ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Going West

The mass emigration of Christians from the Middle East continues. In the face of recent unrest, what will the future bring?

Viewing nightly newscasts from the Holy Land, one is not surprised that many people are leaving their homeland and settling elsewhere. Bombed-out houses no longer give shelter; shelled villages no longer provide a livelihood. Many of us can personally attest to the presence of these immigrants in our country. They are the young cab drivers working to pay their way through night school; the checkout clerks in the corner supermarkets; the medical technicians at the local hospital.

Until recently the Middle East has been an area of great diversity, the home of a variety of Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. That is changing as Arab Christians, in particular, turn their backs on their ancient homelands, leaving not only Israel and Palestine, but Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well.

Regional Directors of the Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, reported on emigration from and immigration to the region at a January meeting in Rome convened by the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

The presentations were prepared by Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus; Ra’ed Bahou, Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq; and Issam Bishara, Regional Director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

Emigration from the Middle East is not a new phenomenon. There have always been incentives for Arab Christians to leave. As early as the 19th century, Christian families seeking better economic opportunities and a more congenial religious atmosphere have left for the West. As these early immigrant families established themselves in Europe, Australia and the Americas, their improved standard of living was an attractive draw for those who remained behind.

In the mid-20th century, emigration from the Middle East accelerated. The urbanization of the region lured many, particularly the young, from their native villages to the cities. They attended colleges and other professional schools, but grew frustrated with the lack of employment there. With extended families already established in the New World, offering assistance with jobs and housing, many educated Arab Christians left to join them. This “brain drain” left behind a disproportionate number of poor and uneducated people.

Israel and Palestine. Official figures are hard to come by; Palestinian Christian leaders, reports Father Gockel, are reluctant to release statistics, fearing that publicizing the numbers will cause more people to leave. Community leaders in areas populated by Palestinian Christians, such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, confirm that entire Christian families have left.

“The emigration of Arab Christians from the Arab world to the West is a significant setback for the future of Arab society,” comments Prince Talal Ibn Abdul Aziz Al Sa’ud, a member of the Saudi royal family.

“The Christian presence, as an authentic strength, preserves diversity and helps to maintain a balanced view.

“As a result of the steady and longstanding trend of Arab Christian emigration, the Arab world suffers a very serious human, social, cultural, political and economic loss…

“It must be our immediate task,” he concludes, “to prevent this emigration and to strengthen the presence of the Arab Christian in our united East.”

Despite these words of concern, there is little hope that the exodus will stop. Violence between Israelis and Palestinians is seen as the primary destabilizing factor in the entire region. As this violence escalates, tourism, the Holy Land’s primary industry, has been reduced to a trickle. Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops are now empty. Some were deliberate military targets during the recent Israeli offensive in Palestine. As long as pilgrims and tourists visited the Holy Land, many Arab Christians enjoyed a solid middle-class livelihood. With no hope for a quick solution, many are ready to pack up their families, board up their shops and leave. Very few, however, have savings that will ease this transition.

Many unemployed Arab Christians – some 60 percent – have lost property and possessions through bank foreclosures on mortgages and loans. Knowing that it will take years for the economy to recover, they do not intend to wait it out.

Living conditions, too, are deteriorating. Housing itself is as inadequate as it is expensive. Houses are small, often with only one or two bedrooms shared between a family of four or five. Rents are high – in many cases, two salaries are needed to pay the rent. Often, marriages are postponed since the young cannot afford to set up their own homes.

Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, it has proved difficult for Palestinians to build new homes. Required permits are rarely given and houses built without permission are razed. Houses damaged by fighting cannot be repaired. The Israelis also control supplies of water and electricity to Gaza and the West Bank. Many household water tanks maintained by the Palestinians have been damaged during the recent violence and underground supply lines have been bulldozed.

Since its establishment, Israel has been the goal of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Law of Return of 1950 granted rights to every Jew throughout the world to return to Israel as a citizen. More than 2.5 million Jews have responded to that appeal. The number of people seeking entry was especially high immediately following World War II, when the State of Israel was established, and after the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Emigration from Israel is a new phenomenon, however, as many Israelis seek better and more secure lives in the West.

For the most part, many of the immigrants who responded to Aliyah, or the “ingathering” of exiles, were traditional Jews, religious observers fleeing persecution. Present-day immigration, however, has a different cast. Many of the arrivals from Europe, particularly Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, may identify themselves as ethnic Jews, but do not consider Judaism their religion. According to the Israeli Shas Party, half the immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union are non-Jews. Some are married to Christians, others are descendants of converts or have converted themselves. This causes concern among Jewish leaders, who fear the country will lose its Jewish identity.

In recent years, Ethiopia’s Jewish population also made its way to Israel. In late 1984 and early 1985 an airlift, dubbed Operation Moses, carried some 8,000 Jews to Israel. Operation Solomon followed in 1991, with 14,200 additional Ethiopian Jews arriving. Currently, the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel is roughly 56,000 people. Like the immigrants from Eastern Europe, many are Christian or are married to Christians.

Population movements have always played a part in the economic development and settlement of the countries of the world. The United States, for example, is a nation of immigrants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the poor and uneducated, principally from agrarian societies, immigrated to the U.S. looking for a better life. Lacking language and job skills, immigrants were willing to take any job available and live in substandard tenements. Their plan was to work their way up the ladder and build better lives for their children. Within a few generations the newcomers were assimilated. New waves of immigrants followed and the pattern was repeated.

Today migration patterns are different. The educated and professional classes are leaving their homes, finding a welcome reception in the countries of their choice. They see a better future abroad, one free from religious strife and with improved educational and employment possibilities.

Jordan. “Much fear of the future is being voiced among Christians inside the Arab world, particularly in connection [to] the waves of Islamic fundamentalism that have been sweeping a number of Arab countries during the last decade,” writes Prince Al-Hassan Bin Talal, uncle of King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

“People who entertain such concern or fear rarely take into account that it is in the nature of waves, no matter their apparent enormity, to subside once they have consumed their initial driving force,” he concludes, “especially in the case of waves of social behavior driven by ephemeral emotion rather than by solid reason.”

Though not immune to this surge of Islamic fundamentalism, Jordan is a model of regional stability. Yet this kingdom is also losing its Christian population, particularly its youth, to the West. Jordanian Christian emigration patterns parallel emigration patterns in the rest of the region: Christians leave because of economic stagnation, growing uneasiness with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and regional political instability.

Jordan’s best and brightest are finding opportunities in Western Europe, Canada and Australia. According to a study released last August by the World Student Christian Federation’s Middle East region, half of Jordan’s Christian youth report their willingness to leave; only a strong economy and stable government can stem this tide. The presence of family members in the diaspora also encourages emigration. The study finds that a high percentage of Muslims expressing interest in emigrating also have family abroad.

The Hashemite Kingdom shares a border with Iraq, with whom it maintains a cordial relationship. Iraqi Christians – Chaldean and Syrian Catholics, Armenians and Assyrians – the bulk of the middle class, are utilizing this relationship to flee Iraq, a nation that has suffered a decade of United Nations-imposed sanctions and isolation. A poor country with few natural resources, the Jordanian government is reluctant to grant work permits to these transients seeking permanent residence in the West.

“The fact remains,” writes Prince Al-Hassan Bin Talal, “that the Christian Arabs are in no way aliens to Muslim Arab society, a society whose history and culture they have shared for over 14 centuries.”

Yet Christian Arabs understand the West:

“Being naturally attuned to the ethos of the West,” the Prince continues, “Christian Arabs…were ideally suited to present the positions of their respective countries – also the Arab national position in general – on international platforms. And [in] this they have normally been entrusted to do by unanimous Arab consent.”

Yet the West continues to lure Christian Arabs, who, knowing the alternative, are hungry for peace, security and prosperity.

Lebanon and Syria. Emigration patterns from the area now known as Lebanon rose after civil strife in the 1860s. Most of those who fled to Egypt, France and the U.S. were Christians. A second wave began in 1975, with the start of the 15-year civil war, and has continued unabated, even with the cessation of hostilities in 1991.

According to the Lebanese Ministry of Labor and embassies of countries involved in immigration, between 1991 and 2000, 200,000 to 300,000 people left Lebanon. The number per year averaged 25,000.

These figures represent all religions of the country. More specifically, the percentage of emigration for Maronite Catholics and for Shiites is roughly the same: 30 percent. Other religious groups leaving the area include Greek Melkite and Chaldean Catholics, Armenians and Sunni Muslims.

Another group of émigrés is Lebanon’s growing class of young professionals, graduates of the country’s three Catholic universities. Many of the men and women from Lebanon who study for advanced degrees in the U.S. or Canada do not return home for jobs. Surprisingly, there is a surfeit of doctors, lawyers and engineers in the country. On the other hand, there is a demand for social workers and nurses, but few Lebanese are interested.

Lebanon also has been a haven for refugees from Iraq, most of whom arrive illegally. Although the country cannot handle more waves of people, Lebanon tolerates the entrance of these refugees; they are under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Sudanese and Palestinian refugees also call Lebanon home. Many live in crowded, unsanitary refugee camps that also house displaced Lebanese from the civil war.

One positive feature in the refugee situation is the Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Beirut, whose Welfare Association assists Chaldeans fleeing Iraq. These refugees are placed with relatives in Lebanon; then they often find work as day laborers until they can emigrate.

Syria, on the other hand, has experienced a large wave of immigration. During World War I, many Christian families from Turkey and Armenia arrived in Syria, attracted by its economic and political stability. A generation or two later, toward the end of the 20th century, these families were ready to move on again when opportunities looked better in the Americas, Europe and Australia. Among this group were many Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Chaldeans and Assyrians.

Iraqi and Palestinian refugees have also looked to Syria. The church has assisted them, and, as in Lebanon, the United Nations is responsible for the refugees until they relocate, permanently.


  • Emigration and immigration have been major forces in the settlement of many nations. The free movement of peoples from the Old World to the New in the 19th and 20th centuries was responsible for the diversity of these new nations.
  • The main thrust of emigration today is to escape war and political unrest. In many countries immigrant status has been replaced by refugee status. People are allowed entrance into countries, but only for the short term. The U.N. is responsible for refugees, but it must also find them permanent homes.
  • The situation in the Holy Land continues to deteriorate. Peace talks are at a standstill. Arab Christian emigration continues; immigration to Israel has halted.
  • 11 September has affected emigration. Many Arabs have second thoughts about moving to a country where they are suspect; for their part, many countries are delaying applicants.

“The centuries of coexistence of religions and cultures in the Middle East have given birth to an uninterrupted dialogue, which is existential in nature and scope and manifold in ramifications and implications,” Prince Al-Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan writes.

“This coexistence,” he continues, “has been a source of mutual enrichment for the people of the Middle East.

“It has also been a major cause of political, religious and military confrontations and crises. However, in this part of the world, dialogue – with all the risks that it entails – is both virtually unavoidable and absolutely imperative for an effective Christian witness.

“With such a heritage of trust and good faith in their favor, Christian Arabs need not feel any more apprehensive than other Arabs of things to come,” he concludes.

“With the patience, resilience and empathy for which they have been historically known, and the imaginative leadership they have rarely lacked, they will surely not be at a loss to find their place in the Arab world for the future, to their own benefit, and to the benefit of all other parties concerned.”

With such moral support from a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, perhaps the tide of emigration will come to a halt and cultural pluralism will be restored.

Dorothy Humanitzki is CNEWA’s Feature Writer.

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