Christianity endures in the Holy Land

Visitors from Russia may top U.S.

Published: Sunday, April 24 2011 1:09 a.m. MDT

But as Christian tourism grows, the relative population of Christians in Israel continues to wane. Two percent of Israelis are Christian, a figure that has declined 13 of the last 15 years. The shrinking ratio of Christians in the Holy Land is neither a recent development nor limited to Israeli borders. National Geographic reported in 2009 that within "present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories," native Christian communities "have dwindled in the past century from a quarter to about 8 percent of the population as the current generation leaves for economic reasons, to escape the region's violence, or because they have relatives in the West who help them emigrate."

Considering how few Christians live in the Holy Land today, it's easy to forget how deep Christian roots go here. In 313 A.D. Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and recognized what's now Israel as holy land. Although Muslims conquered the area in 638, Christians still remained present for hundreds of years thereafter. In the 12th and 13th centuries, however, the Crusades catalyzed the start of a long and steady exodus of Christians from the region that continues to this day by sparking anti-Christian sentiment from Arab Muslims because of the legacy of the Crusaders.

Jeff Chadwick knows all about the historic and present-day demographics of Christianity in the Holy Land. As Professor of Archeology and Near Eastern Studies for Brigham Young University's Jerusalem Center, he has lived in Israel off-and-on for roughly eight years to work on archeology digs and teach university classes about the region's history.

"There are more Christians here than most countries in the Middle East because Israeli society tolerates them so well," Chadwick said. "The Christian community of the Holy Land is about evenly divided between the small minority of Arab Christians that are local to the land and other Christians that are foreigners living here in Israel serving in capacities for their churches or for their employers that need to have them here. Israel has a very small Christian presence. It's a Jewish state with a Muslim minority."

Ironically, the weight of Christianity's minority status is very apparent in Nazareth, the town where Jesus lived. Today Arabs are the majority population in Nazareth, and although the vast majority of Nazarenes are tolerant and civil, enough enmity toward Christianity teems beneath the surface to yield visible signs of discord.

On a bright morning last month, for example, a dozen American journalists rolled through Nazareth in a large touring van as guests of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Several journalists repeatedly requested that the group stop and disembark to explore the Church of the Annunciation, a Nazarene basilica situated where tradition holds that the archangel Gabriel informed Mary she would bear the Son of God. But the tour guide, who had granted every other request, uncharacteristically dismissed the suggestions without substantive explanation.

As the van passed by the Church of the Annunciation, it became clear why the tourism ministry, which does its best to cater to Christian tourists, wanted to avoid the spot. Prominently displayed in front of one of Christianity's most holy sites, a green-garnished banner with hunter lettering imposed over a celery background delivers two not-so-subtle messages: the declaration in Arabic that Allah has no son; and in English, "Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers."

Even in Jerusalem, the Garden Tomb also qualifies as a Christian tourist destination ensconced in a predominantly Muslim setting. Unlike the Church of the Annunciation, however, Garden Tomb director Richard Meryon feels zero tension from his Muslim neighbors.

"The Palestinians among whom we live," Meryon relates, "are actually very friendly and warm and forever congenially saying, 'Welcome.' "

For Meryon, it is the Garden Tomb's relationship with the Jewish government that is full of complications.

"Israelis are understandably zealous to guard the security of their land," he said. "They tend to be initially suspicious of any non-Israeli, but when they trust you they're just as warm (as the Palestinians). This is why they themselves call those Jewish people born here 'sabra,' which means prickly pear — indeed, prickly on the outside but sweet and juicy inside.

"The Israeli government tolerates places like the Garden Tomb because they are tourist sites focused on people who spend maybe just two weeks in the land. Israel sternly frowns on and would never permit any kind of proselytizing of or active ministry towards Israelis."

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