Disappearing Christians in the Middle East
by Daniel Pipes
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[For the table of contents of this special issue of the Middle East Quarterly, please click on the link in the first paragraph below.]
The Middle East Quarterly begins its eighth year with its first issue devoted to a single topic—that of disappearing Christians in the Middle East.
The transfer of power of Bethlehem from Israel to the Palestinian Authority just before Christmas 1995 inspired a spate of articles on Bethlehem's diminishing Christian presence. They noted that a place not long ago 80 percent Christian is now but one-third Christian. For the first time in nearly two millennia, the most identifiably Christian town on earth has lost its Christian majority. The same changes have taken place in two other famously Christian towns, Nazareth and Jerusalem. In Nazareth, Christians went from 60 percent of the population in 1946 to 40 percent in 1983. Jerusalem Christians in 1922 slightly outnumbered Muslims (15,000 versus 13,000); today, they number under 2 percent of the city's population.
The same applies in other parts of Israel. A report from the Galilee village of Turan quotes a Christian store owner: "Most Christians will leave as soon as we can sell our houses and shops. We can't live among these people [Muslims] anymore." One journalist concludes that "The Christian community in the West Bank is close to extinction."
Nor are Israeli-held territories unusual in this regard; Christians are fleeing from all over the Middle East. Emigration began in the aftermath of World War I and has greatly picked up in the last decade. In Turkey, Christians constituted a population of 2 million in 1920 but now only some thousands remain. So severe is the problem that the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul is in danger of collapsing for lack of large enough pool of candidates. Christians earlier in this century represented about one-third of the Syrian population; now they account for less than 10 percent. In 1932, they composed 55 percent of the Lebanese population, now less than 30 percent. More than half the Christians of Iraq have left. Copts began leaving Egypt in significant numbers after the 1952 revolution.
The Christian population decline has two main causes: emigration and declining birth rates.
Emigration represents the end of a long process of exclusion and persecution. On the West Bank, a nearly-permanent Muslim boycott of Christian businesses is the problem. In Egypt, fundamentalist Muslims constantly target Christians. The Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, when reduced to its essentials, represented a successful effort by Muslims to reduce Christian power in the country. But by far the worst situation is in the Sudan, where the civil war that has been raging most of the time since 1956 has led to wholesale atrocities.
Declining birth rates can also be seen throughout the region. In Israel, for example, live births per thousand among Muslims comes to 37; among Christians, a mere 22 per thousand. In addition, the small number of Christians leads some to marry Muslims, which effectively means they are lost to their community.
At the present rate, the Middle East's 12 million Christians will likely drop to 6 million in the year 2020. With time, Christians will effectively disappear from the region as a cultural and political force. As one report puts it, "there are more Palestinians living in Bayt Jala in Chile than in Bayt Jala [on the West Bank] itself." Along similar lines, Prince El-Hassan bin Talal notes in this issue that "there are today more Christians from Jerusalem … living in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem itself."
For many years, the plight of Middle East Christians attracted little attention in the outside world. The earlier protectors of their interests—the British, French, Russian, and Greek governments, as well as the Vatican—turned away from the current problems.
Recently, however, American organizations have taken up the cause of persecuted Christians around the world, primarily in the Muslim world and in Communist countries. The signs are all around. The Senate has conducted hearings on this topic and the State Department in 1999 began releasing a survey on religious persecution world-wide, the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. A prominent politician has proposed that New York City not purchase goods from corporations doing significant business in countries where Christians are persecuted. A host of organizations and individuals have made this topic their concern.
This is all to the good, for bringing American and international attention to this unhappy situation could be a significant step toward making improvements. None of these groups, however, are specialists in the Middle East or Islam. To help inform them and others, the Middle East Quarterly devotes special attention to the matter of the Middle East's disappearing Christians.
 For example: André Aciman, "In the Muslim City of Bethlehem," The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 24, 1995 and, Sue Fishkoff, "A Prayer in Bethlehem," The Jerusalem Post International Edition, Dec. 30, 1997.
 Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, A Survey of Palestine (reprinted, Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1991), vol. 1, p. 148.
Dec. 17, 2006 update: According to an article in London's Daily Mail, "O, Muslim town of Bethlehem...," the town where Jesus was born has seen the proportion of its Christian population dwindle "from more than 85 per cent in 1948 to 12 per cent of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006. There are reports of religious persecution, in the form of murders, beatings and land grabs."
Dec. 22, 2006 update: In an article, "'All my staff at the church have been killed - they disappeared'," the Times of London publishes a graphic drawing on the information from this website:
Mar. 31, 2007 update: The same story continues in Lebanon:
Dec. 4, 2007 update: In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Justus Reid Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs expresses great pessimism about the future for Christians living in the Palestinian Authority. He predicts that there will be no more Christian communities living in the Palestinians territories within 15 years unless something is done quickly. "Christian leaders are being forced to abandon their followers to the forces of radical Islam."
May 11, 2009 update: In Gaza, Tim McGirk of Time magazine reports, "those Christians who can wrangle a way of leaving, do. The ancient seafront city once had a thriving Christian community, but now it is down to 2,500 souls. They emigrate to Australia, the United States, Lebanon, anywhere they have relatives who can help them get started on a new life." As for the whole of what had been the British Mandate in 1948, "Christians made up more than 20% of the population. Today, the figure has fallen to 2.5% in Israel and the Palestinian territories."
Apr. 4, 2012 update: "The Christian Era in the Middle East is Over" writes Giulio Meotti: "Ramallah was 90% Christian before the 1948 War of Independence and Bethlehem was 80% Christian. Today Ramallah is a large Islamic city and Bethlehem's Christians are near extinction. Arab Christianit joined evil forces to buy temporary security." Much of interest.
Dec. 23, 2012 update: A new book, Christianophobia by Rupert Shortt, religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement, argues that Christianity is "close to extinction" in the region of its origin due to growing persecution, mainly by Islamists. A report in the Sunday Telegraph (London) tells something about Shortt's work:
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