Please don't leave, Middle East church leaders beg Christians

Orthodox Christian nuns take part in an annual procession at the end of August along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City, during which an icon of the Virgin Mary is carried from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to a church at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the site of the tomb of Jesus' mother Mary.Reuters

Christians living in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the Middle East will this week be urged not to flee from the region as persecution intensifies.

Church leaders who will meet beside the Dead Sea are expected to urge Palestinians in particular to stay put despite the severity of the challenges they face.

Father Issa Misleh, of Jerusalem's Orthodox Church, and spokesman for the Middle East Council of Churches, told The Jordan Times that if Christians left the Middle East as a result of the growing terrorism, the outlook will be dire for the territories.

"This would be the end of the Palestinian cause."

The eleventh session of the council, which opens today, is expected to conclude with a message of "stay" to Palestinians but also to other Christians in the region.

The council, which represents Evangelical, Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic Christians of the Middle East, will also discuss relations between the different Christian churches and between Christians and Muslims.

"We want to embody the values we have been talking of," said Misleh.

The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, has stood down as head of the council and a new president will be elected.

Numbers of Christians in the region have plummeted since the rise of Islamic State and the terrible executions, tortures, rapes and other horrors that the hundreds of thousands of IS victims have been subjected to. 

There are now just 40,000 Christians remaining among the 4.5 million people who live in the Palestinian Territories, listed at 24 on the Open Doors persecution watch list.

Open Doors says: "Christians are squeezed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their ethnicity causing many restrictions from the Israeli side and their religion putting them in a minority position within the Palestinian community. The territories are effectively under different governments.

"The West Bank's ruling Fatah party is formally based on secular principles, and Christians enjoy several rights. Though Christians are largely tolerated by Islamist Hamas, the rights of Christians are neither upheld nor protected in Gaza. Apart from this discrimination, Christians face threats from radical Islamic vigilante groups. The total number of Christians has been decreasing in both areas over time due to emigration and lower birth rates. A ray of hope is the small but growing number of converts from Islam to Christianity."