Gaps in the Middle East mosaic

The monk had amazing news, so he wrote directly to the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem.

The year was 1884 and the ruins of a Byzantine church had surfaced near the north gate of the ancient village of Madaba, south of Amman. The floor included sections of a sixth century map -- a spectacular mosaic offering historians vital insights into the culture, wildlife, commerce, art and geography of biblical Palestine.

There was a bird's eye view of Jerusalem, giving pilgrims details about walls, gates, streets, markets and holy sites. The mosaic even included Constantine's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which Persians later destroyed in 614 A.D.

A surviving fragment in Greek said: "... of the Christ loving people of Madaba."

The map is still there. The Church of St. George is still there, worshipping in its "new" sanctuary built over the ruins in 1896.

"We have always been here. I pray that we will always be here. But it is hard. It seems that our Christian brothers and sisters around the world do not know that the church is still here, after all this time," said Father Innocent, as the doors closed and the day's tiny band of tourists departed. It was the night before Pope John Paul II visited nearby Mount Nebo during his pilgrimage in 2000.

"We are small" in number, said the priest, with quiet determination. "But most churches (in America) send missionaries. The missionaries, they tell our people to join a new church. We ask, 'Why? The church the apostles started is still here. We are Christians. Help us.' "

It is an old, old story. The Middle East is an ancient mosaic. Some of the images are quietly disappearing, fading with the declining numbers of Christians who live in the lands where their faith was born. Arab Christians have lost ground -- literally -- with the rise of Israel. Yet, as Christians with Western ties, they live in constant tension with the vast Muslim majority.

This can be glimpsed in occasional headlines. Israeli tanks have rumbled into Bethlehem, where a sniper killed an altar boy last fall near the steps of the Church of the Nativity. In Nazareth, conflict continues as an Islamist faction tries to build a mosque adjoining the Basilica of the Annunciation, the Middle East's largest church.

In his book "The Body and the Blood," journalist Charles Sennott estimates that 13 percent of Palestine was Christian in 1946, as opposed to 2 percent today. Ancient churches are shrinking or stuck in limbo throughout the Arab world. Meanwhile, all peace efforts focus on clashes between Jews and Muslims. "If the Christians disappear," states Sennott, "the Middle East will become that much more vulnerable to this embittered dichotomy."

In Jordan, one highly symbolic Muslim leader has repeatedly voiced similar themes, warning that Arab leaders must learn from their own history, or suffer the consequences.

"Far more important than the numbers of the Christians in the modern Arab world is their social, economic and cultural visibility," writes Prince El Hassan bin Talal, the uncle of King Abdullah, in his book "Christianity in the Arab World."

"The fact remains that the Christian Arabs are in no way aliens to Muslim Arab society; a society whose history and culture they have shared for over 14 centuries to date, without interruption, and to whose material and moral civilization they have continually contributed, and eminently so, on their own initiative or by trustful request."

Yes, Arab Christians ties to the West have influenced everything from the shape of Arab nationalism to educational efforts in an age of high-tech economics, said Hassan. Muslims who automatically blame Christians for negative trends in the modern era are simply forgetting one simple fact -- the Arab churches are older than the mosques.

"The lessons of history are too often lost and that is tragic," the prince told me, in an interview in 2000. The ancient Christian churches are "part of what built this region and our culture and the Arab world. We cannot forget them. ... It is tragic that there are more Arab Christians from Jerusalem in Sidney, Australia, than there are in Jerusalem. We must insist that helping Arab Christians stay here is simply a matter of human dignity."