Christmas 2012: The Flowering of Middle Eastern Christianity and the Challenges it Faces

There are more Middle Eastern Christians than ever before, and they are poised between emergence as a new political force in a democratizing region and the dangers to them of fundamentalism and political repression. The arguments you see for Christian decline in the region are mostly wrong. If we count the Christians in the Arab world and along the northern Red Sea littoral (Egypt, the Levant, Iraq and the Horn of Africa to the borders of Ethiopia) they come to some 21 million, nearly the size of Australia and bigger than the Netherlands. (This figure does not count the large Christian expatriate populations in the Gulf emirates or Christians in Iran and Pakistan). They are important in their absolute numbers, which have grown dramatically in the past 60 years along with the populations of the countries in which they live. If the region moves to parliamentary forms of government, they may well be coveted swing voters, gaining a larger political role and louder voice than ever before.

In fact, despite all the hype about the rise of Islam in Europe, Muslims in that continent have on the whole much less potential influence than Christians in the Middle East. About 5% of the French electorate is Muslims, the largest proportion in Europe. But Christians are 10 percent of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and 22 percent of Lebanon. Even in Israel, they are 2 percent of the population, a little less than the percentage of contemporary Italy that is Muslim.

Among the biggest dangers to Middle Eastern Christians in 2012 were these:

1. Israeli occupation has made life in East Jerusalem and the West Bank increasingly unbearable, spurring emigration abroad of Palestinian Christians, who once made up 10 to 20 percent of the Palestinian population. Because they are Christians, these Palestinians may find it easier to get visas to the West.

2. The Syrian civil war has displaced or endangered many Syrian Christians, who make up between 10 and 14 percent of the 22-million strong Syrian population. At the upper estimates, there are as many as three million Syrian Christians. There are allegations that Christians have been targeted by hard line fundamentalist militias, but most probably suffer from the same difficulties other Syrians are facing.

3. Iraqi Christian expatriates in Syria are also in trouble. Before George W. Bush invaded Iraq, there were about 800,000 Christians in a population of 25 million, or 3 percent of the population. Some 400,000 are said to have emigrated, mainly to Syria (and about 10,000 to Lebanon), as refugees. But now many of those who went to Syria are returning to Iraq. Inside Iraq itself, some Christians say the situation has improved for them to the point that they are committed to staying in the country rather than emigrating.

4. The newly enacted fundamentalist constitution in Egypt and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, poses dangers to Egyptian Christians. It is alleged that hard line Salafis attempted to intimidate them from voting against the constitution in this month’s referendum. On the other hand, Egyptian Christians have clearly been invigorated by the new press and political freedoms in post-Mubarak Egypt, and are gaining an important set of political voices.

5. In the new country of South Sudan, Christians form between 10% and 50% of the 8 million population (the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church each claim about 2 million believers in that country. Christians in the region may thus have gained a great deal of influence in a whole new state. Earlier estimates from the mid-20th century of only 10% Christian are probably out of date and do not take account of the large number of conversions since then). The challenges here are enormous, though. The partition of Sudan has not in fact led to social peace between the two, with continued confrontation over oil exports and saber rattling. (Sudan is inarguably in the Middle East, and I have hung around with South Sudanese and was surprised how many spoke Bedouin Arabic).

6. Christians are about 60% of the 6 million-strong population of Eritrea. They are Coptic Orthodox, the same as most Egyptian Christians. (Eritrea is not usually counted in as being part of the Middle East, but it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and has substantial cultural and political relations with Yemen and Saudi Arabia, so it is as eligible as Sudan and Somalia). Eritreans suffer under authoritarian government and continued tensions with Ethiopia.

Christians in Iraq and Syria have faced challenges (as have the entire populations of those two countries) in the past year. Christians in Egypt are alarmed by the new political muscle of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be easy to construct a ‘vale of tears’ kind of narrative of Middle Eastern Christianity in decline, since the communities face political turmoil. It is often alleged that the proportion of Christians in the region has declined, though it is not clear that this allegation is true on a regional basis.

This argument from a declining proportion of the population does not take account of the region’s amazing population growth. It also makes analogies from the small nations of Lebanon and Palestine, which actually have an unusual demographic profile.

It is controversial what proportion of Egypt is Christian, but it is probably around 10 percent. A lot of Christians live in rural areas where census takers may not have gotten a complete count. Egypt’s population is 83 million, so that would give 8.3 million Christians. There is no reason to think that their proportion in Egypt has declined (in fact they may be somewhat higher a proportion now than in the 19th century).

Egypt’s population in 1950 was about 20 million, at which time there were 2 million Christians. Because Egyptian Christians are substantially rural, they appear to have shared in the high population growth rates typical of global south farmers in the second half of the 20th century.

Today’s Christian population in Egypt, some 8.3 million, is roughly the size of the whole country of Austria! Allegations that 100,000 Egyptians have emigrated since the revolution in February 2012, and that most of these are Christians, are not to my knowledge substantiated, and they seem exaggerated. Even if there was something to the assertion, it isn’t a big dent in a population of 8.3 million.

If we went back to 1850, in absolute terms the number of Christians in Egypt and the Levant was tiny. 500,000 in Egypt, 150,000 in Lebanon and Syria together, 35,000 in Palestine, perhaps 45,000 in Iraq. That is 730,000. So in absolute terms, Egypt alone now has more than 11 times as many Christians as lived in the central lands of the Middle East 162 years ago. How is that a decline?

The argument for decline is usually made from Lebanon, where Christians were a bare majority in 1931, but are now something like 22%. But Lebanon’s population was about 800,000 in 1931, so Christians were 408,000. Lebanon’s population is now 5 million, and Christians inside the country are about 1.1 million. So with all the vast Christian Lebanese emigration abroad, to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the United States, Mexico, etc. (with perhaps 6 million Lebanese-descended people in the New World), there are still twice as many Christians in Lebanon in absolute terms now as there were in 1931. And although it is consequential politically that Lebanese Christians are now less than a third of the adult electorate, they are hardly powerless. They dominate the presidency, the officer corps, and the business world, and they are split between allying with the Sunni Muslims and allying with the Shiites, which gives them influence as a swing vote.

Christian power in Lebanon comes in part from the country’s clan system and in part from its long history of parliamentary governance. For instance, it is important for the Shiite party, Hizbullah, to have Christian allies in the Biqaa valley. This principle holds true elsewhere. There is every prospect that as parties are formed and become important in contesting elections in Egypt, the 8 million Coptic Christian votes will be courted, and will make themselves felt in policy. Likewise, if Syria moves to a parliamentary system, the 3 million Christians there will be a force to be reckoned with in Syrian politics.

In Jordan, Christians are 10 percent of the 6 million strong population, or 600,000.

These are parlous times for Middle Eastern populations who are challenging older forms of government rooted in mid-20th century notions of nationalism, socialism and a leading role for the military. We don’t know how this story will turn out. The “Islamic winter” notion of the Neoconservatives (who were unhappy that the American public was identifying with rebellious Arab youth), however, is way too simplistic. The Muslim fundamentalists took a bath in the Libyan elections last July. The Nahda Party in Tunisia only got about 37% of seats in parliament and could only form a government in coalition with a secular party; they have renounced trying to put Islamic law or sharia in the constitution. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi, won the presidency in June with only 51% of the vote, and his proposed constitution lost in the megalopolis of Cairo and only got a third of registered voters to go to the polls. Egyptian Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has founded a political party, and I very much doubt he plans to emigrate.

The old Middle Eastern dictatorships often exploited Christians or subordinated them. The Christians were deprived of a voice and of the chance for autonomous political action just like everyone else. But now, they are potentially in a position to organize, speak out and vote as never before. And they are arguably more numerous in absolute terms than ever before. From the point of view of a social historian, these days could be the beginning of an unprecedented efflorescence of Christianity in the region– not Western-missionary, Christianity, not evangelicalism or fundamentalism, but Coptic Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other indigenous and ancient strains. There are no guarantees in life, but let us give them a chance, on this day when their religion was born.

16 Responses

  1. Just a quick follow-up to those who commented on Marx’s Labor Theory of Value in the post about Lincoln and the Purpose of Government. Marx did not use the term “socially necessary labor” in two senses. The “socially” in the phrase does not refer to “socially useful for society,” as one comment suggested. Marx used the phrase in one sense and one only. By “socially necessary labor,” Marx refers to the total labor-time which is required to produce a product. According to Marx, it is this labor cost which determines the value of a product. He leaves out demand in his calculation.

    Those posters who obviously misunderstood Marx would do well to actually read his works, or at least scholarly critiques of his works, rather than resort to snappy, and many times ill-informed, Wikipedia articles.

    • There’s a whole wonderful tradition of “right”-ists who’ve profited wonderfully from “thinking” and “wishing” and “believing” and “tricking” the rest of us into stupid wars of choice and planet-trashing and people-robbing “economic policies” and compartmentalized destabilization stratagems and game-plays. All fully justified and rationalized and supported by people who hold lots of money and power and therefore, Q.E.D., are sanctified and patently chosen by God Almighty.

      Gotta get get in the last word, don’t we? Even after comments close on another thread, you drop this here, in flagrant contravention of a “rule” you always contend for, that comments must adhere to what you define as the subject under discussion?

      Must be a real burden, always being “right.” Too bad all that self-proclaimed genius and pan-erudition ain’t applied to some kind of socially useful labor — supporting the Imperial momentum of our Great Exceptional Juggernaut as it gathers speed toward the cliff (not the apologist fraud called the “fiscal cliff,” of course) would not seem to be “socially useful.”

      But hey, what do I know?

  2. Great column, Juan! I’ll use these stats and prospectus in my seminary class next year.

    Merry Christmas. Jim

  3. “Because they are Christians, these Palestinians may find it easier to get visas to the West.”

    But perhaps not very comfortably. When I lived in Irbid, NW Jordan, in the ’70s and ’80s, I was frequently told by my Palestinian students of all religions, both those domiciled in Jordan and those from the West Bank, that it was much easier to get a visa to emigrate to the USA from the embassy in Israel than from the one in Amman. They reckoned that the US was colluding with the Israelis to get rid of the pesky Palestinians so they handed out visas like candy. I have no idea whether that was true but I once had to get a visa to enter the US (at the time I was a Brit) and the US consul in Amman fell over himself apologizing for letting me wait forever with the Jordanians rather than having his staff pick me out at the beginning. It was shocking to me that stuff like that happened.

  4. I thought it was ironic, with its rich Christian history, that the city of Nazareth today is predominantly Islamic, with about 35% being Christian. It also votes heavily for the Marxist-oriented Hadash Party in the Israeli Knesset elections.

    Ramallah, six miles north of Jerusalem, has been only around several hundred years and was founded by Christian clans, but now it is predominantly Muslim, the Christian population having emigrated during the 20th Century with spikes in emigration occurring immediately after 1967 and the commencement of the First Intifada with a steady stream of emigration continuing out of that area until the present. I agree the Israeli occupation was a major impetus in the lack of satisfaction of the Christian communities of the West Bank in general and Ramallah in particular.

    • The dominance of Muslims in formerly majority-Christian towns (Bethlehem is another such) is partly because of the greater willingness of Christians to emigrate to the West but also because of the large number of refugee camps situated next to them, their populations being majority Muslim and counted in the population of the towns themselves. (Why is my script so small?)

  5. Regarding the Israel/Palestine situation, little has changed since the issuance of the Pastoral Letter on the Feast of Pentecost 1990 of Msgr. Michel Sabbagh, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem:

    “The protests and appeals to the international and regional communities received no effective response. An explosive situation gradually developed. The outburst of the Intifada in 1987 was the result. This uprising is a cry of protest against a situation which is unbearable. It proclaims that humiliation is unacceptable, that the occupation cannot continue, and that a solution must be found.

    The uprising is the language in which a people can formulate its demands for justice and peace to the Israeli neighbour and brother who has become an occupying power and oppressor. The Palestinians have proclaimed that they will not be satisfied by a status that reduces them to a kind of appendix to another people, or a human reservoir for the work force.”

  6. Why do you care about absolute numbers? You can’t win an election by “having absolutely more Christians than existed arbitrary number of centuries ago”.

    • 1. Point number one was that in the countries with the largest Christian populations, Egypt, Syria, Eritrea, there is not actually any evidence of percentage decline. I suspect that people are counting the Ottoman loss of the Balkans into the figures, which is historically invalid.

      2. The influence of ethnic groups in parliamentary systems is not necessarily dependent solely on numbers. It depends on how organized they are and how many resources they devote to politics.

      3. But I am also making the case that if Middle Eastern Christians have gone from like 800,000 in 1850 to 21 million today, it is very odd to call that a decline and talk about them being on the verge of disappearing, as some alarmist observers have done. Absolute numbers do matter.

      • Talking about Middle Eastern Christians disappearing may be overblown, not only since Christian populations on the periphery of the Middle East (South Sudan, Eritrea) seem quite secure but because of the possibility of immigration by Christians coming from outside of the Middle East. How many Christians, nominal or otherwise, now live in the Persian Gulf states, say, or Israel?

        The big problem relates to the older, long-established Christian populations in the Middle East. Not only are these Christian populations more advanced in the demographic transition than their Muslim counterparts, but they seem to have a greater propensity to emigrate than their Muslim counterparts. Most notably, whenever terrible things happen as in Iraq and ethnoreligious conflict erupts, Christian populations can shrink sharply. You yourself have pointed out that in the space of a decade, the Christian population of Iraq fell by half.

        • About half of Iraqi Christians are said to have gone to Syria in the period 2003-2011. However, such figures in my experience are often exaggerated, and the evidence seems to be that most of those who left for Syria have now returned. There are only said to be 10,000 in Lebanon.

          I am not sure why undergoing a demographic transition is bad. It often makes you more rich and powerful.

  7. “There is no reason to think that their proportion in Egypt has declined (in fact they may be somewhat higher a proportion now than in the 19th century).”|

    Why wouldn’t the Christian proportion have declined? Philippe Fargues writing in 1998 (link to acc.teachmideast.org) and the Pew Research Center’s Conrad Hackett writing last year (link to pewresearch.org) both suggest that a relative decline in the proportion of Copts in Egypt is quite believable, most notably because of the consistency of census statistics from year to year and relatively lower completed fertility among Copts than Muslims.

    5% seems not implausible; 10% is probably too high. Even the lower figure still represents four million people, a sizable bloc indeed.

    • It is not clear whether there are 2 million or 4 million Christians in South Sudan, but almost none of their ancestors was Christian in 1850, so that is a net addition.

      There are 19th century estimates of Copts in Egypt at 6%, e.g. by the British, as well. The 19th century censuses are not sufficiently precise or reliable (especially in Upper Egypt) to form a sure baseline.

      The Copts in contemporary Egypt, at least, are quite insistent that they are *more* than 10 percent. Since so many Coptic families were rural farmers, and so many Muslims urbanized, it is possible that they increased their proportion.

      It doesn’t really matter. If Egypt’s Coptic Christians are only 6% of 83 million, there are still 5 million of them. That is the entire population of Lebanon!

      If they really were 10% of Egyptians in 1850 when there were 5 million Egyptians, then they were 500,000 then. If they were 6% in 1850, they were 300,000. Any way you look at it, they are at least 10 times more numerous now, and probably more.

      There are all sorts of reasons for which absolute numbers need to be taken into account. You can’t say that a community that grew ten times over 150 years is in decline and about to disappear. That is silly. And, density of population in modern times allows for greater intellectual and social advances.

      I am a little puzzled as to why there is so much push back against what seems to me a fairly obvious conclusion, that Christians in the Middle East are unprecedentedly numerous with regard to absolute numbers, and that if the region does move to parliamentary rule, they are likely to play a significant role in the new systems.

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