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The Middle East was the birthplace of Christianity. It was in Palestine that some Jews first converted to Christianity and took their new religion throughout the Roman Empire and the rest of the world. The Middle East has since been home to some of the world’s most ancient Christian denominations. In recent times, although the total number of Christians in the area continues to grow, there has been a decline in their percentage compared to the Muslim majority. This decline has been attributed to a number of factors.
During the spread of Christianity to Europe, many influential schools of thought emerged, some mutually contradictory. Yet, determined to form a uniform Christian creed, bishops from all over the world convened and settled their major theological debates in 325 AD at the Council of Nicaea, under the patronage of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. However, theological and political discrepancies were never completely eliminated, and there was a break in communion in the 11th century that completely separated Western and Eastern churches, the Great Schism of 1054 – a separation that lasts to this day. Although there were minor theological differences, the primary cause for the rupture was political, relating to primacy.
There were conflicting claims over who should hold supreme authority over Christendom. The Pope in Rome claimed absolute authority, whereas Eastern churches stressed the equality of the bishops of Rome and Constantinople. Today, most Western Catholic churches assert the Pope’s supremacy, whereas Eastern Christianity recognizes equally distributed authority of nine patriarchates and several other autonomous local churches not headed by a patriarch.
Middle Eastern churches have, till now, maintained their cultural and ethnic identity. Churches in the Middle East are thus not only doctrinally but culturally rich—including traditions of ethnic Syriacs, Aramaeans, Copts, and Arabs. Ethnicity has played an immense role in the way Middle Eastern Christians practice their religion. According to Anthony O’Mahony, a leading scholar of Middle Eastern Christianity, Christians in the Middle East are “tribal in their affiliation to their church.” To them, they were ethnic Arabs before they converted to Christianity or even Islam, and feel a deep ancestral connection to their homeland.
Anthony O’Mahony and Emma Loosley give a clear example of what this means: “To the outsider, the world of Oriental Christianity can be extremely confusing; visit a city like Aleppo in Syria, home to a sizable Christian minority, and you will find at least twelve denominations.” 1
State of Christendom in the Middle East—past and present
The Middle East changed forever after the emergence of Islam in the 7th century CE. The Muslim military expansion created tensions with the Roman imperial hegemon. However, Christianity existed and continues to exist in the Middle East because Islam recognizes Christianity, as well as Judaism, as predecessors of Islam. Contrary to common Western belief, Christians in the Middle East are not ruled by Sharia law.
Sharia law is exclusively for Muslim citizens of an Islamic state. Under Islamic law, Christians living under an Islamic state are considered dhimmis, non-Muslim citizens of the state. Middle Eastern countries today do not follow strict Sharia law but rather a combination of Sharia and secular law, allowing Christians to formulate and follow their own laws and courts. Christians essentially rule themselves in matters such as divorce and inheritance. The criminal code in most of the Middle East is secular, all citizens being equal, regardless of religion.
The situation of Christians in the Middle East deteriorated greatly when Western empires—especially the British—colonized most of the Middle East and North Africa. Native Christians started to be seen as pro-Western, with a double loyalty, despite the fact that Christians were in the Middle East before Islam and are an integral part of the social fabric of the region.
Unfortunately, Christians in the West have also had an unclear vision of Middle Eastern Christians, confusing their Oriental, especially Arab, ethnicity with Islam and forgetting that they are native Christians still practicing Christianity in the towns and villages where Christianity originated.
Despite being a minority, Christians in the Middle East have always contributed vibrantly to society, in science, philosophy, and medicine. They possess the status of a protected minority in Muslim countries, where states have passed various laws ensuring and protecting Christian’s freedom of association.
While Christians are ensured protection under the law, they have suffered hostilities by sympathizers of radical Muslim groups who fail to obey the country’s inclusive laws. In general, Christians are able to practice their religion and build places of worship in all Middle Eastern countries—except Saudi Arabia, and the self-declared Islamic State (IS).
Apart from IS, Christians are not really a targeted minority, although Muslims and Christians do not mix a great deal. When there are political or ethnic problems, minorities are always targeted. When that happens, the burning of churches and similar events are most often incited by politics rather than by religion.
Decrease of Christians in the Middle East
The percentage of Christians in the Middle East has been declining for decades. Their numbers now reflect a drop from 20 per cent in the early 20th century to five per cent in recent years. Analysts attribute this to three main causes: low birth rate, emigration, and ethnic and religious persecution.
Low birth rate
It is estimated that the fertility rate of Christians in Muslim-majority nations has fallen from 5.17 to 3.23 children per woman, a decrease of 38 per cent. Muslim women have traditionally borne more children than Christian women, but the gap was not as wide as it has become in recent times. According to Pew Research, the number of Christians in Muslim countries has not declined but quadrupled; the reason it appears their numbers have declined is because the Muslim population has increased ten-fold.
Islam is the fastest growing religion, primarily because of the birth rate of Muslims. Christians tend to have fewer children to have fewer children. Economic stresses of the modern era have prompted women to delay marriage, opting to complete their education instead of marrying.
Christian women in the Middle East tend to be highly educated, prefer to be more independent, and are more career-oriented than Muslim women.
Middle Eastern Christians have a higher emigration rate than Muslims, and the Pew Research projections for population growth in the MENA predicts this trend to persist in the coming decades, from 2010 to 2050. However, “while emigration out of the Middle East and North Africa is projected to lower the share of Christians in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria, the immigration of Christians [mainly migrant workers] into the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries is expected to more than offset these departures for the region overall.”
Middle Eastern Christians tend to emigrate for two major reasons— military conflict and better job opportunities. Until recently, Middle Eastern Christian emigrants tended to migrate to Christian-majority countries, especially the United States and the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, most Arab immigrants in North America are descendants of Christians who emigrated from the Syrian and Lebanese areas of the Ottoman Empire between 1875 and 1920.
The Lebanese diaspora, for example, is 80 per cent Christian. However, in the most recent conflict, after the US invasion of Iraq, Christians (and Muslims) are fleeing mainly to other Muslim countries, which have accepted them as refugees—mainly Jordan and Syria—instead of Christian countries.
Ethnic and religious persecution
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent occupation have disrupted the social order of what was more or less peaceful cohabitation. Christian minorities in the Middle East have since been subject to ethnic and religious persecution to such an extent that it is feared Christianity will disappear in certain areas considered their ancient biblical lands, as concluded by the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a UK-based Catholic campaign group. Their publications have documented persecution of Christians around the world for more than 65 years.
 (Eastern Christianity in the Modern Middle East, London and New York: Routledge, 2010, p. 1).