Arab Christians will look for help from the next pope
From the moment those famous red loafers made by his personal cobbler stepped out of the sleek, black Mercedes, the crowds of Arab Christians waiting for Pope Benedict XVI went wild, cheering and clapping.
It was a happy reception and one that Benedict got at every stop of his historic, eight-day tour of the Middle East in May 2009, which was meant to demonstrate solidarity with Arab Christians.
These Arab Christians will now be looking to the future pontiff to protect them in a turbulent region. The communities of 12 to 14 million Arab-speaking Christians date back to the second century AD but their numbers are declining because of emigration, low birth rates and persecution.
One of the women I met on that trip was an Iraqi Christian named Maryam Ibrahim, 25, who fled to Jordan in 2007 from her native Baghdad after a harrowing ordeal in which she was nearly raped and kidnapped by a gang as she returned home from her job at a hospital.
“They ripped my clothes off and took my cross and threw it on the ground,” she said. “My driver was a Muslim and he tried to protect me. He carried a weapon but there were five or six of them. He killed one but was then shot in the head.”
Even in countries where Christians are relatively safe such as Israel and Jordan some feel like pawns in a geopolitical game. The Jordanians rolled out the red carpet for the pope because they receive billions of dollars in American aid and want to be seen as a moderate state. The pontiff celebrated mass in Amman’s football stadium. But only half of an expected 60,000 followers showed up, a testament to their declining numbers.
In Israel where Benedict travelled on the second leg of that tour, I was given a copy of a booklet detailing the harassment of Christians by Muslim Palestinians. It was published by a Jewish, non-profit organization and they left copies at the press centre for the 2,000 journalists covering the visit.
But the mayor of Nazareth, which has a substantial Christian minority, had his own response when I met him. “We suffer from discrimination in jobs, our lands are confiscated and we lack a budget,” Ramiz Jaraisy said. "We blame the Israeli government."
The pope’s eight-day visit cheered up many. But there was little in the way of answers on how their troubles could be eased.
Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at The Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour