Of the eight million people or so living in Israel, around 20% are Arabs—of whom about 7% are Christian. Israel's Arab Christians, in other words, number only about 110,000 people, living mostly in tight communities in Jerusalem and the Galilee.
For all the solicitous attention paid to them by such international Christian organizations as the World Council of Churches, you would think they were a larger and more important group. Much of the Vatican's diplomacy—its occasionally adversarial relations with Israel, its Palestinian favoritism, its reluctance to condemn the Islamic dictatorships—derives from its belief that the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East are at risk, and that the best way to defend them is to be seen to side with Arabs against their perceived enemies.
Hard to say the Vatican is wrong about the first part. At the beginning of the twentieth century, large numbers of Christians still lived in their traditional Orthodox and Catholic communities, from the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos all the way around the Mediterranean—through Asia Minor, down the Levant, and across North Africa to Morocco. In 1914, they made up 25% of Ottoman Empire.
The next year the Turks began the systematic part of their slaughter of the Armenians, and the churches of the Middle East have been in catastrophic decline ever since. By 2001, Christians were down to less than 1% of the Turkish population. The recent news out of Egypt—thousands of Coptic Christians fleeing the country since March, with 28 killed and hundreds wounded in Cairo on October 9—is only the latest installment in the ongoing story of the dying of ancient Christianity in the Middle East. The single most dangerous thing in the world to be, right now, is a member of a Christian community in a Muslim country.
The second part of the Vatican's view of the Middle East, however—the idea that what is left of the Christians can be defended by trying to forge relations with Muslim extremists—has proved dangerously wrong, both as an understanding of the Christians' situation and as a strategy for helping them.
Pope Benedict XVI has spoken often and clearly about Islamists, linking their energetic primitivism to the postmodern ennui of European elites. The Vatican's international-affairs officers, however, have been slow to grasp the pope's message, and on they seem to tread on the tired, old paths, seeking in the dark woods of Muslim politics some way to preserve the last remnants of the world as it was.
Christians in Europe and America need to recognize that, of all the Middle Eastern countries, the one that has managed best at keeping its Christians is Israel. The nation's Arab Christian community is small, but for decades it has remained stable. Meanwhile, the birth this year of the Republic of South Sudan has the potential to alter some of the diplomatic landscape. Although the nation is more African than Arab, its emergence as an ethnically Christian nation—the first in the area since France tried to protect the Maronite Christians with the creation of Lebanon in the 1940s—may offer a refuge for threatened Christians throughout the Middle East.
The most interesting and least understood change in the region, however, is the growth over the last decade of an entirely new Christian population. At least 200,000—and possibly as many as half a million—non-Arab Christians now live in Israel. Some are asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Others are illegal immigrants who have slipped in from Egypt and guest workers from Goa, South America, and the Philippines. Add in the Jewish converts and the immigrants from Russia, and their numbers start to look significant.
A first-rate piece of reporting by the Associated Press this week describes the emergence of these people as an identifiable group in Israel. They work in normal Israeli jobs, their children speak Hebrew, and they think of themselves as fully Israeli—in marked contrast to the local Arab Christians who feel a cultural tie to Palestinian Muslims and remain generally antagonistic to the State of Israel.
Israel is not alone. In the Italian publication Chiesa, Sandro Magister notes that, throughout the Gulf, the population of immigrant workers is expanding. Kuwait alone has 350,000 Catholics among its guest workers, mostly from the Philippines and India, and they have begun to create their own culture within the Islamic state.
Pressure from local priests is at least causing the Vatican to move, however slowly, toward rearranging local vicariates to match the reality of the new distribution of the Christian population. Many of the old churches of the Middle East belonged to the Eastern Orthodox forms of Christianity, and few of the new Christians are Orthodox—which leaves the Orthodox denominations of Europe and America unwilling to act. The World Council of Churches, too, dominated by the fading Mainline Protestant churches, still blunders along in its old tracks, refusing to see the changed world of Christianity across the region.
Nothing in the Middle East ever seems to work out quite the way one hopes. But surely there is something worth noting in the re-emergence of even a tiny Christian population in the region that is unmoved by the Arab hatred of Israel, the ancient tribal divisions, and the envenomed rhetoric that dominates the political scene.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and the author of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words.