16 December 2012
By Kevin Connolly – BBC Middle East correspondent
The Lebanese city of Zahle sits high in the Bekaa valley, on the ancient highway that connects Damascus to Beirut and the world beyond.
To reach it from the coast by road in December you climb sharply through a series of hairpin bends – every few minutes you catch a glimpse of the steep highland scenery as a gap appears in the raw, foggy air.
Zahle – a Christian city – has known dark times.
It became a dangerous frontline as the armed forces of Syria intervened in Lebanon’s long, complex and bitter civil war in the 1980s.
In a very similar conflict in the 1860s it was torched by besieging Druze and Turkish fighters after its Christian defenders were defeated. Civilians were massacred in the bloody aftermath.
Return and rebuild
These days, Zahle is a place of safety.
Christian families fleeing the violence and chaos of Syria’s civil war just a few kilometres further down that ancient highway are arriving in the city where Christian aid agencies care for them.
The question is – will be they be able to return to their homes once the fighting dies down or will they become the latest chapter in the long story of the how the Christian population of the Middle East is continuing to decline?
For now, the refugees I met in Lebanon were optimistic; the talk is of returning and rebuilding.
But the omens are not good.
At moments of crisis in the Middle East, Christians have tended to pack and leave to build safer and more peaceful lives for themselves elsewhere – think of Palestine in 1948 or Iraq in our own turbulent times.
The statistics are striking. A hundred years ago it’s thought that around a fifth of the population of the Middle East was Christian, although it’s hard to be certain. These days the figure is probably closer to 5%.
Christians are no longer a majority in Lebanon, which was once a political and cultural stronghold – and they’re even in a minority in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, the very birthplace of Christ.
In an age where we tend rather arrogantly to see Christianity as a phenomenon of the developed world – the faith that colonising Europeans took to the territories they conquered – it’s worth remembering that the Middle East is the cradle of that faith.
St Paul was travelling to Damascus when he was blinded in a moment of conversion, after all. The street where he stayed as he recovered is still there now.
If current trends continue, then soon Christian influence in the Middle East may dwindle to nothing.
At the moment Egypt is something of a stronghold – about 10% of the population are Copts – descendants of the ancient pre-Muslim inhabitants of the country. But modern Egypt is overwhelmingly Muslim, and many Christians are worried that under an Islamist government, the country will become for them an increasingly cold house.
The new Coptic Pope Tawadros told us that the battle over the nature of the country’s new constitution would play an important role in determining how comfortable the new Egypt would be for its original inhabitants.
“We hope that in future there’s equality for all Egyptians,” he said. “But in the past Christians have not shared completely in social and political life. The constitution has to be under the umbrella of citizenship, not the umbrella of religion.”
The fate of the Copts under Egypt’s former leader Hosni Mubarak was interesting.
They weren’t persecuted but they lived under heavy restrictions which made it clear the country belonged more to the Muslim majority than it did to them. Building a new church or even repairing an old one required absurdly high levels of official approval (up to the president). Building or repairing a mosque was infinitely easier.
And one of the reasons why the flight of Christians from Middle East in general is a difficult story to tell is that it is in general not a story of persecution but of subtler demographic factors.
There has been anti-Christian violence – most notably in Iraq in recent years.
But the Christian population is falling in statistical terms partly because it has a much lower birth-rate than the Muslim population around it.
And it has a high propensity to emigrate.
Not all Middle Eastern Christians are affluent or well-educated – some of those who fled the violence in Iraq were poor and under-privileged.
But many are well educated, with good language skills learned at religious schools and strong international support networks – many Christian churches are international. So in hard times, it’s simply easier for them to leave.
Even in Lebanon, which once had a Christian majority, numbers have dwindled.
In Beirut I met Fadi Halisso, a Roman Catholic former engineer from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo who’s now studying for the Jesuit priesthood in the Lebanese capital.
He said Christians tended to want to live peacefully in a turbulent region and were quick to leave as soon as that peace was threatened.
He quoted for me the example of an Armenian Orthodox community in his own home city who had left as soon as the shadow of violence threatened. It’s not clear when, if ever, they will return.
“We can’t say that Christians are targeted,” he told me. ” In Iraq they were caught in the middle of war and I don’t think they were targeted more than other groups. In general Christians are not numerous, they don’t carry weapons and they prefer to retreat.”
When I asked Fadi whether Muslim hostility towards Christians, or the rise of political Islam were factors in the declining Christian population, he told me that individual incidents like attacks on churches in Alexandria or Baghdad could have a disproportionate effect.
“We cannot say that Muslims are hostile towards Christians,” he told me. “There are some, but of course when you have a few people making troubles, they can affect the whole region. After those church attacks, the Christians of the region felt threatened even though it was in another country or far away. It’s an overall impression that we are not welcome anymore even if we have good relationships with our neighbours.”
Fear of persecution
Fadi told me he thought it was inevitable that the Christian population of the Middle East would continue to decline because of its own demographic characteristics.
Which leaves the question of what will happen to the Christians who have fled the fighting in Syria so far.
Some of the refugees we met in Lebanon were supporters of the Assad regime – believing in the official line that it has protected religious minorities – and others had worked actively in the opposition movement to bring it down.
Those young activists are optimistic, believing that a new, tolerant Syria can eventually be built on the ruins of civil war, in which Christians and Muslims will be able to live side by side.
The Christian refugees who believe in Assad seem to feel they’ll only be able to go back if he somehow eventually prevails over the rebellion, however unlikely that now seems. If he loses, they believe an Islamist state will be created in which minorities will be persecuted and forced out.
An image stays with me of one father living with 25 members of his family in an apartment in Zahle in the Bekaa Valley – their home in Homs was destroyed in the fighting in Syria.
His two-year-old son has sad, wise eyes and soft, long hair.
By local tradition his hair won’t be cut until he’s baptised and his parents won’t have him baptised until they can have it done back home in Syria.
As we sat and chatted, the father absent-mindedly stroked his son’s head. You couldn’t help but wonder how much more waiting they face before that baptism can eventually take place.
Support Syrian Christians