On the eve of Christmas, Christians from all around the world will gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus, which took place in a small town in what is now modern day Palestine.
As we hear again the story of the miraculous birth of the Messiah, we are transported back to the world of the Middle East, the place where the story of Christianity began.
However, a little over 2000 years after that event, the fate of Christianity in the region of its birth seems as fragile and uncertain as it did in the beginning.
While as a whole, Christianity continues to grow and thrive all around the world, in the Middle East this is definitely not the case. In fact, if anything, it appears to be dying.
Christianity's History in the Middle East
While today we do not tend to think of the Middle East as a haven of Christianity, history tells a different story.
For the first 500 years of Christianity's existence, this region was the most important for Christianity, culturally, theologically, and numerically. Of the five episcopal sees which oversaw the administration of Christianity within the empire, three of them were within this region (Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria).
While the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries removed almost all political power away from Christians in the Middle East, it did not diminish the fact that this was a region which still maintained a huge Christian presence, both culturally and in terms of overall population.
Over time, the impact of Muslim rule made its presence felt, and Christianity eventually moved from majority to minority status in most places in the region. However, it was not until relatively recently that Christianity's status moved from that of a sizable minority to an endangered species.
20th Century Crisis
While the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has precipitated the most major and dramatic crisis for Christianity in the region, the seeds of the current predicament stretch back to the early 20th century.
Two main factors have been at work here: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism.
Before the conclusion of World War One, all of what we call the Middle East today was ruled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. While it was certainly an Islamic empire, because of its size and diversity it had no real national consciousness (at least outside of Turkey). Within this empire, Christians, Muslims, and Jews tended to congregate in separate towns and regions, or within their own districts in the big cities.
The emergence of Western-style nationalism after the fall of the Ottoman Empire had the unintended consequence of disturbing these relatively peaceful zones of influence. Particularly in a Middle Eastern context, concepts of nationhood and religion went hand in hand, and the establishment of new states saw a tremendous amount of upheaval and bloodshed.
For example, following World War One, Turkey and Greece saw a major population transfer, with Christians moving from their homes in Turkey to Greece, and the reverse happening with Muslims living in Greece. When there was no homeland to go to, as was the case with the Christian Armenian population in Turkey, genocide was often the end result.
This period was a damaging one for Christianity in the Middle East, but has been made much worse since the Islamic revival movement of the 1970s. The establishment of a number of overtly Islamic governments, at the expense of secular and moderate ones, has seen an increase in persecution and subsequent emigration of Christians from many nations throughout the region.
While at the beginning of the 20th century Christians accounted for roughly 20% of the population of the Middle East, that number has now fallen to below 5%. And with the continued growth of ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and now Libya, that number is likely to continue decreasing.
A Christian State?
So what, if any, solutions are there to the persecution and emigration of Christians from their ancient homelands in the Middle East?
One solution that has been put forward is the establishment of a new Christian state, located somewhere within what is currently Iraq and Syria. With regards to the current political context, the timing is perfect for a new state to be formed.
As it stands, Iraq and Syria cannot continue in the forms they currently occupy. If ISIS is eventually defeated, the borders will have to be redrawn anyway. The Kurds are clamouring for a nation of their own, and it is debatable whether Sunni and Shia Iraq can viably cooperate together. If there was ever a time to form a Christian state in the region, this would be it.
This would by no means be a perfect solution of course. There are many potential areas where such an initiative could go badly wrong. However, the current plight of Christians in the Middle East is untenable and unacceptable. Christians have been an integral part of this region for the last 2000 years, and are in the processed of being erased from the region. Surely they deserve the opportunity to shape their future in the lands which they have lived in for so long?
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History (focussing on attitudes towards warfare in Islam and Christianity) and is currently working as a ministry intern at Cornerstone Church.
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html