Of Fallow Deer and Christians

People aren’t the only inhabitants of the Holy Land mentioned in the Bible. Just limiting ourselves to the letter “B,” the Scriptures mention bears, badgers, and even baboons.

But few, if any, animals are referred to in such glowing terms as the Persian fallow deer. It is the source of many striking biblical similes, which made its supposed extinction in the early 20th century especially poignant.

As it turned out, however, the deer wasn’t extinct-there were fallow deer in Iran, which makes sense since the historical name for Iran is Persia.

What happened next was, as the Wall Street Journal called it, a case of “Bambi meets James Bond.”

Israel had created a program to restore biblical species like oryxes, ostriches, and of course the iconic fallow deer. A series of painstaking negotiations with the Shah’s family procured four of the hoofed icons. Then the Iranian revolution broke out, the Shah and his family fled, and a government hostile to Israel took control.

Israeli officials and citizens prepared to flee Iran. But they weren’t going anywhere without their deer. So it got them in a “deerlift” that involved drives through the desert, secret hunting trips, and accommodating anti-Israeli Germans. The deer, along with “fleeing Iranian Jews and Israelis” got out on the last El Al flight ever to leave Tehran.

Today, there more 500 fallow deer living wild in Israel-a restored piece of the Holy Land’s past.

It’s a marvelous story. And it would be even more marvelous if another part of the Holy Land’s past, Christians, made a similar comeback.

A century ago, the area comprising Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Pales­tinian territories was one quarter Christian. Today it is about eight percent. The decline is even more drastic in areas under Israeli control. There are only 40,000 thousand or so Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Christians have gone from being 13 percent of the population there to less than two.

Their disappearance, like that of the fallow deer, can be attributed to human activities. Christians, in the words of National Geographic, “occupy a uniquely oxygen-starved space between” their Jewish and Muslim neighbors.

To an increasingly radicalized Muslim majority, they are, first and foremost, Christians and, thus, potential western agents. To the Israelis, they are, first and foremost, Arabs, part of a population whose movements must be monitored and controlled.

Thus they are left with a choice between oxygen deprivation or emigrating. Not seeing a future, either economic or cultural, they reluctantly turn their back on the past. Soon, it will be easier to find an Arab Christian in Brazil than in Bethlehem.

Unfortunately, this is a tragedy that can’t be remedied by air lifts or undercover operations. If there’s a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I don’t see it. And even if there were, there would still be the problem of Islamic radicalism.

So while things are looking up for the biblical Bambis, the same-at least for now-cannot be said for the inhabitants whose name begins with “C”: Christians.

Pray for our brethren.

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