Tuesday, December 27, 2011


On a sun-drenched day the week before Christmas, Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre was crowded with pilgrims from Nigeria taking turns kneeling and praying at the marker where sacred history has it that Jesus was crucified, entombed and resurrected. (Other Christians consider the place to be the nearby Garden Tomb.) Back in Nigeria, on Christmas Day a wave of murderous bombings by Muslim extremists hit several churches. Plainly, the faith is at once thriving and struggling as a new report on Global Christianity from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life makes clear.

Jews have more than a passing interest in the state of Christianity not only because of the religion's origins and its fraught relationship with Judaism but also because nowadays many believing Christians consider themselves friends of the Jewish people and Israel. Consider, for instance, that growing numbers of Hispanic Americans are embracing Israel-friendly evangelical Christianity. And that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans in the coming months to visit several African countries with substantial Christian populations.

Given trends in Muslim civilization, it certainly matters to Jews that there are more Christians than Muslims and that demographically Christianity makes up about the same portion of the global population today (32%) as it did a century ago. Almost 80 percent of Americans are of Christian heritage. Post-modern Europe has become the second largest bastion of Christianity. It cannot claim to have the most Catholics or Protestants though it remains home to the majority of Orthodox Christians (thanks to believers in Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Romania). The report does not address the continent's declining commitment to its heritage which led Prime Minister David Cameron to tell Britons not be afraid to assert their country's Christianity.

Around the world, half of all Christians are Catholic; Protestants, broadly defined, make up 37%; Orthodox Christians comprise 12%. Catholicism is strong in Brazil, Mexico, Philippines and United States (where about one in-four is Catholic). Italy ranks fifth.

As for Protestantism, the U.S. is home to the most Protestants followed by Nigeria and – somewhat surprisingly – China. Germany is evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics totaling about 70% of the population (five percent are Muslim). The percentage of Protestants is greater in the Congo than where Luther launched the Reformation in the 16th century. Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa appears robust.
While the CIA places the Christian population of Nigeria at 40%, Pew figures it at 50%.

The picture is quite different in the Middle East where Christianity was born – it is now home to less than 1% of believers. Put another way, just 4% of Middle Easterners today are Christian (mostly Catholic or Orthodox). The country with the largest percentage of the population that is Christian is Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon (38%).

Further afield, newly independent South Sudan is 60% Christian. In raw numbers, however, about half of all Christians in the Mideast reside in Egypt and the Sudan even if they comprise just 5% of those countries' respective populations. These figures contrast with CIA data which places the percentage of Coptic Christians in Egypt at 9%. Pew's numbers crunchers said Egypt's Christian population is actually less than half of that estimate and shrinking. The reason may not be hard to deduce: Egypt's Sunni Muslim majority has not been particularly tolerant of Christianity. With Hosni Mubarak's fall and the rise of Islamist parties the prospects for Christianity in an Islamist Egypt hardly leave room for optimism.

Intriguingly, the Pew study counts substantial numbers of Christians in Saudi Arabia: 1,200,000 or 4.4 percent of population. Left unsaid, however, is that these are mostly Filipino and Indian expatriates not Arabs. And they may not openly practice their faith. Curiously, the U.N. does not seem preoccupied by such state-sanctioned intolerance.

Pew reports that the number of Christians living in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority is 100,000 almost all Arabs. Those who speak for them such as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, tend to be PLO marionettes. This time of year, for instance, the Sunni-dominated PLO cynically promulgates the fairy tale that Christmas is a Palestinian holiday and that Jesus was a "Palestinian." Over in Hamas-run Gaza live just several thousand besieged Christians. Israeli authorities granted West Bank and Gaza Christians passage into Israel to visit family for the holidays and 400 separate permits to travel abroad from Ben-Gurion Airport.

As for Christians in Israel proper, Pew places their numbers at 150,000 (up from 34,000 when the state was founded but down 10,000 from the Central Bureau of Statistics 2008 figure). Eighty percent are Arabs and the remainder emigrants from the former Soviet Union. Israeli Christians naturally enjoy full freedom of worship.
By tradition, the Jerusalem municipality even distributes free Christmas trees to all comers. The Pew figures do not count thousands of foreign workers (Filipino and African caregivers; Romanian laborers) or foreign clerics assigned to the country.

Life is not always easy for Christian evangelicals, many of whom have been treated shabbily by officious bureaucrats at the Shas Party-controlled Ministry of Interior. The ostensible justification is (mostly) unfounded dread of missionary activity; actually, most Christian fundamentalists are in Israel as part of their personal spiritual journeys or expressly to build support for the Jewish state in the larger Christian world.

Making strange bedfellows, many liberal and ultra-Orthodox Jews – insecure in their different ways – have demonstrated an unseemly intolerance toward fervently believing Christians. Though from time immemorial Jews have been treated with contempt by the Christian world, it seems myopic and counterproductive to view 21st century Christianity (and its 2.18 billion adherents) as if it was continuing robot-like that benighted legacy. In fact, as fate would have it, Christian and Jewish civilizations at the present time have every reason to seek possibilities for collaboration.

Strangely enough, what's "good for the Jews" – and the Jewish state – is to see Christianity thriving.


Further Reading:

Marranos in Reverse? Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily.
Though ardent in their faith, Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel are usually discreet about sharing their beliefs.


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