Demographics. Years ago, a bishop from the Middle East said to me, “Monsignor, you have to understand that in our part of the world numbers have a very symbolic value.” This was a polite way of saying that certain numbers are asserted that may or may not correspond to reality.
Accurate population statistics of Middle East countries are hard to come by; Israel, however, maintains current census data. Let me propose some reasonable estimates.
As of October 2008, some 7,337,000 people lived in Israel; 147,000 or two percent of them are Christian, for the most part Arabs. This ignores more than 300,000 people who have entered Israel according to the Law of Return and officially are classified as non-Jewish. Who are they? Generally, they come from a Marxist Eastern Europe with a family background that is most likely Orthodox Christian. In addition, many Christian guest workers, Filipinos and others, live and work in Israel.
Approximately 3,800,000 people live in Palestine, i.e., the West Bank and Gaza, the occupied territories with their limited degree of Palestinian autonomy. At most, Christians of all denominations total about 40,000 people or one percent of the population.
So, in the traditional Holy Land area, you have a total population of more than 11,000,000 people with less than 200,000 Christians — the smallest proportion of Christians of any country in the region.
Today, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan probably is home to almost 6,000,000 people. Four to six percent of the kingdom’s population — perhaps 250,000 people — are Christian.
Generally, nearly a third of these Holy Land Christians are Latin (Roman) Catholics, about a third are Melkite Greek Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians make up the balance. There are also some other Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant denominations.
About 3,900,000 people live in Lebanon; Christians number about 1,170,000 or thirty percent of the total population. This is a significant decline from when France created the country as a majority Christian enclave.
Syria has somewhat fewer than 20,000,000 people, and about 1,850,000 are Christian — 9.4 percent of the total population.Iraq has somewhat over 28,000,000 people; the most generous estimate would indicate that there are 760,000 Christians left, or 2.7 percent of the population. But, the real numbers are probably much smaller.
Egypt’s population of 81,700,000 people is rapidly growing. Generally, about ten percent of the population is considered Coptic Orthodox. Much smaller Coptic Catholic and evangelical churches exist; Latin Catholics are almost exclusively religious who work in church institutions.
Sociological trends. This demographic information is static. It is important to consider the situation dynamically — to examine the population trends.
Since the conclusion of World War I, which ended 400 years of Ottoman Turkish hegemony in the Middle East, Christian populations have been declining throughout the region. Look at the number of Christians living in Jerusalem a hundred years ago and today; look at Damascus, look at Iran. There is a tremendous reduction in the proportion of Christians and, for the most part, in their absolute number.
What are the reasons? First, Middle East Christians tend to be very well educated compared to the majority of the population. And, it seems that the higher the level of education and economic opportunity of the family, the smaller the family size. Accordingly, you find a steadily declining birthrate among the Christian population.
In economically less developed sectors or in the more religiously conservative sectors, larger families are the norm. For instance, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and strictly observant Muslims throughout the region have a much higher birthrate.
Another reason for the declining numbers of Christians is emigration. Christians are leaving the Holy Land, the Arab world and the Middle East. Why? Most Christians feel a sense of exclusion from the predominantly Muslim or Jewish societies in which they live. Some observers allege the region’s Christians suffer persecution. This is an exaggeration, I think, but that there is discrimination against Christians in most Muslim countries is absolutely incontestable.
The degree of discrimination varies from country to country. Certainly, in a large country like Egypt, there have been distinguished Christian ministers such as Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But generally the higher levels of the political and social order are reserved for Muslims.
Further, the West has its attractions. Most Middle East Christians have family or friends living freely in Australia, Scandinavia, Latin and North America.
In summary, dispassionately and in terms of population trends, it is clear that the number of Christians is rapidly declining throughout the entire Middle East. Some sources project that it is likely the total Christian population of the Arab world will be as low as 6,000,000 within two decades.
Historical perspective. An historical perspective — a look at very long-term trends — is very useful for assessing the present.
Christianity began as a branch of Judaism in what we call the Holy Land. It was a Jewish sect and had that ethnic identity. The first Christians were Jews. Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Apostles were all Jews, Messianic Jews. The world in which they lived was under the control of the pagan Roman Empire.
As Christianity began to spread, early Christians struggled with the question, “Are we to be Jewish or not?” The breaking point with Judaism came once pagans (Gentiles) were admitted into the Christian community without the obligation of converting to Judaism. Early Christianity quickly became, so to speak, a transnational movement. To be Christian did not demand to belong to a particular tribe, ethnic group or political body. This was a very radical departure from the norm, since religion was a component of the social and political order in all ancient societies. Christianity had the character of an organized movement without national or ethnic boundaries. In Christ, as St. Paul insisted, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Christianity rapidly spread within and outside the Roman Empire. But since these Christians did not always accept the religions of the lands in which they lived, they were often seen as subversive. In fact, in Rome they were killed for not being “politically correct” — they refused to offer sacrifices to the gods of the state. Christians generally refused to accommodate themselves to any state religion, whether of Rome, Persia or any other place.
Established religion of the Romans. Within a few hundred years, the fortunes of Christianity changed dramatically. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire. What impact did this establishment have upon perceptions of what was radically a transnational movement? Outside the Roman Empire, Christianity was seen as the religion of the Romans. In the rival empire of Persia, Christianity was seen not only as a foreign religion but the religion of the enemy. Even so, Christians and Christianity were tolerated.
Beyond the worlds of Rome and its enemies, Christianity flourished. Within a few hundred years, it spread across Asia; there were dioceses and bishops in Mongolia and China. The incredible growth of this branch of the church — what we today call the Assyrian Church of the East — was, and still is, relatively unknown to the Western world.
Yet in spite of this rapid growth of Christianity outside the Roman and Persian worlds, Christianity still was strongly perceived as the Roman religion.
Minority Christianity in an Islamic world. What happened with the coming of Islam? An important chapter of the history of the Middle East is the story of the Islamization of what were once Roman, Christian lands. For about three centuries, the populations of Egypt, Syria and the border lands of the Roman Empire were overwhelmingly Christian. However, Christianity gradually was reduced to the status of a minority religion as the Middle East increasingly became Muslim — a process still continuing today.
Islam tolerates Christians as a forerunner religion, but Christians have second-class status in Islamic society and frequently are subjected to tremendous social pressure to adopt Islam.
The Crusader interlude and its aftermath. For a relatively brief historical period, the Islamic states and jurisdictions of parts of the Middle East were displaced by Western feudal Christian rule. All of a sudden, the controlling political authority was Christian, in the sense that it stemmed from the “Christian” West. Christian Western powers imposed a new political order.
Also, the Crusader rulers displaced Eastern forms of Christianity and hierarchs with Western forms. For example, the Westerners installed their own patriarch in Jerusalem, which is why we still have a Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem today. The same thing happened in Antioch and Constantinople.
In the post-Crusader Islamic world, Christianity was viewed with now greater suspicion because of its entanglement with militant Western powers. Even centuries later, in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, France claimed to be the protector of Catholics while Germany assumed a similar role for Protestants.
Western political powers have been almost universally perceived as religious powers by Muslims. For this reason, there has always been a lingering sense that Christians in the Middle East are of questionable loyalty because of their ties to France, Germany, Britain and the West in general.
The Western (“Christian”) mandates. Until the recent invasion of Iraq, there had been only one other brief interlude of Western, “Christian” control of the Middle East. After World War I, the Sykes-Picot Treaty divided control of that portion of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France. During this period of the League of Nations mandates, the region’s modern nation states were created. France carved Lebanon from Syria. Britain severed Jordan from Palestine and joined three Ottoman provinces to create modern Iraq.
Only one of these modern nation-states created by the “Christian” powers during and after the mandate period, Lebanon, is nonsectarian. Israel is a Jewish state; all the rest are Muslim, either secular or religious.
Today, a Christian in the Middle East lives in a Judeo-Muslim world. Except for the unique and somewhat ambiguous case of Lebanon, Christians are citizens or subjects of either an Islamic or a Jewish political authority.
The future of Middle East Christianity. What does the future hold for Christians in the Middle East?
The nature of Christianity is for it not to be tied to any one government, ethnic group or culture. Christianity transcends national, ethnic and cultural boundaries. Christianity is for the world. Jesus came to save the whole world. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the whole world. The mission of the church is for the whole world — that is why it is called catholic, or universal. Human nature being what it is, the church may be at times entangled with a particular culture, ethnicity or politics, but it serves the whole world.
The challenge for Christians everywhere, especially in the Middle East, is to not cling to a Western identity. In Lebanon, a generation or so ago, the average well-educated Christian spoke French, but could hardly speak Arabic. Effectively, Christians self-proclaimed themselves foreigners; now all that has changed. But many Christians in the Middle East still continue to identify with Western ways and Western styles of life.
Christians in the Middle East should not overly identify with a particular ethnicity either. Tribal identity remains strong in their countries. For example, many a Jordanian priest, if asked, “What tribe do you belong to?” would have a ready answer. He knows he belongs to a tribe; he has Bedouin roots.
Of course, we all belong to a family, a clan and an ethnic group. In the United States, for example, when I went to school, other children would ask me, “What are you?” which meant, in my part of the world, “Are you Irish? Italian? German?” I could never give a simple answer; I always had to explain that though my family name is German Jewish, I am Catholic and of Irish descent on my mother’s side. We all have ethnic identity or identities. But Christianity is more than ethnicity. Christians in the Middle East — and everywhere — should not define themselves by it.
Sometimes Christians in the Middle East assert Western culture against Islamic culture. Muslims do not eat pork, we will. Muslims do not drink wine, we will. Muslims fast through Ramadan, we will not. The Christians seem to say we have to be us and they have to be them. While understandable, this attitude is another of the challenges for Christians. Christianity does not have to be — and should not be — tied to Western customs and lifestyles. Middle Eastern Christians are challenged to incarnate their faith in a culture that has been molded by Islam.
Christianity is not tied to geography. Another observation, which may generate some serious disagreement, is that Christianity has no necessary ties to geography. Judaism is land-bound. Judaism is focused on one piece of land, a small strip of land, the Holy Land, because of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and because of the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Because Judaism is land-bound, the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East was and remains important to Jews.
Islam, too, is very tied to geography — to Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. In a sense, Muslims are shrine-bound. Jerusalem’s Haram as Sharif with its Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque are extremely important to Islam. Ariel Sharon provoked the second intifada when he entered this Muslim sanctuary area atop the mount, where centuries ago the Jewish temple stood, to declare that an Israeli can stand anywhere in Israel. This was as dangerous as throwing a lighted match into a powder magazine.
For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third most important place in the world. Muslims are shrine-bound. Christians are not. Jesus is not buried in the Holy Sepulchre; it remains an empty tomb.
Remember the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman, “… the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem … but in spirit and in truth.”
Where do we find Jesus? We find him everywhere. We find him among ourselves when two or three of us are gathered in his name. As followers of Jesus, we do not have the ties to a place that Jews and Muslims do. Christianity can flourish anywhere. It can flourish in China, in Georgia, in Africa and in Rome.
Particular Christian structures and institutions, however, do not flourish in quite the same way. It is hard to do things the Italian way if you live in Australia or the Palestinian way if you live in Honduras. Structures have to be adapted to the places where they are located, but Christianity itself can be implanted and grow anywhere at all.
Even though there are no geographic imperatives in Christianity, Christians have historical roots in the Holy Land. There is no place so evocative to visit for a Christian as the land of the Bible. This is a land of immense symbolic importance to Christians. But, if it should happen that not a single Christian remains in the Holy Land, it will not fundamentally hurt Christianity.
A bridge to the future for the Arab world. Notwithstanding their limitations, Middle East Christians can be a bridge to the future for the Muslim Arab world. Christians have learned certain universal values from the modern, Western world and so can bring certain perspectives to the Arab world that are vitally important for its development and maturation.
For example, what in the United States is referred to as the “separation of church and state” is a very valuable concept. Vatican II enshrined the essence of this idea in its teaching about religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The United Nations also enshrines it in its declarations. It is deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus. It is the idea that human dignity and freedom require respect for the conscience of the individual, which in turn requires freedom of worship. This concept can be very upsetting to the Islamic world. Yet, if the Islamic world is to join fully the community of modern societies, it has to integrate this and similar values into daily life.
Religious, cultural and social pluralism is not an evil. Pluralism is a healthy phenomenon. It has been long experienced in North America and is increasingly being experienced in many other Western countries. It is a value in itself. Christians, because they serve as a bridge to these cultures, can be instruments in assisting the growth and evolution of the Islamic and Arab worlds.
Christians can offer the Islamic world some other unique perspectives. When the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue recently was asked about the difference between Muslim and Christian attitudes toward God, he summarized a lot by very briefly responding that Christians see God as Father — a tremendous insight.
Christians bring the values, for example, of reconciliation and forgiveness. We may take them for granted, but in the culture of much of the Mediterranean world, you are considered weak and soft if you are too open and forgiving; traditionally, honor demands vengeance. We may think of this as a sort of Mafia code, but it is alive and well. Even in some fairly modern Middle Eastern countries, the honor of your family, clan and tribe sometimes requires vengeance.
Christians come with a message of reconciliation and forgiveness that is countercultural. Jesus taught his followers to renounce their legitimate right to vengeance. This typically Christian value is totally different from the traditional culture of much of the Middle East. Yet it is a precious contribution Christians may bring to it.
Ultimately what Christians bring to the Middle East is that they become bridges in their very selves. In Rome, the Holy Father uses the title of “Pontifex Maximus,” originally a pagan Roman title. “Ponti” refers to “bridge” and “fex,” “to make”; a pontifex is a bridge builder. In ancient times, the building of a bridge represented a tremendous advancement. Bridges allowed people to cross rivers easily, facilitated transportation and opened the way for armies.
As Christians, we are all called to be “pontifical.” Our challenge is to bridge misunderstandings and differences. Christians have a tremendous role to play in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East, even though they are a tiny minority and may not quite fit in.
In light of the current sociological reality, what Middle East Christians need is a John-the-Baptist-type of spirituality. The church is not going to flourish in the near future in the Middle East; it is in a state of rapid decline. But, this is okay. “He must increase, I must decrease.”
It would be an invaluable contribution if the church, if Christians can become an effective instrument to turn around the Islamic and Jewish worlds in which they live. In small ways, this is already happening. For example, Christian schools serve all the people of the region. At Bethlehem University, the majority of the students are not Catholic or Christian, yet they are receiving solid values, learning about the other, experiencing coexistence and receiving a high-quality education.
Migration of Christians. Though maintaining the Christian presence in the Middle East is important, the fact is that many Middle East Christians are emigrating.
When we talk about migration, we need to recall that Christianity is fundamentally a movement. Christians from the beginning have always spread throughout the world, conscious of their mission of evangelization, of spreading the good news of the teachings of Jesus and the kingdom of God.
The movement — the migration — of Christians is not necessarily bad. The fact that many Christians leave one place and go to another is not an evil, though they may move with regret. If there are more Christian Bethlehemites in Santiago, Chile, than in Bethlehem, then so be it; it is a fact of life. Is the goal to get every Christian Bethlehemite from Santiago back to Bethlehem to create a Christian majority there? Whether or not it is the goal, it is not going to happen; this also is a fact of life.
On the other hand, is it not wonderful that Christians from Bethlehem are bringing their values and history with them to other lands? Clearly, the migration of Middle East Christians, though not necessarily a negative phenomenon, does involve the weakening and perhaps ultimately the loss of a rich patrimony and culture in their homelands.
It is understandable that Christians and other people in the Middle East want to seek better lives elsewhere. It takes a valiant minority to stay simply for the sake of maintaining the Christian presence when other parts of the world beckon with jobs, educational opportunities, freedom and a brighter future.
Cultivating a climate of safe migration. Bear in mind that migration does not mean that individuals cannot return. One of our challenges is to create a climate for safe migration. We worry about whether storks can travel from Russia, through the Middle East flyway, to Africa and back again. We are concerned that Monarch butterflies can get from North to Central America and back again. We want to ensure that whales can migrate freely through the seas.
Why are we not at least as concerned about the migration of people? That is to say, together with environmentalists, we want animals to live in a safe place, pass freely en route to their destinations, and have a safe breeding ground when they arrive. Do not migrating people deserve at least as much?
Minimally, as responsible Christians we must become migration advocates with the United Nations and with our own governments — advocates of safeguards that allow people to remain in their own homelands if they wish and of laws that both facilitate their moving about the world and also allow them, if you will, new breeding grounds in other places.
It is ironic that we are more inclined to help birds migrate than people. And in migrations, as we know from birds, bees, salmon and elephants, migrants return. Why cannot Christians return to the Middle East if the cultural and social climate attracts them? Why should they be excluded from returning, as is often the case?
Particular concerns for the Middle East. What then should be our principal concerns about the situation and migration of Christians in the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East?
First, we must assist those who live there. They are our brothers and sisters. They live in a negative environment; often discriminated against, they lack many opportunities we take for granted. They need our help.
Second, if we are truly concerned with this part of the world, we must use some of our influence on governments of the lands in which we live to change their national policies concerning the Middle East.
The preamble of Pope Paul VI’s revised constitution of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre states that one of the three characteristic virtues of its members is “a courageous struggle for justice and peace.”
Not only for members of the order but also for all Christians, issues of justice, peace, human rights and reconciliation, especially in the Holy Land and the Middle East, are of vital importance. Through advocacy in our home countries and our participation in the work of the local church, we help ensure that Christian values, Christian ethics and Christian criteria of judgment are being brought to the negotiating table.
A very practical contribution we can make is to help those who choose to migrate — facilitate their arrival, welcome them and assist their settlement. We can also advocate less restrictive immigration policies in the countries where we live.
Lastly, do not forget those who stay. We are concerned for their survival. They need our financial help, presence and visits, promotion of education and human development and our willingness at home to engage in the “courageous struggle for justice and peace.”
Msgr. Stern is President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and Grand Officer of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.