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Bush in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Missed opportunity

Christians are suffering in the Middle East, the cradle of their religion, and the president didn't seem to notice

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

When President George Bush made a 2002 trip to China, he preceded it by condemning Beijing's restrictions on "independent religious expression." He repeatedly protested the arrest of Li Guangqiang, a Hong Kong businessman sentenced to two years in prison for smuggling Bibles to house-church believers, and on the eve of Bush's February 2002 visit, Li was released.

That did not deter the president from giving Chinese officials a list of other dissident prisoners to release, nor telling students at Beijing's Tsinghua University, "Ninety-five percent of Americans say they believe in God, and I'm one of them"-a bold statement in a country where atheism is the official religion and on a day when Chinese leader Jiang Zemin had told the president, "I don't have religious faith." Bush told students, "Freedom of religion is not something to be feared, but it's to be welcomed, because faith gives us a moral core and teaches us to hold ourselves to high standards, to love and to serve others and to live responsible lives." A grad student named Wang told The New York Times he thought the speech was "quite brilliant. . . . He explained American religion in a way that Chinese can understand."

China remains officially hostile to Christianity but its church is growing. Not so the Middle East, where even states with constitutional freedoms like Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq bow to Islamic pressure to treat Christians as second-class citizens. As a result, across the birthplace of Christianity and the sites of its earliest churches, Christians themselves are disappearing.

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Was the president unaware or unconcerned with their plight during his eight-day trip throughout the region-a vaguer version of his 2002 self, content to parry over the excessively broad, and likely unattainable, topic of Mideast peace without reaching for one word that might put religious oppressors in the hot seat and give the oppressed hope?

A decade ago Bethlehem had a population roughly 60 percent Christian; today it is closer to 10 percent as Christians flee or are forced out by Islamic extremists and an often hostile Palestinian Authority. In Gaza, where believers number less than 1 percent of the population, the manager of the only Christian bookstore in the territory, 31-year-old Rami Ayad, was kidnapped and found dead in the street last October.

This is to say nothing of Jordan, where Christian workers are finding it harder to keep residency permits, and where a longtime Christian center run by Jordanians is reportedly being closed this year by the government. Or of Iraq, where roughly half of all Christians have fled the country since 2003 and where nine churches were bombed (see p. 60) while the president met with U.S. soldiers in nearby Kuwait.

During three days in Israel, Bush met with Muslim and Jewish leaders but only paused at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. He descended into its grotto to light a candle where Jesus is believed to have been born, then emerged to describe it as "a moving moment for me." He met privately in Bethlehem with a Franciscan as well as Armenian and Greek patriarchs but made no public statements afterwards. Christians in the region wonder whether the patriarchs are more interested in reigniting tourism and so discouraged potentially divisive statements. But Bush seemed disinclined to make them.

Pentecostal evangelist Valeri Barinov was in a Soviet prison for his faith when Billy Graham toured the Soviet Union in 1982. "I found it hard to understand how such people could come to our country and remain silent about the persecution of their brothers and sisters. Perhaps he spoke privately, but I considered such moves to be powerless gestures," Barinov said.

President Bush had an opportunity in the Middle East to match powerful gestures for peace with powerful gestures for the faithful. He had an opportunity to captivate young Middle Easterners by explaining religion in a way they could understand. And he did not do it.

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