Published: June 2009
The Forgotten Faithful
Followers of Jesus for nearly 2,000 years, native Christians today are disappearing from the land where their faith was born.
By Don Belt

Easter in Jerusalem is not for the faint of heart. The Old City, livid and chaotic in the calmest of times, seems to come completely unhinged in the days leading up to the holiday. By the tens of thousands, Christians from all over the world pour in like a conquering horde, surging down the Via Dolorosa's narrow streets and ancient alleyways, seeking communion in the cold stones or some glimmer, perhaps, of the agonies Jesus endured in his final hours. Every face on Earth seems to float through the streets during Easter, every possible combination of eye and hair and skin color, every costume and style of dress, from blue-black African Christians in eye-popping dashikis to pale Finnish Christians dressed as Jesus with a bloody crown of thorns to American Christians in sneakers and "I [heart] Israel" caps, clearly stoked for the battle of Armageddon.

They come because this is where Christianity began. Here in Jerusalem and on lands nearby are the stony hills where Jesus walked and taught and died—and later, where his followers prayed and bled and battled over what his teaching would become. Huddled alongside Jewish converts in the caves of Palestine and Syria, Arabs were among the first to be persecuted for the new faith, and the first to be called Christians. It was here in the Levant—a geographical area including present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Pales­tinian territories—that hundreds of churches and monasteries were built after Constantine, emperor of Rome, legalized Christianity in 313 and declared his Levantine provinces holy land. Even after Arab Muslims conquered the region in 638, it remained predominantly Christian.

Ironically, it was during the Crusades (1095-1291) that Arab Christians, slaughtered along with Muslims by the crusaders and caught in the cross fire between Islam and the Christian West, began a long, steady retreat into the minority. Today native Christians in the Levant are the envoys of a forgotten world, bearing the fierce and hunted spirit of the early church. Their communities, composed of various Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects, 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. Their departure, sadly, deprives the Levant of some of its best educated and most politically moderate citizens—the people these societies can least afford to lose. And so, for Jerusalem's Arab Christians, there is a giddiness during Easter, as if, after a long and lonely ordeal, much needed reinforcements have arrived.

In a small apartment on the outskirts of the city, a young Palestinian Christian couple I will call Lisa and Mark are preparing to enter the fray. Lisa, still in jeans and a T-shirt, is struggling to get their 18-month-old daughter, Nadia, into a white Easter dress. Mark, in his pajamas, is trying without success to prevent their three-year-old son, Nate, whose mood ricochets between Spiderman and Attila the Hun, from trashing the brand new pants-and-vest outfit they've wrestled him into—or the TV, or the painting of child Jesus on the wall, or the vase of flowers on the table. Mark, a big, hot-running guy, grimaces in exasperation. It's eight o'clock on a chilly morning in March, and he's already sweating profusely. Yet it's Easter, a time of optimism and hope, and a special one at that.

This is the first Easter, ever, that Mark has been allowed to spend with the family in Jerusalem. He is from Bethlehem, in the West Bank, so his identity papers are from the Palestinian Authority; he needs a permit from Israel to visit. Lisa, whose family lives in the Old City, holds an Israeli ID. So although they've been married for five years and rent this apartment in the Jerusalem suburbs, under Israeli law they can't reside under the same roof. Mark lives with his parents in Bethlehem, which is six miles away but might as well be a hundred, lying on the far side of an Israeli checkpoint and the 24-foot-high concrete barrier known as the Wall.

Mark finds it depressing that "80 percent of the Christian guys I grew up with have left for another country to find work." Yet he understands why. A trained social worker with a degree in sociology, Mark has been looking for a job, any job, for almost two years. "You're surrounded by this giant wall, and there are no jobs," he says. "It's like a science experiment. If you keep rats in an enclosed space and make it smaller and smaller every day and introduce new obstacles and constantly change the rules, after a while the rats go crazy and start eating each other. It's like that."

For anyone living in Israel or the Palestinian territories, stress is the norm. But the 196,500 Palestinian and Israeli Arab Christians, who dropped from 13 percent of the population in 1894 to less than 2 percent today, occupy a uniquely oxygen-starved space between traumatized Israeli Jews and traumatized Palestinian Muslims, whose rising militancy is tied to regional Islamist movements that sometimes target Arab Christians. In the past decade, "the situation for Arab Christians has gone rapidly downhill," says Razek Siriani, a frank and lively man in his 40s who works for the Middle East Council of Churches in Aleppo, Syria. "We're completely outnumbered and surrounded by angry voices," he says. Western Christians have made matters worse, he argues, echoing a sentiment expressed by many Arab Christians. "It's because of what Christians in the West, led by the U.S., have been doing in the East," he says, ticking off the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. support for Israel, and the threats of "regime change" by the Bush Administration. "To many Muslims, especially the fanatics, this looks like the Crusades all over again, a war against Islam waged by Christianity. Because we're Christians, they see us as the enemy too. It's guilt by association."

Mark and Lisa, like Arab Christians everywhere, conduct an ongoing argument about whether to leave their homeland for good. Mark has one brother in Ireland, another in San Diego, and he lived in the U.S. for a few years. He got his green card and was working in California when he and Lisa were married, in Jerusalem, in 2004. She tried living in San Diego for a while but was homesick for her family, so the couple moved back after Nate was born.

Living as Arabs in the U.S. after 9/11 was an eye-opener for them. "It's funny," Mark says, "what Americans think about things. They've never heard of Arab Christians. They assume all Arabs are Muslim—terrorists, that is—and that Christianity was invented in Italy or something. So when you say, I'm an Arab Christian, they look at you funny, like you just said, The moon is purple. I had one lady ask me, 'What does your family think about you being a Christian? I suppose they must have been very upset!' "

On a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean near Beirut, a hermit rises at three in the morning, reaching for a flashlight amid the lumpy familiarity of books that are both his life's work and his lifelong bedmates. The hermit, who's 73, long-bearded, and known by the name Father Yuhanna, works there until dawn, translating ancient Christian hymns from Aramaic, the language of Jesus, into modern Arabic, copying them into a giant, leatherbound volume the size of a seat cushion. Then he prays, eats a piece of fruit, pulls on his black habit and cloak, and merrily sets off to deliver 10,000 blessings to every place in the world.

His first stop, always, is Alaska, where he "stocks up on fresh air." Then he drifts down through North and South America, jumps to Africa, moves up through the Middle East, sweeps across Europe, then heads east into Russia and Asia before working his way south to Australia. Everywhere he goes, he distributes blessings, counting them off one by one on a string of woven rosary beads that fly through his fingers like doves. This daily trip takes three or four hours, and most days—if he doesn't linger too long over the trouble spots—he's back home by noon. To the untrained eye, he's just an old man walking around in a garden. To his friends and followers, who come by the hundreds to hear his teachings about Jesus, he's a saintly figure, a descendant of influential hermits like Simeon the Elder—a fifth-century ascetic who lived atop a stone pillar in the Syrian countryside for more than 30 years, attracting the pious devotion of locals.

Maronite Christians are not usually thought of as candidates for sainthood. Followers of a fourth-century hermit named Maron, the sect seemed destined from the beginning to battle its way through history. When St. Maron died in 410, a bitter feud broke out among his followers over custody of his body. Within a generation the Maronites were also battling rival Christian sects over theological issues, and after the arrival of Islam they opposed the Muslims too. Fleeing persecution, they pushed over the mountains from Syria into Lebanon, where they sought out the most inhospitable valleys, fortified their caves and craggy monasteries, and set about defending themselves from the caliph's army. In the late 11th century, when French crusaders marched through on their way to Jerusalem, Maronites poured out of the mountains to greet their fellow Christians. Some 800 years later, when France took charge of Syria (including Lebanon) at the end of World War I, it repaid the Maronites by shaping the future nation of Lebanon to their advantage. Speaking French and nurturing a cultural affinity for Europe, the Maronites, alone among Arab Christians, were the majority in a Middle Eastern country when Lebanon gained its independence in 1943.

More recently, Maronite Christians have been among the most feared militia fighters in Lebanon's civil war, waging fierce campaigns against Lebanese factions—Shiite, Sunni, Druze, and Palestinian—in the combat zones of Beirut between 1975 and 1990. But today Lebanon's Christians, once the majority, find themselves increasingly relegated to the same role that Christians elsewhere in the Middle East know so well. After decades of emigration, their numbers have fallen below 40 percent of the population. To cope, Maronite leaders have forged new alliances: one with the ascendent Shiite group, Hezbollah; another with a coalition of Sunnis and Druze. Meanwhile, the Christian militias have gone underground—but that doesn't mean they've gone soft.

Milad Assaf is a genial, middle-aged tile contractor who serves as a foot soldier in the Lebanese Forces (LF), a powerful Maronite political party. From the balcony of his bullet-riddled fifth-floor apartment in east Beirut, Milad has a clear shot at the sprawling Shiite neighborhoods that lie just beyond a busy thoroughfare marking the "red line" between Christian territory and that of the Shiite militias fighting for Hezbollah and its ally, Amal. "It's kind of like living in a shooting gallery," he says, laughing.

Milad was six years old in April 1975, when a gang of Christians ignited Lebanon's civil war by opening fire on a bus full of Palestinian refugees; they did it to send a message to the Palestinian fighters then roaming the streets of Beirut, who wanted to turn Lebanon into a base for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The bus attack, which killed 27 people, went down a block from Milad's house, in front of a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary. Despite hailstorms of small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and Israeli bombs that have whistled through the air here since 1975, the statue doesn't have a scratch on it. "Think about that for a minute," says Milad. "Tell me that's not a miracle!"

Milad's neighborhood, Ain al-Rumaneh, is a tough place, full of bullet-pocked apartment buildings and small shops. Every flat surface, it seems, is branded with the symbol of the Lebanese Forces, a cross with its base sliced off at an angle, like a sword. After recent clashes with Shiites, Milad and his buddies raised a 15-foot wooden cross on the sidewalk and plastered a plywood wall behind it with huge posters of Jesus. Then they installed floodlights so that Hezbollah fighters across the road would get the following message 24 hours a day: "Ain al-Rumaneh is Christian. Keep the hell out."

By age 12, when he joined the LF, Milad had the swagger of a shabb, or tough guy. He has no idea how many men he killed during the war. He's been in and out of jail dozens of times and even now, at 40, hasn't given up the adrenaline-fueled life of a fighter. His thinning hair is slicked back, Elvis style, and he wears the big LF cross on a gold chain around his neck and tattooed on his left forearm. Like many Arab Christian guys, Milad pumps a lot of iron, and though carrying a slight paunch, he has a powerlifter's chest that he's proud of, wrapped tightly in a white Armani T-shirt. He flexes his biceps and chest constantly. He carouses in a souped-up SUV, drinks too much, breaks a lot of hearts. Since the July 2006 war with Israel, which ruined the Lebanese economy and strengthened Hezbollah, his tile business has taken a hit, but Milad is hoping to ride this crisis out, just like all the others.

Countrywide, this chronic instability has pushed unemployment to 20 percent, scared away foreign investors, and dimmed the nation's once vibrant commercial life. A week before, in the Maronite heartland along the Qadicha Valley, I'd stopped at a shop in Bcharre, a town on the edge of a cliff that was home to the poet Khalil Gibran. "First customer of the day," said the dark-haired woman behind the counter, whose name was Liliane Geagea. It was 11 a.m. on a sunny Saturday in April, prime tourist season, but the place was empty. "With all the troubles, people have just stopped coming," she said. "Everybody's saving their money so they can leave this crazy place. I know I am. I've given this country 45 years of my life, most of them in a war, and that's enough. I'm exhausted, and so is my family. My daughter is studying at Beirut University. When she graduates, my advice to her is: Go to America, go to Europe or Australia, it doesn't matter where. Just get out and take me with you."

Milad doesn't have the option of leaving, and neither do thousands of other tough guys just like him who meet in militia clubhouses to discuss the "situation" and abide by their party's decision to make political alliances instead of war. But if there's anything that makes them nervous, it's being outgunned. Milad flexes his biceps, pats the stock of his rifle, and grins. "We still have our weapons," he says, fingering one of the M16s he keeps oiled and ready in his basement. "But these days the Shiites have more." He gestures out the window, to shot-up apartment complexes just beyond the four-lane road that might as well be a hostile international border. "Hezbollah controls everything on the other side of that road," he says. "And those guys are crazy. They've got rocket launchers, RPGs, you name it, all supplied by Iran. We'll always protect our neighborhoods and our families, no questions asked. But these days, if it turned into a shooting war, we'd lose. So now we believe in peace."

A few hours east of the battle lines between Muslim and Christian in Beirut, communities in Syria offer a reminder, beneath the hostilities of today, of how closely related the two religions really are. There are oases of tolerance—once widespread, now less so—where Christians and Muslims attend one another's weddings and funerals and worship at one another's shrines. In some monasteries Christians still prostrate themselves in prayer—a Byzantine-era practice that early Muslims may have admired and adopted. Some churches still conduct services in Aramaic or Syriac, languages that predate Islam.

One afternoon I climb to Our Lady of Saydnaya, a cliff-top Greek Orthodox convent in Syria that has weathered the storms of empire since 547. Once inside I find myself not among Christians but in a crowd of Muslim families who've come seeking the blessings of the Virgin Mary, whose powers of healing and fertility have drawn people in need for nearly 1,500 years.

As my eyes adjust to the gloom of the candlelit inner sanctum, I watch as a woman in a head scarf offers her baby, wrapped in a blanket, to the centerpiece of the shrine. There, surrounded by soot-blackened icons, a brass template covers the image of Mary, said to be painted by St. Luke, which inspires even though hidden from view. With her eyes closed and lips moving in silent prayer, the baby's mother presses his face gently against the metal plate for a long moment. Later, outside, I meet the woman and her family, who'd driven up from Damascus after Friday prayers at their mosque.

Wary of strangers, they would offer only the name of their sick child, Mahmoud. Just seven months old, swaddled in a green blanket, he lay still as death with his eyes closed, barely breathing. His face was a dark grayish brown. "The doctor said he can't do anything for Mahmoud and that we should send him to America for an operation," his mother says. "That's impossible, so we need a miracle instead. I'm a Muslim, but a long time ago my family used to be Christian. I believe in the prophets—Muslim, Jewish, and Christian—and I believe in Mary. I've come here so that my boy will be healed."

Such scenes reflect the Levant's history of coexistence between Muslims and people of other faiths, which dates from the earliest days of Islam. When the Muslim Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased. But many Christians converted to Islam anyway, preferring its emphasis on a personal connection with God to the oppressive hierarchies of the Byzantine Church. The grandson of the last Christian governor of Damascus, who grew up to be the theologian St. John Damascene, listened to the newcomers talk about Islam—its acceptance of the Old and New Testaments, its esteem for Jewish prophets, its veneration of Jesus and Mary—and concluded that it was another of the many Christian heresies making the rounds of the Byzantine Empire, beyond the reach of church authorities in Constantinople. It never occurred to him, even writing many years later, that Islam might be a separate religion. When later caliphs imposed heavy taxes on Christians, conversions soared among poor villagers. For those early Arab Christians, whose word for God was (as it still is today) Allah, accepting the tenets of Islam was more like stepping over a stream than vaulting a chasm.

"You can't live alongside people for a thousand years and see them as the children of Satan," observes Paolo Dall'Oglio, an earthy, bear-size monk who hosts Muslims in interfaith dialogue at Deir Mar Musa, the sixth-century desert monastery he and his Arab followers restored between Damascus and Homs. "On the contrary, Muslims are us. This is the lesson the West has yet to learn and that Arab Christians are uniquely qualified to teach. They are the last, vital link between the Christian West and the Arab Muslim world. If Arab Christians were to disappear, the two sides would drift even further apart than they already are. They are the go-betweens."

Back in Jerusalem Mark and Lisa are acutely aware of the role that Arab Christians might play in the geopolitical dramas of today. But they live in a hothouse world, where go-betweens are in constant danger of being trampled—by Muslims, by Jews, or by Western Christians, who (not unlike the crusaders) look right through them as they race past to stake their claim on God's holy ground.

On Easter morning, Mark and Lisa make a handsome couple in their Sunday clothes, leading Nate and Nadia by the hand up the sidewalk to the family car, a middle-aged, maroon Honda. It's a proud moment, their first Easter together in the Holy Land, and Lisa, noticing the thick coat of dust on the car, asks Mark to give it a rinse. He fetches a hose and connects it to a faucet they share with their neighbors, who come out on the porch and stand, watching, in their kaffiyehs and head scarves. In an animated voice, Lisa explains to the kids that Daddy's giving the car a bath for Easter. Right on cue, with a playful flourish, Mark squeezes the nozzle on the hose. Nothing comes out. He checks the faucet, squeezes again. Still nothing. So there he stands, empty hose in hand, in front of his kids, his neighbors, and a visitor from overseas. "I guess they've opened the pipes to the settlements," he says quietly, gesturing to the hundreds of new Israeli housing units climbing up the hills nearby. "No more [water] for us." Lisa is still trying to explain this to the kids as the car pulls away from the curb.

"I hate the Israelis," Lisa says one day, out of the blue. "I really hate them. We all hate them. I think even Nate's starting to hate them."

Is that a sin? I ask.

"Yes, it is," she says. "And that makes me a sinner. But I confess my sins when I go to church, and that helps. I'm learning not to hate. In the meantime, I go to confession."

"Hate destroys the spirit of those who hate," says Father Rafiq Khoury, a soft-spoken Palestinian priest who hears his share of confessions at the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. "But even in the midst of all these troubles, all this violence and despair driving Christians away, you can see new life in the faces of young people and experience the hope that is God's gift to humanity. That is the message of Easter."

Yet even at Easter, Arab Christians seem to be the forgotten ones. One night in East Jerusalem, I accompanied Lisa and Mark to Good Friday services at the huge Church of All Nations next to the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark, who can't stand crowds, stayed outside with Nate in the cool night air, but Lisa has celebrated this Mass since she was a child and wanted to go inside. The crowd was sparse, and we took a position well back from the pews, standing a few yards inside the church doors. Lisa had Nadia in a stroller. As we stood there admiring the church's ornate altar and vestibule, the Christian hordes circulating through Jerusalem suddenly descended, like an Old Testament plague, on the church.

Hundreds of pilgrims churned through the church's double doors, filling the cavernous space with warm bodies and pushing us deeper into the church. The temperature rose rapidly, and air was suddenly in short supply. I checked Lisa's face and saw a look of alarm as she gripped the stroller and tried to anchor herself against the river of humanity flowing into the church. Dutch, German, Korean, Nigerian, American, French, Spanish, Russian, Filipino, Brazilian, the crowd surged forward, searching hungrily for a greater proximity to God.

Suddenly Lisa's decision to bring Nadia along was looking like a mistake. At eye level, people were seeing the vacant space created by the stroller and aggressively pushing to fill it, not realizing there was a sleeping child down below until they were practically falling onto her. Lisa's eyes widened as we fought to protect Nadia from the crush of bodies. As if wading through chest-deep water, we tried to clear a path for the stroller to the church doors. A number of foreign pilgrims reacted poorly to this tiny Arab woman moving in the wrong direction, and things got a bit physical as we made our way through the crowd. As we passed through the doors, the crowd thinned out slightly. Lisa leaned in, straining to be heard over the chaos around us. "Do you see how it is?" she asked, gasping for air on the hill where Jesus spent his last night on Earth. "This is our home. And it's like we're not even here!"