Exodus: a story of Christians: The Middle East, the cradle of the faith, offers a present and a future that millions have decided they live through at their peril. Robert Fisk reports

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High in his cave above the Qadisha gorge, Father Tannious Shahine possesses an exclusive vision over the land through which the Crusaders passed nine centuries ago. Cloaked in black, his fluffy white beard brushed straight like a child's Bible picture, he is a symbol of the epic story of Christian sanctuary in the Middle East. Up here amid the mountain peaks of northern Lebanon, the Maronites will tell you, they sought refuge from their Muslim enemies, safe in the snows around Bsharre while the Mamelukes persecuted their brethren in the aftermath of the Crusades. Father Tannious is a habis, a hermit, as absolutist and confined in his status as the Christian Maronites are in their role in the Holy Land.

'I am the only hermit left in all the Middle East,' he says; his eyes crease in happiness when you warily acknowledge his unique theological condition. 'I will never leave Lebanon. No Christian should leave the Holy Land. Those who have left will come back.' He exudes faith: childlike, passionate, precise, untramelled by contradiction or facts.

It is a fact. From Iraq, from the West Bank, from Lebanon and from Egypt, probably from Syria, too, the Christians are leaving. A community of 14 million - inheritors of the original, eastern Church of Christ - are draining away from lands now inhabited by up to 160 million Muslims. As many as 50,000 Assyrian Christians have taken flight from Iraq since the end of the Gulf war, desperate for sanctuary in the West. In 15 years of civil war, around 300,000 Christian Maronites - a third of the entire Maronite community in Lebanon - have fled the Middle East. Perhaps 50,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians have left Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

No one knows how many Christians have abandoned Egypt's Coptic community, whose roots go back far beyond Islam, since the murderous riots between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists in Asyut and neighbouring cities of Upper Egypt. They are thought to number eight million but the government in Cairo - fearful of Muslim resentment - chooses to claim that there are only two and a half million Copts. Figures collected by a Jesuit scholar, Father Peter du Brul, suggest that in the land once called Palestine - which is now Israel and the occupied West Bank - there are little more than 130,000 Christians living around the city in which Christ preached and died, along with more than two million Muslims and more than three and a half million Jews. In the past 20 years, a million and a half Christians are thought to have left the Middle East.

Like the antique divisions that broke apart the Byzantine Church, the statistics of this exodus are both detailed and vague, the reasons as frightening as they are sometimes imaginary. To understand the contradictory nature of Christian survival in the Middle East is to grasp why local religious scholars are still trying to resolve the fifth-century conflict over monophysitism - between those who believed that Christ was God and those who irritatingly regarded him as both human and divine - that originally broke out at the Fourth Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Lebanese Maronites talk endlessly of their plight, Egypt's Copts are restrained, remembering how their Patriarch Shenouda endured exile in a desert monastery as punishment for a Coptic demonstration against the then president, Anwar Sadat, in the United States.

The most complete statistical index of the region's Christian community can be found at the offices of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) - with 24 member churches and therefore representing almost all the Christian population - in the Cypriot town of Limassol. It is thus the voice of all those sects and creeds that Western Christianity long ago forgot or failed to comprehend; of Egyptian Coptic Catholics and Iranian Evangelicals (of episcopal, presbyterian and Armenian union persuasion), of Syrian Orthodox and Iraqi Chaldeans and Lebanese Maronites and Palestinian Catholics. Its voice is thoughtful, cautious, the voice of its bespectacled general secretary, Gabriel Habib (Orthodox but definitely not monophysite).

'Christians are leaving because of feelings of political insecurity and fears for their future status,' he says with consummate tact. 'What is going to be their role if the Islamic revival creates Islamic states and if Israel continues to emphasise the Jewishness of its state? Christians believed that nationalism would establish states where individuals could be considered equal regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation . . . This is now opposed by Israel, which wants an ethnocentric state, and by Islamic fundamentalism, which considers nationalism to be a Western ideology aimed at the destruction of the Islamic community.'

The most immediate concern today is for the 50,000 Iraqi Assyrians who have fled their homes - many along with Kurdish refugees last year - but of whom only perhaps 10,000 have so far reached the West. In their anguish, some even fled to the Allied control zone and appealed to British army officers for help. The remaining 40,000 are trapped in Turkey or Syria, unable to obtain visas for Canada, the United States or Australia. The Assyrians, according to one Christian scholar, have suffered discrimination ever since they attempted to establish a republic in northern Iraq after the First World War, and they fear that President Saddam Hussein will treat them as he treated the Kurds - notwithstanding Iraq's favourable treatment of other Christian communities.

Yet it is Egypt that remains the primary focus of Mr Habib's attention. Egyptian law discriminates against Christians - churches, for example, cannot be built on main streets - and the authorities have shown themselves powerless to prevent the spread of armed Muslim-Christian battles in the south of Egypt. 'The regulations in Egypt should be more justly applied and serious discussion should take place between the Christian leadership and Islamic movements in Egypt to dissipate mutual fears,' Mr Habib says. 'Copts fear that if the pressure of the extremist Islamic movement continues, they would be even more marginalised in a country which, in their collective memory, was theirs before it was Islamicised. In Egypt, the Islamic movement is opposing the government regime. The Islamic reaction to the regime victimises groups such as the Copts - they say the Copts are either an obstacle to Islamicisation or that they are supporters of the regime.'

So delicate is the Coptic crisis that Patriarch Shenouda still forbids Copts to visit Jerusalem - where they have theoretically been able to worship since the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel - until the Israelis have resolved their problems with the Palestinians.

In effect, this means that - with the exception of the 130,000 or so Christians in the West Bank, Israel and Jerusalem - none of the Christians of the Middle East can visit their holiest city. The Copts are under instructions not to go there; the remaining communities, whose countries are still technically at war with Israel, have been prevented from doing so since the Israeli capture of Jerusalem in 1967.

It is easy, of course, to identify the evidence of mutual religious hostility in the Middle East. The burnt-out churches in the villages around Asyut - 12 Copts and one Muslim were killed in last month's gun battles in Upper Egypt - look no different from the ruins of Mar Mikhail church in west Beirut, turned into a grotesque battlefield by Muslim and Christian militias between 1975 and 1989. Mosques have been desecrated by Christians in Lebanon, but the tragedy there is compounded by a Christian predilection for self-destruction. In Lebanon in 1990, more than 2,000 Maronites were killed by each other in a war between the Phalange - whose party symbols are a triangle and a cross - and the army of General Michel Aoun, a Christian. In the Sabra and Chatila massacres of 1982, Christian Maronite militiamen under Israeli control slaughtered Christian Catholic and Orthodox Palestinians as well as Muslims.

For a Westerner, this may seem incongruous as well as horrifying. Yet it is important to remember that Christians are in many ways as much of the Middle East as they are distinct from its majority religion. It is easy to ally ourselves subsconsciously with Christian 'values' against those expressions that we have been led to associate with Islam - 'fundamentalism' and, most poisonous of all, 'terrorism'. How easily we forget that Dr George Habash, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - who was drummed out of France this year after seeking medical help for a heart condition - is a Christian. How unmindful we are that Michel Aflaq, the founder of the Baath Party - the political inspiration for the police states of Iraq and Syria - was a Christian. So, for that matter is Hanan Ashrawi, one of the most famous of all Palestinian spokespersons. We know that Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN secretary-general, is a Christian Copt from Egypt, but we forget that Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister during the Gulf war, is also a Christian.

Christians fought in the Egyptian army against Israel - a Christian general was a hero of the 1970 Suez Canal crossing - just as Christians fought against (as well as for) the 11th-century crusaders. When Lieutenant Khaled El-Iflambouly and his colleagues assassinated President Sadat in 1981, they also killed the Coptic bishop who was with him on the Cairo reviewing stand. How often do we recall that Lebanon's finest poet, Kahlil Gibran was a Christian (albeit rejected by the Maronite church)? Did we reflect, when we heard of Yasser Arafat's marriage, that he had chosen a Christian as his bride?

Kamal Salibi, an Arab Protestant historian, regards the Middle East's Christian community as a guarantee of secularism because, as he puts it, 'it is the Christian Arab who keeps the Arab world 'Arab' rather than 'Muslim'.' Mr Salibi, who earned the unique distinction of infuriating Muslims, Christians and Jews in almost equal measure with his claim - based on linguistic evidence - that the events of the Bible occurred in Saudi Arabia, disputes even the traditional Maronite belief that the Lebanese mountains were a haven from Muslim persecution. In his flat in Amman, puffing contentedly on his cigar while proof-reading another linguistic onslaught against biblical scholars, he does not see the Christian world with the nave, restricted vision of Fr Tannious the hermit.

'Why should the Christians stay in the holy places?' he asks. 'Jerusalem to me would be Jerusalem whoever inhabits it. I regret it is being so brazenly Judaicised. But Jerusalem is a place. As a person brought up in the Christian tradition, I have a sentimental attachment to the place. As an Arab, I imagine I'd be as emotional about Mecca as I would about Jerusalem because it is the focus of something else in my heritage. I know a number of Christian Arabs who told me they did visit Mecca. On two occasions when I was in Saudi Arabia in the Seventies, Saudi friends of mine pressed me to visit Mecca. My answer was that I'd very much like to see Mecca but I wouldn't want to go there unless I could stand up and say I was a Christian. So I saw the Kabaa from a low-flying plane.'

Mr Salibi has little patience with the Crusaders, whose cruelty is evident from contemporary documents. One Arab account of the time describes how German Crusader knights in central Syria went on a cannibalistic orgy among slain Muslim villagers. 'The Crusades did a lot of harm to the Christians,' he says. 'Christians were in a considerable majority in Syria and Egypt before the Crusades. The inflow of Muslims into the area occurred in the centuries immediately afterwards.' But Mr Salibi has no illusions about the position of Christians today. 'There is discrimination, at times very subtle, against them. Sometimes when I'm with Arab scholars, there will be very sly digs against Arabs who are not Muslims, doubts about the patriotic allegiance of Arabs who are not Muslims. I consider these people are to be pitied for their state of mind rather than vengefully resented. The Copts have the hardest time. They feel Egyptian - they don't like to defend themselves as being Arabs. But Muslims have tried to humiliate them.'

The humiliation was reciprocal in Lebanon. Christian militiamen routinely pasted portraits of the Virgin onto their rifle butts. Etienne Saqr's murderous 'Guardians of the Cedars' - their symbol a sword-cum-cross amid flames - cut the ears off dead Muslim fighters. Victorious Palestinian gunmen at Damour broke into the tombs of the Christian cemetery, scattering the long-dead over the fields, the Christian skeletons still dressed in the Victorian Sunday best in which they had been buried a century before.

No wonder that up on the heights of Bkerke, east of Beirut, the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir is trying to lure his 300,000 flock back to their post-civil war nation. His appeal is temporal and spiritual, with a razor blade of Christian superiority deep within his prayer. 'It would be a pity if the place of Christ - the land where He was born, suffered, died and was resurrected - was void of Christians. Christians are linked to this land.' Yes, he agrees, the Christian West has taken an attitude towards the Arab world that has angered Muslims, made some of them fundamentalists. Yes, the Christian Crusader was himself a kind of fundamentalist. So why is Islam so strong?

A tiny, frail man whose red robes seem in danger of smothering his body, Patriarch Sfeir replies with emotion. 'Islam asks believers only one thing: believe in God and be a witness to him, worship God and make pilgrimage. These are the pillars of Islam. But this is not so difficult. Christianity is more demanding. Christianity is an internal fight between a man and his soul. All his instincts are involved. He believes there is something of divinity in a human being. We cannot find this in Islam.'

Mr Habib avoids triumphalism. He blames 'Zionist Christians' - the so-called 'Christian Embassy' in Jerusalem and American television evangelists - for creating problems for the Middle East Christians. 'Zionist Christians are saying that 'gentile' Christianity is over and that all we have to do is console Israel,' he says. 'They believe Israel is the fulfilment of the prophecy that the return of the Jews is part of God's scheme for the salvation of the world - including the Christians, of course.'

History has been particularly unkind to the Christians of the Middle East. Christian Europe aligned itself with its co-religionists in the Middle East in the 19th century, and the Christian colonial powers - Britain and France - that in the 20th century controlled the former Ottoman Muslim empire broke their promises of independence for the Arabs. The Gulf war, with its Christian-led alignment of forces against Muslim Iraq, appeared to some Muslim fundamentalists a historical continuation of 19th-century Western protectionism - when Christian European armies and missionaries vied with each other for the hearts and minds of Arab Muslims. Fundamentalist tapes circulating clandestinely in Saudi Arabia refer to Christians - especially Protestants - as 'the first Zionists', the founder of Zionism being (according to one tape) none other than Martin Luther.

How can the tiny Christian community survive the historical weight of these betrayals and illusions? What is the 'Holy Land' worth to them? Steven Runciman described the attachment of a believer to his holy places in his three-volume history of the Crusades. 'To stand where those that we reverence once stood,' he wrote, 'to see the very sites where they were born and toiled and died, gives us a feeling of mystical contact with them and is a practical expression of our homage.'

Gabriel Habib reflects in similar fashion. 'There are two apparently contradictory concepts. Jerusalem has become the heavenly Jerusalem of all the world. Where a Christian lives, faith will live. But there is an idea that Christianity is an incarnate faith, not an abstract ideology. This means that your identity in relation to Jesus Christ is not independent from your cultural identity. Therefore the land becomes important.' Kamal Salibi, indifferent to missionary Christianity, none the less shows emotion over Jerusalem as a city as well as a faith. His last visit was on Christmas Day 1966, only months before the Israeli conquest. 'I used to feel weak at the knees when I approached this place. As you approached Jerusalem and saw the Aqsa mosque, the Golden Dome, the Ottoman walls, the spires, you felt that your whole moral being was somehow connected to those walls and those domes and those stones, that your value as a Christian was connected to that place.'

(Photograph omitted)