There has been a dramatic decline in the number of Christians in the Middle East and they face some difficult dilemmas. At the time of the Islamic Conquests in the 7th century, a few thousand Muslim Arabs were ruling over a population in which the majority were Christians.
In 1900 Christians were 14% of the total population of the region (around 7 million)
In 1970 Christians were 7% (around 12 million)
In 2015 Christians were 5% (around 25 million)
In Iraq in 1970 Christians were 4% of the population in 2015 down to 0.9%, around 275,000. The Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, has said, ‘We are facing the extinction of Christianity as a religion in Iraq.’
In Syria in 2011 Christians were 1.25 million; now around 500,000.
In many countries, Christians are deeply divided in their responses to political developments. In Egypt, for example, many Christians support Sisi enthusiastically, saying that Christians have ‘never had it so good.’ Many others, however, feel that while the government talks about protecting the rights of Christians, animosity against Christians still remains and leads to discrimination, marginalization and sometimes violence.
In Syria, the majority of Christians have supported Assad, partly because they have enjoyed a protected status under the Assads, and partly because of their fear of the Islamist alternative. Others, and especially those who have been forced to leave the country, are all too aware of the sectarianism, the brutality, and corruption of the regime.
In Lebanon roughly half of the Christians have sided with a movement that is dominated by Hizbullah and supports the Assad regime in Syria, while the other half support the US and the Gulf States¹. When Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, the Christians felt secure because they were the majority in a proportion of 5 to 4. But now that Christians are only approximately a third of the population, should they hold onto the unique Lebanese system of proportional representation as the only way to protect their existence, or should they press for a secular state?
This powerful cri de coeur from Mark Farha, sums up how many Christians in the Middle East feel about their situation at the present time:
Generally speaking, Christians do not figure as key considerations in the corridors of power in Paris, London, Washington or Berlin. When it comes to the Middle East, the formulation of the “core national interest” in US or European foreign policy is dictated by lobbies serving the interests of arms manufacturers, Israel and the oil industry…Geopolitically, Christians…are increasingly caught in the crossfire of the escalating showdown between the USA and Russia on the one hand, and the conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran on the other hand…Perhaps the most fundamental challenge facing Christians in the Middle East is the pervasive tendency to ignore or discount their fate…The Middle East is currently passing through a tempest. Caught in its throes, Christians face stark choices, ranging from resignation to emigration. Perhaps the most sensible strategy for Middle Eastern Christians to pursue is to ally with moderate Muslims across the region who are equally aghast and harassed by the spectre of budding terrorism and jihadist Islam…For Christian communities to survive in the Middle East, a broader diplomatic détente would be necessary. Otherwise…Christian communities will continue to be human debris in devastating wars of civilization and oil, fervid ideologies and cold interests…²
If as a Christian in the Middle East you are worried about your children’s education and their prospects of finding work, if you have relatives who have emigrated to the USA, Canada, France or Australia, and if people around you make you feel that you are not welcome in the community, what is there to stop you trying to emigrate? It is not in the least surprising that hundreds of thousands of Christians have left the region in the last century. But I am constantly impressed by the Christians I meet who say they are determined to stay rooted in their communities in spite of all the difficulties. I am also impressed by the number of Muslims who are pleading with Christians not to leave.
When I raised this issue at a seminar in Oxford some years ago, Munther Isaac, who is now the Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College, responded by saying, ‘What will keep us here is having a new sense of mission.’ In other words, if Christians can believe that they really do have something significant to contribute to their societies and their nation, they will want to stay.
1 Farha, Mark, ‘Social and Political Context’, 340.
2 Farha, Mark, ‘Social and Political Context’, 338, 340, 344–345.