Report: 14.5 million Christians are estimated to have remained in Middle East

Report: 14.5 million Christians are estimated to have remained in Middle East and

The Christian population in nine Middle Eastern states is estimated at 14,526,000, down from 14,740,000 in 2010, according to a report published by a Vatican newspaper.

The total population of Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey is 258 million.

The report draws on a recent study by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association on Christians in the Middle East. The study documented sharp recent and historical declines in Christian population:

In Syria, from 2.2 million (2010) to 1.2 million
In Egypt, from 19 per cent of the population (1910) to 10 per cent
In Lebanon, from 53 per cent (1932) to less than 40 per cent
In Jerusalem, from 20 per cent (1946) to less than 2 per cent
In Palestine, from 20 per cent (1948) to 1.2 per cent

From Iraq, which has lost at least half of its Christians over the past decade, to Egypt, which saw the worst spate of anti-Christian violence in 700 years this summer, to Syria, where extremists are killing Christians and burying them in mass graves, the followers of Jesus face violence and vitriol as well as declining churches and ecumenical divides. Christians now make up only 5 per cent of the population of the Middle East, down from 20 per cent a century ago. Many Arab Christians are upset that the West hasn't done more to help.

To be sure, Christians have confronted difficult times before, from the killing of Jesus' immediate followers to the Mamluk oppression of Christians beginning in the 13th century.

Christians have traditionally run some of the region's top schools, been active members of the merchant class, and brought a moderating influence to society and politics. That has led not only Christians and human rights activists to lobby for the preservation of these communities, but some Muslim leaders as well.

"The protection of the rights of Christians is a duty rather than a favor," declared Jordan's King Abdullah in September, speaking to delegates at a palace-sponsored conference on Arab Christian persecution. "Christians have always played a key role in building our societies and defending our nations."

As an evening breeze sweeps across the Jordanian capital of Amman, dozens of Iraqi refugees file out of the Jesuit Fathers church, touching or kissing the cross on their way out.

Before the uprising broke out in Syria in March 2011, experts estimated that Christians represented 5 to 8 per cent of Syria's 22 million people. The Syrian patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church recently suggested that as many as 450,000 of the two million Syrian refugees today are Christians, though such figures vary widely and are difficult to confirm.

While Iraq and Syria have seen perhaps the worst widespread violence against Christians, some of the most concentrated anti-Christian attacks this year have taken place in Egypt. That's of particular concern to Christians elsewhere in the region because Egypt's Christian population, at about 9 million, forms the largest Christian contingent anywhere in the Middle East. The church's demise there would be especially demoralizing.

Egypt's Christians, which make up about 10 percent of the population, face harsh restrictions on building or renovating churches, and say they often face discrimination in schools and the workplace.

Samuel Tadros, author of "Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity," called it the worst spate of violence for Egypt's Copts since the 14th century.
It's not just Christians who are concerned. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, grand mufti emeritus of Egypt, condemned the attacks, church torching, and humiliation of Christians in Egypt.
"This is a huge violation not only on the humanitarian level but on the Islamic level as well," he said. "It is incumbent upon us to eliminate this bitterness and tension, which is victimizing our brethren in Egypt."

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the situation is calmer but still difficult for many Christians. In Jordan, Christians make up 3 to 4 per cent of the country's 6.3 million citizens and have a parliamentary quota of 6 per cent and a government that promotes interfaith dialogue. In Lebanon, the Christian population remains the region's largest bloc in terms of percentage, with about 36 per cent, and Christians are guaranteed half the seats in parliament by law.

In Gaza, fewer than 2,000 Christians remain. In the West Bank, Arab Christians are better off than many in parts of the region, but only an estimated 50,000 live there – about 2 per cent of the population, down from 10 per cent in 1920.

Arab Christians played a key role in the Nahda, or Arab renaissance, of the 19th century, helping propel the Middle East forward after centuries of deterioration under the Ottomans. Christians at the time embraced the idea of an Arab identity that was based on shared language and culture rather than religion, spearheading new schools and distinguishing themselves in literary circles. They also were highly successful traders.
They are doing better in the tourism industry. Today, 40 of Bethlehem's 43 hotels are owned by Christians, although they are rarely full, and many souvenir shop owners also say they're struggling.

According to the Lutheran-based Diyar Consortium in Bethlehem, nearly half of Palestinian civil institutions are Christian, and Christian institutions (including churches) are one of the largest employers after the Palestinian Authority, providing jobs for 22,000 Christians and Muslims.

"You will see that Christians have very important organizations, foundations, schools and hospitals. They lead very important and prosperous development in the city," says Mayor Vera Baboun, who says she and her fellow Christians also retain significant influence in the Palestinian Authority, with some serving as ambassadors and government ministers. "We are part and parcel of the decision-making process in Palestine."

Many Christians believe that the centrality of forgiveness in Jesus' teachings could, in fact, play a vital role in helping reduce sectarian violence across the Middle East.

"Christianity can bring a role model, a founder – Jesus, and his immediate disciples – who were not warriors, who were not trying to establish political power," says Paul Wright, an ordained Baptist minister, biblical scholar, and president of Jerusalem University College.

Sat, 08/05/2017 - 12:01
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