Chances are that last week, as Christmas was being celebrated, your TV news included a segment on the Christians of the Middle East. It's an annual staple, and provides jarring images like Santa confronting Israeli troops at a checkpoint near Bethlehem.
Throughout the Middle East, ancient Christian communities are being uprooted, if not extinguished. Pope Francis, in a letter addressed to the Christians of the Middle East, wrote of their "leavening" effect:
You can help your Muslim fellow citizens to present with discernment a more authentic image of Islam, as so many of them desire, reiterating that Islam is a religion of peace, one which is compatible with respect for human rights and favours peaceful coexistence on the part of all.
William Dalrymple, the Scottish author of From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East, in a recent Guardian article, sees the exodus of Christians as the end of secular Arab nationalism. He quotes the late Lebanese AUB professor Kamal Salibi who detected a "fin de race" fatalism among eastern Christians, a net loss for the Arab world: "It is Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world 'Arab' rather than 'Muslim'."
In his recent Foreign Policy report on Alexandria Egypt (my home for two years in the Eighties) "The Lighthouse Dims," James Traub sees the end of the cosmopolitan ideal:
North Africa used to be a civilizational crossroads in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews not only lived alongside one another but also shared one another's language and culture. This mingled society, formed from many intense particularities, is what we call cosmopolitanism. It was born in the Middle East, and it now seems to be disappearing there, including from the one place where the cosmopolitan ideal reached its supreme realization: Alexandria.
Recently I renewed ties with an old friend, a Palestinian Christian who was a fellow volunteer at a Boy Scout center in Ramallah in the early Seventies. He and his family are now exiles from their home in Jerusalem, victims of what the Israelis call the "center of life" policy, which renders stateless Palestinians who have the temerity to go abroad on a work assignment. His wife recounts their ordeal in this article.
Whether it's Israeli policies of harassment and land seizures (which of course affect all Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian), or flight in the face of ISIS terrorism (William Dalrymple refers to the ISIS "Christian-free zone"), Mideast Christians face what could be, in the very lands where Christianity was born, the end of their long history in an entire region.
The instability which has afflicted the region in recent years - the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Syrian revolution and the ensuing ISIS onslaught - has meant the flight of Christians from countries where they had been protected minorities, with sizable populations. The Arab world's loss - Christian Arabs were the intellectual founders of many of the modern nation-states - will likely be permanent. As Professor Salibi said, "Each time a Christian goes, no other Christian comes to fill his place..."