While war, failed states and political instability are the manifest culprits, subtler reasons also causing Christians to seek fresh start abroad
Churches have always been a fixture in the Middle East, where the cradle of Jesus’ ministry began over 2,000 years ago. But in recent times the number of Christians in nearly every country in the region has been steadily dwindling.
The obvious culprits are war, the collapse of nation-states and general political instability, but some analysts also point to less conspicuous reasons why Christians are opting for a fresh start abroad, particularly in Western countries.
Ahmed, an Iraq-based Christian affairs analyst who asked that his last name not be revealed, told The Media Line that laws in some Arab nations often contain subtle biases against Christians especially in cases of mixed marriages involving Muslims.
“In other nations, Christians are not allowed to attain high governmental positions like a governorship, for example, because the fear is that their rulings and orders pertaining to imprisonment or other delicate matters could create a backlash from Muslims,” he said.
“Christians are also afraid after what happened in Syria with the bloody civil war and in Iraq which saw the rise of the Islamic State. Ever since the so-called Arab Spring in 2010, they have seen rising hate speech against them on social media, pushing many to leave their homelands.”
In other places, Ahmed explained, Christians fortunately do not have to fear for their lives but face the prospect of losing their identity. In Jordan, authorities have Islamized the educational curriculum, which is devised in large part by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of the Christian community. The result is that Muslim students are not taught about Christianity.
Gina Zurlo, Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, told The Media Line that Christians in Syria and Iraq have suffered most acutely in recent times.
One of the ironies is that many Iraqis fled for Syria in the early 2000s only to be caught in the middle of the war, she noted. They then left the war-torn country for Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon.
“Some situations are improving slightly but it is still dangerous for Christians in the region given significant political instability. Syria, for example, is at risk of experiencing a power vacuum with the withdrawal of U.S. troops and I think many fear it will end up like Iraq,” Zurlo asserted.
There has been a proportional decline in the number of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa since 1970. At that time, they comprised 7 percent (12 million people) of the population, which by 2015 had dipped to about 5% (25 million). In Syria, Christians constitute about 6% of the population; 1% in Iraq; 8% in Egypt; 3% in Jordan and 4% in Saudi Arabia.
The majority of Christians in the region identify as Orthodox, Zurlo related. As of 2015, there are about 16 million such adherents, followed by Catholics at 7 million. The remainder includes Protestants, Anglicans, Evangelicals and “Independents.” The latter, Zurlo added, “are Muslim-background believers in Christ, who, for safety or other reasons, choose to remain publicly affiliated with Islam.”
Saad Hattar, a media consultant and former BBC correspondent based in Jordan, told The Media Line that government authorities there try to give Christians all they need to live in peace, but their numbers have nevertheless decreased. “Before 1956, Christians were about 12% of the population, but now we are talking about 3%, about 175,000 in all,” he said, citing independent estimates.
According to Hattar, Christians that have left Jordan migrated primarily to Western countries, especially the U.S. and Canada where they sought out job opportunities and a tolerant culture that dovetails more closely with their values and lifestyles.
“Still, Christians are represented in Jordan’s lower house of parliament—9 out of 110 seats—and voters in predominantly Christian constituencies can vote for members of their own community on the ballot,” he said. “Christians can work in governmental ministries, the army and intelligence services but they are not many and do not reach very high posts, which is the norm in the country, not something based on law.”
With respect to other Arab countries, Hattar explained that Christians in Syria used to have the most rights. “But after the war and the rise of the Islamic State, many fled their cities, notably Homs and Aleppo which were home to sizable Christian communities.
“In Iraq the situation is even worse,” he elaborated, “because the deterioration of the community there did not start in 2011; instead it began after the invasion of Iraq by the U.S.-allied forces. During those bloody years, Sunni and Shiite militias targeted Christians more than any other minority.
“For example, a Christian sect called Sabe’a Menday’ein—one that particularly venerates St. John the Baptist—used to number 20,000 in Iraq but fell to less than 1,000. The militias ransacked their businesses and killed many and forced nearly the entire community to seek refuge abroad.”
The situation in Egypt, however, is a bright spot according to Miles Windsor, an advocacy and development manager at Middle East Concern, an organization that defends the religious freedom of Christians in the region. He told The Media Line that the Cairo has protected the Copts, an Orthodox branch that constitutes the largest Christian population in the Middle East and North Africa and numbers between 15 and 18 million people in Egypt alone.
“[Egyptian] President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi has just built a huge cathedral in the new administrative capital [28 miles east of Cairo], the largest such structure in the region, and inaugurated in time for the Coptic Christmas earlier this month.
“However, Christians in Upper Egypt [the south] are less positive, largely because they continue to be victims of sectarian violence while the perpetrators run free,” he said.
“Only last week a church was closed in Minya after the security services promised fanatic Muslims who violently objected to a church in their village that they would close its doors if they stopped rioting. And this is merely the last in a string of incidents in which local authorities sought to mollify extremists by shuttering church doors.
“The rioters seem to enjoy complete immunity,” Windsor concluded, “and this angers Christians. As a result, they do not see any improvement in their situation in spite of what happens in urban areas. They feel disillusioned and abandoned by the government.”
Christians left Egypt in larger numbers during the reign of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was affiliated with the country’s now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Since he fell from power in a 2013 coup, the numbers of Christians moving abroad have significantly dropped.