Best estimates say the Christian population has fallen to 5%
A century ago, during the reign of the last of the Muslim caliphs, Christians in the Middle East amounted to a fifth of the population, with thriving strongholds in Egypt, Palestine, and the regions now known as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Today, that community is in a state of rapid, terminal decline. Best estimates now put the Christian population at around five percent, but even these few are being squeezed out by persecution, war and occupation. The near-destruction of these ancient Christian communities during the past half-century is an important historical event. This all goes to say that the astonishing fact that it has been consistently underreported in the West is a disgrace.
Christianity in Iraq dates to the time of the Apostles, and two of the largest communities – the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syriac Catholic Church – have been in full communion with the Holy See for centuries. Prior to 2003, the Iraqi Christian community numbered 1.5 million. Then came the American-British invasion and occupation of the country. Iraqi Christians were caught in the crossfire between the majority Shiite population, the Sunni insurgency (including al-Qaeda forces), and the nominally Christian invaders. Under pressure from all sides, they fled the country in huge numbers. Those who either could not or would not leave were subjected to relentless persecution, including bombings and assassinations. Today, the number of Christians in Iraq is down by two-thirds, many churches lie in ruins, and a once robust community has been enervated.
In Egypt, the situation is more fluid and combustible. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, combined with the subsequent rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, has meant open season on the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian communions in the world. Around ten percent of the Egyptian population, 8 million people or so, are Christian and of these 95 percent are Copts. They have lived in uneasy peace with the Muslim majority for centuries, particularly during the past fifty years when the successive secular dictators made it a point to protect Copts from Muslim violence. But beginning in 2010, as the Mubarak regime tottered, Copts have frequently been targeted by resurgent Islamists, including some members of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood organization. The current campaign of violence began on New Year’s Day 2011, when 23 Copts were killed in a bombing in Alexandria. It continued in May 2011, when Coptic churches in the Imbaba district of Cairo were attacked in a coordinated fashion. In October 2011, dozens were killed during a brutal government crackdown on Copts protesting the burning of a church. Last year, dozens of Christian homes, businesses and churches were torched. And just this week, four Christians were killed in sectarian violence, followed by more clashes at Cairo’s Coptic cathedral.
The situation in Palestine and Israel is quite different. There are around 150,000 Christians living in Israel, of whom 80% are Palestinians. Another 50,000 Palestinian Christians live in the West Bank and Gaza (down from 175,000 just two decades ago). As in other places, many Palestinian Christians, who tend to be better educated and wealthier, have simply emigrated rather than stay and endure the indignities of everyday life. Christians today face trouble on several fronts: fringe Islamist groups not associated with either the Palestinian Authority (on the West Bank) or Hamas (in Gaza); Jewish extremists, especially among the settler communities of the West Bank; and the random violence to which everyone in that region has grown accustomed.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, Lebanon had a Christian majority. Today, only 39% of the population is Christian, and that percentage is falling, a continuing legacy of the fifteen-year civil war that nearly destroyed the country between 1975 and 1990. In war-torn Syria, Christians account for ten percent of the population, or some 2 million people. Unfortunately, Syrian Christians have been firm supporters of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, which likely means that things will be very difficult for them once Assad falls from power. Already tens of thousands have had to flee the country as the increasingly Islamist insurgency makes headway.
In country after country, the same story has played out. For decades, particularly under Baathist and other secular Arab leaders, Christian communities thrived in the Middle East. But the brutality of those governments toward their own people, resentment over Western support for them, and the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute gave rise to Islamist movements that now threaten ancient Christian communities from Egypt to Iraq and beyond. And the Western media, which routinely ignore the persecution of Christians anywhere, pay special inattention to such persecution in the Middle East. In an interview with Breitbart News, Nina Shea, Director of the Center for Religious Freedom, noted that, “since A.M. Rosenthal at the New York Times passed away [in 2006], this issue has not been covered at the level it deserves.” Certainly, no major American news outlet has adopted this topic as its special obsession, as Rosenthal did.
It’s tempting to ascribe the media’s lack of interest to some active and specific anti-Christian bias, as if Western reporters are rooting for Christians to be imprisoned and killed. In charity, I think the truth may be simpler than that. It may be that many Western reporters, editors and producers simply can’t process the notion of Christians as an oppressed minority. They are used to story templates in which Christians hold the power and do the oppressing. Situations that upend their lazy prejudices about structural guilt and innocence may seem like anomalies, minor perturbations in closed systems, and easily ignored. That may go double for the Middle East, where every cause has complex origins and every effect is multivalent. And, of course, it may simply be that they do not know any committed, practicing Christians. After all, as T.S. Eliot wrote in “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”:
And who have never known a Christian,
To believe these tales of Christian persecution.
It is hard for those who live near a Bank
To doubt the security of their money
It is hard for those who live near a Police Station
To believe in the triumph of violence.”