Christian “swine” and the Holy Land

During John Paul II’s jubilee pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I spent a week in Jerusalem with NBC News. After one morning staff meeting to plan the day’s coverage, a producer from WNBC in New York asked me if I thought the Holy Father would apologize for the Crusades. I replied that, while I hadn’t a clue about John Paul’s intentions, if I were the pope, I’d apologize for losing the Crusades. She was a bit taken aback.

I then explained that the Holy Land had been a Christian territory for centuries, until it was conquered by the armies of Islam — and that the Crusades began in part as a response to Muslim marauders who were raping, robbing, and murdering Christian pilgrims. As for what winning the Crusades might have meant, did my WNBC friend really think the Middle East was better off today because Islamic regimes of various sorts had been in charge throughout the second millennium?

Those conversations came to mind recently as concerns over the dwindling Christian population in the Holy Land have led to criticism of Israel, and particularly the security fence being built to separate the State of Israel from the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). And there are surely things to criticize on that front, including the way Israel handles visas for Christians from the P.A. who want to come to Christian holy places in Israel for Holy Week and Easter. But is that all there is to the story?

That the Christian holy places in the Middle East might, for the first time in history, become religious museums — places without living Christian communities — is a very real and very unhappy possibility. Christian populations are plummeting throughout the region; but the Christian population of Israel is increasing. That alone suggests that the situation is more complicated than sometimes suggested.

Why are Christians leaving Arab Islamic lands? Economic pressures are perhaps the most important reason. While there is no legal discrimination against Christians in the Palestinian Authority, there is discrimination nonetheless — discrimination aimed at creating an Islamic Palestine free of any notable Christian presence. As I was told in 2000, Christians can’t buy land or other forms of property in the P.A., not because of the law, but because it just isn’t done, and everyone knows that doing so means retribution. So the economic pressure on Christian families increases to the point where, in order to survive, they emigrate.

There are other reasons for Christian emigration from the Middle East, however, and they were brought to light by a courageous Washington Post article by Nina Shea, who directs the religious freedom program at Freedom House, America’s oldest human rights organization. Freedom House obtained and translated copies of the textbooks used in Saudi Arabian schools — and exported elsewhere. In those textbooks, first graders are taught that “every religion other than Islam is false.” Fifth graders are informed that “it is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and His Prophet, or someone who fights the religion of Islam.” Eighth graders learn that “the apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus.” Eleventh grades are warned that “the greeting, ‘Peace be upon you,’ is specifically for believers; it cannot be said to others.” And, as they complete high school, twelfth-graders are taught that “jihad in the path of God … is the summit of Islam,” because “this religion arose through jihad and through jihad was its banner raised high.” (As I had tried to explain to the WNBC producer…)

And all of this, mind you, is in textbooks that Saudi authorities insist have been scoured of expressions of religious intolerance, which a Saudi royal commission had acknowledged to be a problem.

Is that a neighborhood you’d like to live in? Or try to practice your Christian faith in? Christian emigration from the Holy Land is a serious problem. Let’s keep the primary source of the problem in focus.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.