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Christmas 2012: The Flowering of Middle Eastern Christianity and the Challenges it Faces

26 December 2012 General No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

by Juan Cole (Informed Comment)

There are more Middle Eastern Christians than ever before, and they are poised between emergence as a new political force in a democratizing region and the dangers to them of fundamentalism and political repression. The arguments you see for Christian decline in the region are mostly wrong. If we count the Christians in the Arab world and along the northern Red Sea littoral (Egypt, the Levant, Iraq and the Horn of Africa to the borders of Ethiopia) they come to some 21 million, nearly the size of Australia and bigger than the Netherlands. (This figure does not count the large Christian expatriate populations in the Gulf emirates or Christians in Iran and Pakistan). They are important in their absolute numbers, which have grown dramatically in the past 60 years along with the populations of the countries in which they live. If the region moves to parliamentary forms of government, they may well be coveted swing voters, gaining a larger political role and louder voice than ever before.

In fact, despite all the hype about the rise of Islam in Europe, Muslims in that continent have on the whole much less potential influence than Christians in the Middle East. About 5% of the French electorate is Muslims, the largest proportion in Europe. But Christians are 10 percent of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and 22 percent of Lebanon. Even in Israel, they are 2 percent of the population, a little less than the percentage of contemporary Italy that is Muslim.

Among the biggest dangers to Middle Eastern Christians in 2012 were these:

1. Israeli occupation has made life in East Jerusalem and the West Bank increasingly unbearable, spurring emigration abroad of Palestinian Christians, who once made up 10 to 20 percent of the Palestinian population. Because they are Christians, these Palestinians may find it easier to get visas to the West.

2. The Syrian civil war has displaced or endangered many Syrian Christians, who make up between 10 and 14 percent of the 22-million strong Syrian population. At the upper estimates, there are as many as three million Syrian Christians. There are allegations that Christians have been targeted by hard line fundamentalist militias, but most probably suffer from the same difficulties other Syrians are facing.

3. Iraqi Christian expatriates in Syria are also in trouble. Before George W. Bush invaded Iraq, there were about 800,000 Christians in a population of 25 million, or 3 percent of the population. Some 400,000 are said to have emigrated, mainly to Syria (and about 10,000 to Lebanon), as refugees. But now many of those who went to Syria are returning to Iraq. Inside Iraq itself,some Christians say the situation has improved for them to the pointthat they are committed to staying in the country rather than emigrating.

4. The newly enacted fundamentalist constitution in Egypt and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, poses dangers to Egyptian Christians. It is alleged that hard line Salafis attempted to intimidate them from voting against the constitution in this month’s referendum. On the other hand, Egyptian Christians have clearly been invigorated by the new press and political freedoms in post-Mubarak Egypt, and are gaining an important set of political voices.

5. In the new country of South Sudan, Christians form between 10% and 50% of the 8 million population (the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church each claim about 2 million believers in that country. Christians in the region may thus have gained a great deal of influence in a whole new state. Earlier estimates from the mid-20th century of only 10% Christian are probably out of date and do not take account of the large number of conversions since then). The challenges here are enormous, though. The partition of Sudan has not in fact led to social peace between the two, with continued confrontation over oil exports and saber rattling. (Sudan is inarguably in the Middle East, and I have hung around with South Sudanese and was surprised how many spoke Bedouin Arabic).

6. Christians are about 60% of the 6 million-strong population of Eritrea. They are Coptic Orthodox, the same as most Egyptian Christians. (Eritrea is not usually counted in as being part of the Middle East, but it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and has substantial cultural and political relations with Yemen and Saudi Arabia, so it is as eligible as Sudan and Somalia). Eritreans suffer under authoritarian government and continued tensions with Ethiopia.

Christians in Iraq and Syria have faced challenges (as have the entire populations of those two countries) in the past year. Christians in Egypt are alarmed by the new political muscle of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be easy to construct a ‘vale of tears’ kind of narrative of Middle Eastern Christianity in decline, since the communities face political turmoil. It is often alleged that the proportion of Christians in the region has declined, though it is not clear that this allegation is true on a regional basis.

This argument from a declining proportion of the population does not take account of the region’s amazing population growth. It also makes analogies from the small nations of Lebanon and Palestine, which actually have an unusual demographic profile.

It is controversial what proportion of Egypt is Christian, but it is probably around 10 percent. A lot of Christians live in rural areas where census takers may not have gotten a complete count. Egypt’s population is 83 million, so that would give 8.3 million Christians. There is no reason to think that their proportion in Egypt has declined (in fact they may be somewhat higher a proportion now than in the 19th century).

Egypt’s population in 1950 was about 20 million, at which time there were 2 million Christians. Because Egyptian Christians are substantially rural, they appear to have shared in the high population growth rates typical of global south farmers in the second half of the 20th century.

Today’s Christian population in Egypt, some 8.3 million, is roughly the size of the whole country of Austria! Allegations that 100,000 Egyptians have emigrated since the revolution in February 2012, and that most of these are Christians, are not to my knowledge substantiated, and they seem exaggerated. Even if there was something to the assertion, it isn’t a big dent in a population of 8.3 million.

If we went back to 1850, in absolute terms the number of Christians in Egypt and the Levant was tiny. 500,000 in Egypt, 150,000 in Lebanon and Syria together, 35,000 in Palestine, perhaps 45,000 in Iraq. That is 730,000. So in absolute terms, Egypt alone now has more than 11 times as many Christians as lived in the central lands of the Middle East 162 years ago. How is that a decline?

The argument for decline is usually made from Lebanon, where Christians were a bare majority in 1931, but are now something like 22%. But Lebanon’s population was about 800,000 in 1931, so Christians were 408,000. Lebanon’s population is now 5 million, and Christians inside the country are about 1.1 million. So with all the vast Christian Lebanese emigration abroad, to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the United States, Mexico, etc. (with perhaps 6 million Lebanese-descended people in the New World), there are still twice as many Christians in Lebanon in absolute terms now as there were in 1931. And although it is consequential politically that Lebanese Christians are now less than a third of the adult electorate, they are hardly powerless. They dominate the presidency, the officer corps, and the business world, and they are split between allying with the Sunni Muslims and allying with the Shiites, which gives them influence as a swing vote.

Christian power in Lebanon comes in part from the country’s clan system and in part from its long history of parliamentary governance. For instance, it is important for the Shiite party, Hizbullah, to have Christian allies in the Biqaa valley. This principle holds true elsewhere. There is every prospect that as parties are formed and become important in contesting elections in Egypt, the 8 million Coptic Christian votes will be courted, and will make themselves felt in policy. Likewise, if Syria moves to a parliamentary system, the 3 million Christians there will be a force to be reckoned with in Syrian politics.

In Jordan, Christians are 10 percent of the 6 million strong population, or 600,000.

These are parlous times for Middle Eastern populations who are challenging older forms of government rooted in mid-20th century notions of nationalism, socialism and a leading role for the military. We don’t know how this story will turn out. The “Islamic winter” notion of the Neoconservatives (who were unhappy that the American public was identifying with rebellious Arab youth), however, is way too simplistic. The Muslim fundamentalists took a bath in the Libyan elections last July. The Nahda Party in Tunisia only got about 37% of seats in parliament and could only form a government in coalition with a secular party; they have renounced trying to put Islamic law or sharia in the constitution. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi, won the presidency in June with only 51% of the vote, and his proposed constitution lost in the megalopolis of Cairo and only got a third of registered voters to go to the polls. Egyptian Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has founded a political party, and I very much doubt he plans to emigrate.

The old Middle Eastern dictatorships often exploited Christians or subordinated them. The Christians were deprived of a voice and of the chance for autonomous political action just like everyone else. But now, they are potentially in a position to organize, speak out and vote as never before. And they are arguably more numerous in absolute terms than ever before. From the point of view of a social historian, these days could be the beginning of an unprecedented efflorescence of Christianity in the region– not Western-missionary, Christianity, not evangelicalism or fundamentalism, but Coptic Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other indigenous and ancient strains. There are no guarantees in life, but let us give them a chance, on this day when their religion was born.

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