He refused to leave Baghdad, even after the day last year when masked Sunni gunmen forced him and eight co-workers to line up against a wall and said, "Say your prayers." An Assyrian Christian, Rayid Albert closed his eyes and prayed to Jesus as the killers opened fire. He alone survived, shot seven times. But a month ago a note was left at his front door, warning, "You have three choices: change your religion, leave or pay the jeziya"—a tax on Christians levied by ancient Islamic rulers. It was signed "The Islamic Emirate of Iraq," a Qaeda pseudonym. That was the day Albert decided to get out immediately. He and the other 10 members of his household are now living as refugees in Kurdistan.
Across the lands of the Bible, Christians like Albert and his family are abandoning their homes. According to the World Council of Churches, the region's Christian population has plunged from 12 million to 2 million in the past 10 years. Lebanon, until recently a majority Christian country—the only one in the Mideast—has become two-thirds Muslim. The Greek Orthodox archbishop in Jerusalem, where only 12,000 Christians remain, is pleading with his followers not to leave. "We have to persevere," says Theodosios Atallah Hanna. "How can the land of Jesus Christ stay without Christians?" The proportion of Christians in Bethlehem, once 85 percent, is now 20 percent. Egypt's Coptic Christians, who trace the roots of their faith back to Saint Mark's preaching in the first century, used to account for 10 percent of their country's population. Now they've dwindled to an estimated 6 percent. "The flight of Christians out of these areas is similar to the hunt for Jews," says Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-Italian author and expert on Islam, himself a Muslim. "There is no better example of what will happen if this human tragedy in the Arab-Muslim world is allowed to continue."
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