Christians (in the Arab world)

Today, about 13 million Christians live in the Middle East, Turkey and Iran. In the absence of precise statistics it is difficult to correctly evaluate the representation of Christian people.

It is estimated that about 30% of population in Lebanon are Christians, 10 % in Israel (Arab Israelis), in Palestine (5-10 %), 10% in Syria and Sudan, 8% in Egypt, 3% in Iraq, 2% in Jordan and West Bank and Gaza.

A lot of Arab Christians migrated from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq to Europe, West Africa, the American continent and Australia. Increasing Christian emigration is linked to political and economic hardship (Lebanese civil war 1975-1990, Israeli Occupation of Palestinian territories, embargo on Iraq). And this, together with the ideological and social pressure exercised by Muslim fundamentalist movements, in a context where the absence of democracy has not favoured inter-religious tolerance.

The Arab Christians belong to more than a dozen different churches, the result of numerous conflicts and schisms since Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman empire by the emperor Constantine in 313 AD. Four separate churches evolved around the capitals of the four ecclesiastical provinces: Rome (Roman Catholic or Latin Church), Constantinople (Greek Orthodox Church), Antioch (Syrian Orthodox or Jacobite Church) and Alexandria (Coptic Church). Note that not all the Christians in the Arab world are Arabs: there also Armenians and notably, Assyrio-Caledonians, the majority of the Iraqi Christians.

Further divisions occurred in the fourth century (the Armenian Church), the fifth century (the Nestorian Church in Syria and Mesopotamia) and the seventh century (the Maronite Church in Lebanon). With the Crusades, and later, when the Ottoman empire grew weaker and local Christians sought sponsors in Europe, some churches or parts of them associated with Rome in what became known as the Uniate Churches. They kept a large degree of autonomy and retained their rites, customs (such as marriage for priests) and liturgical language (Syriac, Greek).

This was the case with the Lebanese Maronites (however some Maronites say their church never separated from Rome but only lost contact). Later, in the 17th century, the Nestorians in Mesopotamia were divided in Chaldeans affiliated with Rome and non-uniate Assyrians.

In the 19th century protestant missionaries – notably American – followed in the footsteps of western Roman Catholic missionaries, and began proselytising in the Arab world. Their enterprise was not very successful: conversion of Muslims was nearly impossible. The only converts were members of other Christian churches. But they had nevertheless an important impact by creating educational institutions such as the American universities in Beirut and Cairo, institutions that contributed considerably to the emergence of Arab nationalism. In its early stages these nationalist Christians from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine played an important role in the Arab national movement.

After the advent of Islam Christianity disappeared completely in certain countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunesia in the Maghreb, the Arab peninsula and Sudan. In the 19th century Christianity reappeared as a result of the presence in Sudan of Egyptian Coptic officials and traders during the Egyptian-British Condominium. Missionaries, Catholics and Protestants were allowed to work in the South and converted about 15 % of the local animist population. Colonial conquests also led to the reappearance of Christianity in the Maghreb, but without an impact on the local Arab societies.

In Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, all Christian activities (or any other religions a part from Islam), even for the numerous foreign workers, is considered as a proselytise  attempt and are strictly forbidden.

See also:

  • Christian Churches in the Near and Middle East
  • MEDEA Special File: Christians in the Middle East