several months later, five Christian schools in Gaza were closed. Five Christians in Gaza were kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam in 2012. In July 2012, a court sentenced a Christian to a month in prison for eating during Ramadan. Five other people were punished for the same reason. The Palestinian Land Law prescribes the death penalty for selling land to Jews. Various Christians have testified that it is also enforced if land is sold to Christians.”
Although Jordan is portrayed as a moderate country, Jordanian Christian activist Rami Amer Dabas, who also founded the Russian Defense League, proclaimed that the situation is still dire for Christians within the country: “Christians are discriminated against and are not well-respected among the Muslim community in Jordan. Even the authorities speak badly about them. The government always allows converts from Christianity to Islam while they restrict it from Islam to Christianity. Muslim men are allowed to marry Christian women but Christian men cannot marry Muslim women. Three years ago, a Christian teenager was forced to become a Muslim and he married her later on after making a lot of threats. It was a statutory rape case as she was 16 years old and he was 20.”
“Also, there is incitement against non-Muslims in Jordan,” he related. “In the mosque every Friday, they incite people to convert Christians to Islam. They don’t respect our beliefs. They call our women whores because they don’t wear hijab. They think we have sex in churches. They claim that our holy books have changed over the years. They talk to us like they seriously believe that. They come to us to convert us but apostates from Islam may be killed and tortured by the authorities. If not, they lose their civil rights. That is why 40 years ago, Jordan was 14% Christian and is now only 4%. We tend to immigrate to other countries.”
Despite Hezbollah, Lebanese activist Fabian Maamari believes that his country is a bit better than the other Arab countries: “Muslims and Christians live side by side representing Lebanon with pride. They even have mosques and churches standing next to each other. There are around 18 different religions existing there and that is very rare for a country that seems like a dot on the map. Before the Muslims came to Lebanon, the country was called Phoenicia and the population was Christian. That is why many Christian Lebanese Arabs prefer today to be called Phoenicians and not Arabs.”
However, not everyone agrees that the plight of Christians in Lebanon is so rosy. Prominent Lebanese journalist Brigitte Gabriel had proclaimed in an interview with JerusalemOnline, “Christians who are left in Lebanon are living in fear and acknowledging now that they are second class citizens. Hezbollah monitors all social media and all communication lines. I cannot even speak freely to family members or friends discussing anything other than hello, who died, who got married and the weather. We must never lose sight of the fact that Hezbollah is a jihadist organization. Hezbollah’s goal is to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon ruled by Islamic law. Inevitably, under such a system, Christians will be persecuted and suffer. As Hezbollah gains more control, conditions for Christians deteriorate.”
While the plight of Christians this Christmas continues to deteriorate in Syria, ISIS-controlled areas, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority while Lebanese Christians face threats due to the prominence of Hezbollah within the country, Israel remains the only country in the Middle where Christians receive equal rights and are able to practice their faith freely. Throughout the Arab world, Christians are at best living in fear, are persecuted and oppressed; at worst, they are beheaded, burned alive, crucified, abducted, raped, converted to Islam by force and had their property stolen from them.
Rami Amer Dabas Photo Credit Rami Alsaba