Christianity: Good for the Jews?

By Elliot Jager
Friday, May 24, 2013

Examining the state of contemporary Christendom in an article first published January 5, 2012, Elliot Jager asks whether Jews have an interest in seeing Christianity thrive—and answers yes.—The Editors


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.

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 Hizballah-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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