Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christians in the Land of Baby Jesus

 O little town of  Bethlehem,
  how still we see thee lie!
 Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
  the silent stars go by;
 yet in thy dark streets shineth
  the everlasting light;
 the hopes and fears of all the years
  are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary;
  and gathered all above,
 while mortals sleep, the angels keep
  their watch of wondering love.
 O morning stars, together
  proclaim the holy birth,
 and praises sing to God the King,
  and peace to all on earth.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the carol tells us, and who among us wasn't aware of this? His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, were from Nazareth but they headed off to fulfill census requirements. The apostle Paul regained his physical sight in the city of Damascus, and he was converted to Christianity on his way there. Bethlehem is in the West Bank today, Nazareth is in northern Israel, and Damascus in Syria.

Christianity has it origins in the Middle East, but there aren't many Christians left there. One hundred years ago about 20% of citizens in Middle Eastern countries were Christians. Now it is about five percent. In Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, strong Christian populations have dwindled because of diminished opportunity and persecution. Egypt's Christians wonder what is in store for them because of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Bethlehem Christians are leaving because they are Arabs, and while they are peaceable people they are viewed with suspicion by the Israeli government because of their Muslim neighbours.

Many Christians in the Middle East are well educated in schools established by various mission groups in another time. But not all are affluent, so where can they go?

I was glad when the United Church decided to stand in solidarity with beleaguered Palestinian Christians this past summer, but most of the critics missed that aspect of why General Council took a stand on settlements in the occupied territories. For years I have been woofing about the way we liberal Christians inexplicably ignore the plight of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. When we did we were roundly criticised, even from within our denomination.

As you celebrate Christmas this year, remember those who live in the region where Christ was born.

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