Friday, December 28, 2007

Celebrating Christmas in the Holy Land

Nina Shea at NRO wrote a bleak report on Christian persecution in the Middle East. She reports the following:
In the Hamas-run Gaza strip there are about 3,000 Greek Orthodox living there. An extreme Wahhabi-style group wearing seventh-century robes recently emerged, calling them “Crusaders” and vowing to drive them out. It has succeeded in killing several Christians in recent months, including a prominent member of the community, Rami Khader.

In the West Bank’s only all-Christian town, now called Taybeh and once known by the Biblical name Ephraim, a Muslim mob from a neighboring village torched 14 houses last September to avenge the honor of a Muslim woman allegedly impregnated by her Christian employer.

Earlier this month in Egypt, an Islamist website urged a terrorist attack on the Cairo office of the Knights of Malta, a Catholic charitable group founded in 1087 to care for poor and sick pilgrims to the Holy Land. Posting photos of the Malta office, it exhorted: “Do not stint on your attacks, Egyptians, either with car or truck bombs.”

Turkey, where Paul preached to the Ephesians and Galatians, once the seat of the Eastern Christianity known as Byzantium, has one of the smallest Christian minorities. It is now home to less than 75,000 Christians, out of a population of 70 million. To be sure the Orthodox Church is being slowly strangled by the state closure of its seminary, but the violence is no longer systematic or official. It is more targeted, and carried out by zealous young men acting outside the law. Last Sunday, Italian Catholic priest, Fr. Adriano Franchini, was stabbed after Mass at a church in Izmir.

But there is one bright beacon of hope for Peace and Good Will among the peoples, and that bright star is in Iraq. From the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia comes this report of good news
IRAQI Christians who fled a district of Baghdad that declared itself an al-Qaeda caliphate have returned home to celebrate their first Christmas in two years.

Known as the "Vatican of Iraq", the small but long-established Christian enclave in the mainly Sunni district of Doura suffered constant terror at the hands of

al-Qaeda gunmen who tried to impose a Taliban-style rule.

Churches were car-bombed, women were threatened for not wearing Islamic headscarves, and families had to pay off local mosques to keep them safe from kidnap gangs.

But now al-Qaeda has been rooted out of Doura and the hundreds of Christian families who left the area are returning.

On Christmas Day they will congregate in the battle-scarred St Mary's Church, where part of the crucifix on its tower is still missing after being shot at.

"We closed the church two years ago because of all the trouble," said the priest, Father Younadim Shamoon, 45, who has decorated its bullet-cratered walls with modest fairy lights.

"But many people are coming back after word got around that the local Muslim people were welcoming us again. We thank God and hope that we can live together again as brothers."

Overlooking the River Tigris on Baghdad's southern outskirts, Doura was home to 4000 followers of the Chaldean Catholic and Assyrian Orthodox churches. The neighbourhood has churches, monasteries and convents, and the Christian residents' homes stand out because of their neat gardens.

Relations with their Muslim neighbours began to fray in late 2004 when al-Qaeda zealots joined forces with local Sunnis fighting the US occupation. Soon Doura became one of Baghdad's most notorious al-Qaeda strongholds, with the movement designating it part of a new self-declared Sunni Islamic state of Iraq. The Christians were an easy target for the insurgent gangs' fund-raising activities. Al-Qaeda-backed cells would frequently kidnap them for money, claiming the victims were "crusaders" or US allies.

By the middle of this year, half of the local Christians had left, part of a wider exodus that saw hundreds of thousands of Baghdad Christians head for Syria. Those who stayed in Doura had to pay monthly tithes of 15,000 dinars ($15) as "protection money" to Sunni mosques.

Nine months into the US troop build-up, though, local Sunnis have been persuaded to reject al-Qaeda's influence. Last week, Sheik Samir al-Jibouri, a local Sunni cleric, visited Father Shamoon to give him his guarantee that his flock would be safe.

"He has also told us that we don't have to pay protection money any more," Father Shamoon said.

Major Kirk Luedeke, a US Army spokesman, confirmed Christian families were returning. "What is more important is that the Muslim tribal leaders are openly showing support for their Christian neighbours," he said.

Abu Firas, a Christian father of three who had taken his family to Syria, arrived in Doura on Friday after a call from Father Shamoon. His house had been used by an al-Qaeda gang while he was away, and is riddled with bullet holes.

But a hug from a Muslim neighbour made up for it. "I can fix the doors and the windows, that is easy," he said. "The most important thing is that I came back home to live among my people."

Gateway Pundit has an excellent blog about this phenomena with a link to this AP photograph.

For quite a while, and especially now with the assassination of Bhutto, we are going to hear a lot of talk about what a mistake fighting in Iraq has been. I posted this blog in defiance of that kind of talk. There is much good that has come from first toppling Saddam, and then turning back the al Qaeda who planned to fill that vacuum. Despite what the WaPo writes the Iraqis are seeing things differently. An Iraqi blogger, Iraqi Pundit put it this way in his recent blog

Look, Iraqis can see that things have improved recently because of the U.S. presence. Do you really think Iraqis want thugs to roam the streets again?

I have more confidence in the Iraqi's account than I will ever have of the Washington Post.

I close with a reading from Luke, Chapter 2 vs 13-14
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

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