Little Palestines across the Americas
Being a market-dominant minority in a war zone isn’t fun
There is an apocryphal story about a Palestinian bishop who was once asked by a western cleric which missionary converted his family, to which he replied ‘Paul’. Another version of the tale has the European asking the man when his family converted to Christianity; ‘Pentecost’, he said.
I have no idea whether it’s true – it seems a bit too much like a 19th century version of ‘and then the whole bus clapped’ – but it says something about western ignorance about Christians in the Middle East, a religious minority forgotten and abandoned for over a century.
The conflict in the Holy Land is often framed as a struggle between east and west, an idea embraced both by Israel’s enemies and its supporters. Orthodox leftism likes to see Christianity as part of a framework of western oppression, while sympathisers to the Israeli cause portray the state as a western outpost fighting against a common civilisational enemy.
This is not really true; while a majority of Israelis descend from Middle Eastern Jews, until a century ago a large minority of Palestinians were Christian. Not only that, but contrary to the idea of the conflict as being a one between two great religious civilizations, Palestinian Christians are not very sympathetic to Israel, and neither are Middle Eastern Christians generally.
While Christians accounted for 20 percent of the population of Mandatory Palestine, they now comprise less than 2 percent of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Christians still have a presence in towns like Bethlehem in the West Bank, and in Nazareth, which is part of Israel proper and whose residents are Israeli Arabs with full citizenship rights. But numbers continue to shrink, driven by emigration to Europe, Australia, the United States and Latin America.
This trend can be found across the Middle East, where at the start of the 20th century Christians comprised almost a third of the region’s population, and one in five of its Arabs. Starting with the 1915 genocide against Armenians, Syriacs and Greeks, that figure has declined to below 5 percent and will probably be half that by mid-century.
This was part of an even wider pattern of persecution and exodus across western Eurasia, which from the late 19th century saw minorities forced across borders as nation-states replaced empires, often driven into alien lands where the locals shared a religion but not much else.
As an example, on the Syrian-Lebanese border is the town of Al-Hamidiyah, inhabited by Greek-speaking descendants of Muslim Cretans who were expelled in the 1890s when the island became part of the kingdom of Greece.
By the end of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 half a million ‘Turks’ had been forced out of what is now Greece, many of whom were not even Turks as such but Muslim Greeks whose family had at some point converted; in return a million Greeks were expelled from Asia Minor, land that had been Greek since the Iron Age. In terms of population transfers, the Greeks did worse than the Arabs following the establishment of Israel (slightly more Arabs fled Palestine than Jews fled Arab countries, but the numbers are comparable).
In the West we think of ethnic diversity as something modern, arriving with the Windrush in Britain, but the 20th century was a time of homogenisation in much of the world. On the eve of the Great War, central Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East were all a medley of different overlapping groups. These different peoples had always co-existed, even if they lived in their own quarters, and one group usually dominated and to some extent oppressed the others, with sporadic outbreaks of communal violence.
From the Balkan massacres of the 1880s to the First World War, the Holocaust and subsequent ethnic cleansing of Germans from eastern Europe, the expulsion of Iraq’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community and the flight of Armenians, Greeks and Jews from Nasser’s Egypt, this diversity was brought to an end by nationalism, and Christians in the Middle East are its most recent victims. The Islamic State’s massacre of Yazidis and Christians in 2014 was just the latest example of this pattern.
As William Dalrymple wrote in his seminal From the Holy Mountain: ‘It is easy to forget that for over three hundred years – from the age of Constantine in the early fourth century to the rise of Islam in the early seventh century - the Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian. Indeed, at a time when Christianity had barely taken root in Britain, when Angles and Saxons were still sacrificing to Thor and Woden on the banks of the Thames… the Levant was the heartland of Christianity and the centre of Christian civilization. The monasteries of Byzantium were fortresses whose libraries and scriptoria preserved classical learning, philosophy and medicine against the encroaching hordes of raiders and nomads.’
Now Istanbul, majority Christian until the 20th century, is almost entirely Turkish: ‘The Jews have gone to Israel, the Greeks to Athens, the Armenians to Armenia and the United States.’
Persecution was not the only driver. From the mid-19th century, and the development of new passenger ships, it became far easier for Christians to emigrate to the West. Large numbers of Christian Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians went to Brazil, the US and later Australia. There was a Little Syria in New York and many Lebanese passengers on the Titanic, hoping to join communities established across the Americas. Today there are about 40,000 people of Palestine Christian descent in the US, 35,000 in Canada and 25,000 in Honduras.
Indeed they are found across Latin America, and have proved hugely successful; El Salvador’s charismatic crim-hating president Nayib Bukele comes from a Palestinian Christian family, although his father converted to Islam; Bukele was one of the most outspoken world leaders in criticising Hamas’s brutal attack, calling them ‘savage beasts’.