Christians in the Middle East: problems and prospects

Aug 14, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in September 2013 — the topic is again timely]


Christianity remains an important minority religion in the Middle East, yet many Christian communities in the region have found themselves in an increasingly precarious position in recent years. Christians of various denominations constitute about 4% of the total population of the Middle East, but some countries in the region have much larger Christian communities, though exact numbers are difficult to obtain. Consider, for example, Lebanon, which has the largest Christian proportion of any country in the Middle East. In the most recent census—conducted in 1932—Christians made up 53% of Lebanon’s population; because the relative size of confessional groups is so sensitive, Lebanon no longer conducts national censuses. The CIA World Factbook estimates the current Christian population in Lebanon at 39%, while a study conducted by the Lebanese Information Center, based on voter registration, gives a slightly lower figure of 34.35%. The Gulf/2000 Project provides a lower estimate yet, just under 21%. Similar discrepancies are found with respect to the size of Egypt’s Christian population. The Gulf/2000 Project places it at about 9%, but other estimates vary from over twenty to as low as seven percent. The Wikipedia pegs Egypt’s Christian proportion at “10-20 percent.” The same article puts the number of Coptic Christians in the country at “approximately 4 to 8 million”. In Syria, Christians are estimated to constitute about 10% of the population and in Jordan about 6%. About 2% of Israel’s population follows Christianity. As recently as 1987, Iraqi Christians constituted as much as much as 8% of the country’s population. But by 2003, this number was down to just over 5%, due mostly to massive emigration from the country. Most Iraqi Christians who left the country ended up in Syria.

Christians in the Middle East are not a homogeneous community. In Lebanon, there are 12 different officially recognized Christian denominations: Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Coptic, and Protestant. The majority of Egypt’s Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria also known as an Oriental Orthodox Church, but there are also sizeable Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities, each numbering roughly a quarter million. Israel’s Christian population is primarily composed of Christian Arabs, but some 28,000 Christians came to Israel with their Jewish families under the Law of Return, mainly during the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia in the 1990s. Of uncertain standing are the followers of Messianic Judaism, considered by most Christians and Jews to be a form of Christianity. Small groups representing most Christian denominations reside in Jerusalem, Christianity’s most holy city.

Nearly all Christian communities in the Middle East have been suffering from persecution and are shrinking through rapid emigration from the region. Violent attacks on Egyptian Christians by Muslim extremists over the course of the Arab Spring have drawn considerable media attention worldwide, yet many incidents remain underreported. According to a Coptic source,

“Islamists have taken over the town of Dalga in Minya province, Upper Egypt, which has a large Christian population (20,000 out of 120,000). The militants have vandalised, looted and torched churches and other Christian institutions, including a 1,600-year-old underground chapel, and attacked almost 40 homes belonging to Christian families.”


More recently, Syria’s Christians have been dreading the upsurge of radical Islamic fundamentalism among rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s government, “concerned that the Syrian civil war could spell the doom of Christianity in their country”, reports Voice of America. Attacks on Christians town, such as Maaloula, one of the last places where Aramaic—the language of Jesus—is still spoken, add oil to the fire. According to Coptic Solidarity website, in Maaloula,

“Christian residents were shot dead, threatened with beheading unless they converted to Islam, and taken captive. The Islamists entered every Christian home and broke Christian symbols. Churches have been attacked and crosses on buildings destroyed.”

Pro-government Christian militiamen have been battling the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo for a full year. Some 450,000 Christians are believed to be among the two million people who have fled the civil war in Syria over the past two-and-a-half years.


Despite such dismal trends, a heartening light was recently cast on the otherwise dark landscape at a two-day conference on the plight of Middle East Christians that took place on September 3-4, 2013 in Amman, Jordan. Organized by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, Jordan’s chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs long noted for his interfaith work, the gathering aimed “to find a way to end the sectarian strife threatening the people and countries”. The event was attended by more than 70 high-ranking representatives of Middle Eastern religious groups, including the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem Archbishop Fouad Twal and Egypt’s former mufti Ali Gomaa, as well by Royal Court Chief Fayez Tarawneh, King’s Office Director Imad Fakhoury, and King’s Adviser Ali Fazzaa. In his remarks to the conference, Prince Ghazi noted that “Christians were in this region before Muslims. They are not strangers, nor colonialists, nor foreigners. They are the natives of these lands and Arabs, just as Muslims are”. The crowning speech at this event was delivered by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who said that protecting the rights of Middle Eastern Christians “is a duty rather than a favor”. Highlighting the key role of Arab Christians “in building the Arab society and in the defense of our nation”, His Majesty stressed the need for “concerted efforts and full cooperation among us all to overcome [the common challenges and difficulties]” and “our traditions and humanitarian and cultural heritage based on the principles of moderation, tolerance, coexistence and acceptance of others”. The King invited participants to promote interfaith dialogue and “focus on maximizing the common elements that unite the followers of different religions and sects”. In what many may see as an ironic gesture, the King also called upon Arab Christians “to defend Islam, which is subject to a lot of injustice because some are ignorant of this faith, which preaches tolerance and moderation, and rejects extremism and isolationism”. Another odd turn of phrase in the monarch’s speech was his characterization of Jerusalem as “subject to the worst forms of Judaisation today”, ignoring the fact that Jerusalem was the Holy City for Judaism long before the emergence of Christianity and Islam.

Although Jordan does not have an exemplary record in its treatment of Christians, especially converts from Islam, the country’s small Christian community does enjoy a much greater degree of freedom, as well as opportunity in public life, than its counterparts in most other Arab lands. Several interfaith initiatives, such as the Amman Message, a Common Word, and the World Interfaith Harmony Week, were showcased by King Abdullah in his speech. As part of the event, the King also honored Bishop Munib A. Younan, the first Arab president of the Lutheran World Federation, by awarding him the Al‑Hussein Decoration for Distinguished Service for his efforts towards peace, co-existence, and interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. Bishop Younan is based in Jerusalem but was educated in Finland.

Christian map Holy LandIn a separate yet related news item, Israeli authorities now aim to showcase the country’s small yet stable and relatively prosperous Christian community. Although most Israeli Christians are Arabs, their demographic patterns more closely resemble those of the Jewish population than those of Muslims. The average Christian household, for example, contained 3.5 persons in 2006, as compared to 3.1 persons in Jewish households and 5.2 in Muslim ones. Approximately a third of Christians and Jews alike were under the age of 19, whereas 55% of Muslims were in this age range. The percentage of matriculating students among Christians was the highest of any religious sector, at 64%, compared with 55% of Jews, 50% of Druze, and 45% of Muslims.

Israeli Tourism Minister Uzi Landau has recently proposed the creation of a program that would bring young Evangelical Christians to Israel, as part of an effort to increase Christian tourism in the Jewish state. This new Christian program would be modeled after Taglit-Birthright Israel, a project that brings Jewish young adults, aged 18-26, on heritage trips to Israel. The Hebrew word taglit means ‘discovery’, and the trip organizers encourage the participants to “discover new meaning in their personal Jewish identity and connection to Jewish history and culture”, as the Wikipedia article puts it. Since the Birthright trips began 14 years ago, nearly 350,000 young people from 62 different countries have participated in the program, about 80% of them from the United States and Canada. The trips are free for the participants because the program is sponsored by private philanthropists, Jewish organizations and communities, and the Israeli government, the latter providing about a quarter of the funds. (The program also receives some funding from the German government, through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.) Landau hopes that the newly created Christian program would be similarly funded by private philanthropists and the Christian community. It is believed that the new program would benefit both the Christian community worldwide and the State of Israel. It is supposed to help the Christian Church retain the younger generation: “the Christians have a problem with their next generation too,” pointed out the Tourism Minister. From the Israeli point of view, this program would “generate tourism and support for Israel when [the participants] return to their homeland, become our ambassadors and view Israel not through CNN’s eyes”, added Landau. Whether the program succeeds in doing so remains to be seen.


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