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The State of Christianity

On a sun-drenched day during the week before Christmas, Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre was crowded with pilgrims from Nigeria.  They were taking turns kneeling and praying at a marker on the spot where, sacred history has it, Jesus was crucified, entombed, and resurrected.  (Other Christians consider the holy 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 Christian faith is at once thriving and struggling.  Global Christianity, a new report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, describes and measures both phenomena.

Relevant Links
Thriving and Beleaguered  David Rosenberg, Media Line. Israel’s Christians are flourishing economically and academically—but facing instances of outrageous prejudice.
Litmus Test for the Arab Spring  David Parsons, Jerusalem Post. The way in which emerging Arab rulers treat their Christian minorities will be a critical indicator of whether democracy is truly taking root.
Besieged in Bethlehem  Khaled Abu Toameh, Stonegate Institute. Christians are quitting the Cradle of Christianity, mainly to find economic opportunities but partly because they fear their Muslim neighbors.
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.

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

Given the trends in Muslim civilization, it matters to Jews that there are more Christians than Muslims in the world and that Christians make up about the same portion of the global population today—32 percent—as they did a century ago.  With almost 80 percent of the U.S. population of Christian heritage, the Americas are today the world's largest bastion of Christianity.  Post-modern Europe comes in only second.  It no longer has the most Catholics or Protestants, though it remains home to most of the world's Orthodox Christians, thanks to believers in Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Romania.  The report does not explore the continent's declining commitment to its religious heritage, which is marked enough so that Prime Minister David Cameron recently exhorted Britons not to be afraid to assert their country's Christianity.

Around the world, half of all Christians are Catholic; Protestants make up 37 percent, Orthodox Christians 12 percent. Catholics are most strongly represented in Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States (where about one in four is Catholic), and Italy.  The United States is home to the largest number of the world's Protestants, followed by Nigeria and—somewhat surprisingly—China.  Germany is evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics—who, together, total only around 70 percent of the population (five percent are Muslim).  The percentage of Protestants is greater in the Congo—over 95 percent—than in the place where Luther launched the Reformation in the 16th century.  Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa is generally robust.  In Nigeria, Africa's largest country, Pew figures the Christian population at 50 percent.

The picture is quite different in the Middle East, where Christianity was born but which is now home to less than one percent of Christian believers.  Just four percent of today's Middle Easterners are Christian, mostly Catholic or Orthodox.  The country with the largest proportion of Christians—38 percent—is Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.  In raw numbers, however, the largest body of Christians in the Mideast, about a third of them, consists of Coptic Christians living in Egypt.  Though the CIA World Factbook places their percentage of Egypt's population at nine percent, Pew says the figure is only about half of that—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 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 the population.  Left unsaid, however, is that these are mostly not Arabs but Filipino and Indian expatriates who, because of state-sanctioned intolerance, may not be practicing their faith openly.  The United Nations does not seem overly concerned about this type of bigotry.

Pew reports that 100,000 Christians, almost all Arabs, live in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority.  Those who speak for them, such as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, tend to be PLO marionettes.  At this time of year, for instance, the Sunni-dominated PLO cynically promulgates the fairy tale that Jesus was a "Palestinian" and Christmas is a Palestinian holiday, while over in Hamas-run Gaza several thousand Christians live under siege.  Meanwhile, Israeli authorities granted West Bank and Gaza Christians passage into Israel to visit family for the holidays and issued 400 separate permits allowing them 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 by 10,000 from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics figure in 2008.  Eighty percent are Arabs, the remainder immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  Israeli Christians, naturally, enjoy full freedom of worship.  (By tradition, the Jerusalem municipality distributes free Christmas trees to all comers.)  Pew's figures do not count Israel's thousands of foreign workers, such as Filipino and African caregivers or Romanian laborers, or foreign clerics assigned to the country.

Life is not always easy for Israel's Christian evangelicals, many of whom have been treated shabbily by officious bureaucrats at the Shas Party-controlled Ministry of Interior.  The ostensible justification is a (mostly) unfounded dread of missionary activity; actually, most Christian fundamentalists are in Israel on 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 Jews have been treated with contempt by the Christian world from time immemorial, it seems myopic and counterproductive to view 21st-century Christianity, with its 2.18 billion adherents, as if it were continuing, robot-like, in 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.

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Susanne on January 5, 2012 at 9:39 am (Reply)
In this tumultious time in history, as most of the Middle East regresses into the darkness of Muslim fundamentalism, Jews everywhere, especially in the United States and Israel, have much to be grateful for in terms of Christian friendship. Evangelical leader Pastor John Hagee has truly been a "game changer" in his advocacy for the State of Israel. Never before in Jewish-American history have we seen such a powerful Christian leader bestowing so much time and effort upon Israel and on educating Christians about Israel and Judaism. Granted, it will take time for some Jews, given the past distance between American Jews and Christians, to accept that what is good for Christians is good for Jews. As I read reports of Christians being persecuted in Middle East, it becomes clearer that Jews and Christians have much to benefit from as friends. We have a common enemy coming into power in Middle East, as most of Israel's neighbors deliberately seek rulership by Muslim Fundamentalists. hey also seek to impose sharia law in Europe and the United States. Here in the United States we have leadership at the very highest level that is hostile to Israel, while demonstrating affinity with Muslims. This leadership is also very condescending to Christians, using "PC" propaganda as a tool to tweak and disrespect Christian values. I pray for my Christian friends, in this new year, that they thrive and that together we overcome this common adversity. We share a very powerful and dangerous enemy who seeks to divide and conquer.
Adam W on January 5, 2012 at 3:45 pm (Reply)
I agree with the thrust of what Elliot has written but would quibble with words like calling evangelical Christians "fundamentalists." There is a wide spectrum of evangelical Christians. Would the author call most Orthodox Jews "fundamentalists?" Many evangelical Christians are not unlike quite a few modern Orthodox Jews who take their Judaism and their faith in God very seriously. This phrase, which I doubt is malicious in intent, reveals that there is still quite a long way to go in order for some Jews to look past the five percent fringe who scream on live TV that the rapture is coming. If Jews were more connected with these people, even nominally, they'd see a far more nuanced picture.
delmar jackson on January 6, 2012 at 8:34 am (Reply)
Thank you for this story. Now, can you do a story on why Jews like massive, unending, unlimited third-world immigration to western white countries? Why Jews like the massive immigration of unassimilating peoples that are, in every poll, twice as anti-semitic as native-born Western peoples? Why strong immigration laws are made and enforced in Isreal, but jewish leaders and groups in Western countries routinely and aggressively campaign for the removal of immigration laws in Western countries? Thank you.
David on January 6, 2012 at 10:01 am (Reply)
If most Jews knew the extent of the love Christians have for Israel and God's chosen people, they would feel much more comfortable with Christians living in Jerusalem. Many Jews "convert-a-phobia" is unfair. I believe most Christians take into account the Jewish people's heritage and aversion to Christianity. This is explained in the New Testament, which expressly states that we are not to hold it against them. Do I wish the Jewish people would accept Christ? Of course. But I believe God's will is for our two faiths to have a loving and good relationship; and, after a tumultuous history, we finally do. I see only good things ahead.
johnadamsxii on January 7, 2012 at 10:19 am (Reply)
Christianity is the daughter religion of Judaism. Islam is a rival religion. Most modern Christians are very respectful of Judaism. I know I am. Much of the past Christian anti-Semitism was due to the insider/outsider dynamic of human nature. Minority groups, of any persuasion, that maintain their own language, dress, etc., effectively eschewing cultural assimilation (which is their right), are inevitably going to be subjected to persecution, especially in societies that are not ethnically diverse. Christianity does not preach anti-Semitism. Islam does. It is important to distinguish between motivation and rationalization.
johnadamsxii on January 7, 2012 at 11:44 am (Reply)
This is not to absolve Christians from evil anti-Semitism of the past. Everyone is responsible for their own actions. The question is whether Christianity itself is responsible for that persecution, when the Bible does not preach anti-Semitism but does preach the Golden Rule. Christianity, especially pentecostalism, and Islam, especially "radical" Islam, are growing faster today than ever before. In coming years the earth's population will nearly be divided between Christians and Muslims. Their relations will dominate geopolitics for at least the next century. Few people will have the luxury of standing on the sidelines.
Jerry Blaz on January 7, 2012 at 6:11 pm (Reply)
I knew from the first sentence of this article that I would be a expressing a minority opinion about the article's preference for Christians over Muslims, simply because I think the choice is ahistorical. True, today we have a political problem with countries that consider themselves Muslim and do not have any with countries that define themselves as Christian. But the histories of Christianity and Islam are different. Christianity went through a Reformation, a hundred-year war, a Renaissance, and an Enlightenment, from which the concept of democracy became a fact. During the long period when Jews suffered all types of persecutions in Christian Europe, Muslims permitted Jews to live in peace, prosper, and become integrated into a civilization that flourished while Europe was in the Dark Ages. As Europe came out of the Dark Ages, Muslim countries became a refuge for Jews from the Christian Inquisition.

Today, a strong Jewish state exists among Muslim neighbors. This political problem holds our attention, mixed with fears of an extremist element in Islam and the turmoil in what we called the "Arab spring" (which seems to be turning into the "Sunni spring," inspired by modernity and democracy on one hand, and, on the other, the fear of Shi'ah Iran). We tend to fear this regional turmoil for good reasons, but it is not a reason to turn our back on our neighbors and only point our guns at them. in the question of how this will turn out, the principal factor within Jewish control is the actions of the State of Israel. Declaring Islam as Amalek is certainly not the answer.
Robert Hand on January 8, 2012 at 8:33 pm (Reply)
As a Christian Zionist, I found both this article and the comments fascinating. The reality of the "great lie" of "supercession," or "replacement theology," can't be simply dismissed, nor can we do true justice to either Judaism or Christianity by trying to avoid the fact that it still exists--most often, though not entirely, in a covert manner. I fully understand the suspicion many Jewish people harbor toward Christians, as our overall "track record" generally (and too often, horribly) stinks; but my hope is that more Jews can understand that there is a new/old movement afoot in today's Christianity, one that involves sincere repentance for the gross evils of the past and, increasingly, embraces the Jewish roots of our faith. My own love of Judaism and the Jewish people is life-long. I have spent more than 40 years battling antisemitism and defending both Israel and the Jewish people, and I am absolutely thrilled to see the growth of understanding and support within the evangelical and (to, admittedly, a lesser but at a still very real level) the mainstream communities of Christianity. Take heart, my Jewish friends. We are real, we are here, and we come not to evangelize but simply to stand with you shoulder-to-shoulder and say, loudly and proudly, "Never Again!" G-d bless each and every one of Ya'akov's beloved children.
Aharon Michael ben Chunnah HaLevi on January 12, 2012 at 10:30 am (Reply)
I, too, would like to take a more nuanced and balanced approach to this discussion. Yes, since 1965 many churches (led most by the Catholic Church) have improved, in various ways, their teachings, doctrine, and relationship with corporate Judaism and the Jewish people. Here are the dimensions of the continuing problem:

None of these churches can reach all or even most of their flocks via education on new doctrine. The Catholic church educates fewer than 10 percent of the children of its affiliated flock and has barely made a dent in the attitudes of those over 45 years of age. They have been more successful in the United States; less so in Europe, where there are other traditional drivers of anti-Semitism, and hardly at all in Latin America and Africa. The Church has been grossly inconsistent in terms of offensive prayers, statements by various cardinal and bishopric leadership and even lay leaders worldwide, and its still unresolved relationship with the Jewish people in terms of our asymmetric dimensions (size, nationality, ethnicity) and different views of documented history and responsibilities. That is 50 percent of Christianity right there. The Protestant sects have been less consistent in general. The World Council of Churches (WCC) is viewed as being fairly anti-Semitic in its tolerance of official anti-Semitic rhetoric, its anti-Israel positions, and its rejection of Jewish self-definition and interests. The scourge of denying Jews the right to a homeland, legal self-defense, and the right to pursue terrorists cannot be separated from the discussion. With the exception of many evangelical groups, mainline Protestantism is anti-Israel almost without nuance. Thankfully, there are often vocal minorities within these churches that oppose their church leaderships.

In the long term, a few issues will continue to cause problems, including Jewish self-definition, Israel as a religious-political-social construct, and Christian supersessionism/proselytization. These issues intersect and interact. Jewish self-definition tends to support the view that Jews are a religio-social-ethnic-national grouping, not merely a religion based on faith. In most Jewish minds, Israel was not created in 1948 as a doubtful project. It was created (variously) well over 2,000 years ago. Most Jews do not feel Israel is illegitimate or has to make excuses for its self-defense, and they reject international and interfaith double standards on Israeli policies, practices, or events. Christian attempts to proselytize and convert Jews are legitimately viewed as “religious anti-Semitism” connected to historical church attempts to eliminate the Jewish people as Jews. History should prevent anyone from whitewashing this "pain point" for the Jewish people, no matter how “sensitive” the proselytizing Christians think they are. An evangelical or Protestant muddies the waters of Jewish-Christian relations for all churches by the continued exercise of this practice.

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