The Mid-East's beleaguered Christians
Dec. 15, 05
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst
Christians are struggling to hold on in the birthplace of
In the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a crowd of Muslim demonstrators
tries to storm a Coptic church to protest at a play about a Muslim
campaign to convert Christians.
In Iraq, the Christian middle class is emigrating in droves,
fearful of the daily violence and the hostility it now encounters
In Saudi Arabia, churches and other places of non-Muslim
worship are banned, and foreign workers who try to hold secret
Christian services are jailed, flogged and often deported.
In the land of its birth, Christianity is in sad decline
as the pressures of life under Israeli occupation and the growth
of militant Islam push Palestinian Christians from Jerusalem
and the West Bank.
Being anti-Christian is a way of showing what a good
Muslim you are
Lebanese journalist Hazem Saghie
Few issues are so sensitive as the position of Christians in
the Middle East.
Some Christian Arabs seek to minimise the difficulties they
face, either to avoid trouble or to present themselves in a patriotic
At the other extreme, some outsiders - for example, in the
United States - exaggerate the plight of Middle East Christians,
depicting them as wholly marginalised and on the verge of extinction.
A varied picture
There is no agreed figure for the number of Christians in
Robert Betts, an American expert on the subject, reckons
there are at most 10 million.
The largest number are in Egypt (perhaps six million). Lebanon
and Syria each have over a million, with smaller communities
in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Turkey
There are also several million Christians in southern Sudan
(though not strictly part of the Middle East).
Middle East Christians have deep roots. And, for the most
part, Muslims and Christians have long lived in peaceful coexistence.
But a number of factors are stirring up tension.
Only half a million Christians are thought to remain in Iraq
In Iraq, the rise of both Sunni and Shia Islamism, especially
since the US-led invasion in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam
Hussein, has helped generate a new climate of sectarianism.
Well-to-do Christians are among those who have been targeted
for robberies and kidnappings.
In both Sunni and Shia areas, Christian women are forced
to cover their heads.
Scores of doctors and other professionals have fled abroad.
One Iraqi Christian businessman told the BBC: "Christians
started to leave in Saddam's time because of the oppression.
Now they are leaving for a new reason - fear of religious persecution."
He estimates there are only half a million Christian Iraqis
left in the country.
Holy Land blues
Throughout the region, secularism is in retreat and religious
politics on the rise.
In the current climate, says the Lebanese journalist Hazem
Saghieh, "being anti-Christian is a way of showing what
a good Muslim you are".
"Christian-Muslim tensions are generally localised and
intermittent," says Professor Betts.
"Egypt is the exception where there is constant tension
- resentment by the Copts at being excluded from any position
of power and resentment by Muslims of the Copts' clannishness
and generally higher standard of living."
Tensions are constant feature of life in Egypt, say experts
In Jerusalem and the West Bank, Christian and Muslim Arabs have
lived side by side for centuries.
Christians were always active in the Palestinian national
movement and today one of the best-known Palestinian voices is
that of Hanan Ashrawi, a Christian academic and human-rights
But the rigours of life under Israeli occupation - and the
rise of the militant Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad -
have made many Palestinian Christians fearful.
Those with the means to do so have packed their bags and
left for Europe or North America or elsewhere.
Once 15% of the Palestinian population, today Christians
make up 2%.
For Middle East Christians, the role of outsiders is sometimes
"The 'old churches' which work in Jerusalem and the
West Bank (Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican) have a
Palestinian flock and so tend to be pro-Palestinian," says
Victoria Clark, author of Holy Fire, a book about the role of
Western Christendom in the Holy Land.
In contrast, she says, the American evangelical churches,
relative newcomers on the scene, are ardent supporters of Israel
and Israel's retention of the occupied territories.
Though they have made few converts in the Middle East, the
evangelical churches are an influential part of President Bush's
political constituency in the United States.
In the current climate in the region, no-one wants to be
tarred with the American brush.
"I am a nationalistic Iraqi," declares one doctor
proudly. "But since the US-led invasion, other Iraqis call
me a stooge because I'm a Christian.