The Expulsion of Christians from the Middle East Has Deep Roots
Muhammad is reported to have said, “I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim.”1 This hadith quote has always provided justification for Muslim authorities to reject the presence of churches and synagogues in the Arabian Peninsula. But more broadly it has reinforced the Muslim perception of the supremacy of Islam, with negative effects on Christians and Jews. Hence over the broad sweep of history, Christian numbers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been eroded in an ever-widening circle, beginning with the Arabian heartlands, then extending to other regions, with today’s expulsions and more subtle pressures occurring in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestinian communities, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere.
In this connection, the Pew Forum, which conducts wide-ranging surveys following very rigorous methods, has provided interesting and concerning statistics in recent years. Across the MENA countries about five years ago there were just under 13 million Christians, or around 3.7% of the total population of the region of around 340 million.2 Catholics and Orthodox were roughly in equal numbers, each representing about 43% of MENA Christians. The remainder were Protestants of various denominations. They lived in the midst of a sea of Islam, with 93% of the population of the MENA region being Muslim.3
The largest communities of local Christians were found in Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon and Syria. There were also significant communities of expatriate Christians in the Gulf States, which had large numbers of migrant workers: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. Each of the Christian communities was in itself diverse. For example, Catholics in MENA belong to a number of different groups: Melkites, Maronites, Assyrians, and others.
Religious discrimination and persecution seems to be a regular feature where Islam is in the majority. In one Pew survey, abuse of religious minorities was rated “high” in 45% of MENA nations, contrasting with a “high” rating in only 3% of the Christian majority countries of the Americas.4
This situation of pervasive hostility towards religious minorities has had a devastating effect on some Christian populations in the region. In 1900 Christians numbered 10% of the combined population of the area covered by the modern states of Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. By 2010 Christians only numbered 5% in those regions.5 Over 1 million Christians have fled Iraq over the last decade.6 Almost 100,000 Coptic Christians left Egypt in 2011 alone.7 The Christian community of Syria has been decimated by the civil war since 2011, with hundreds of thousands fleeing the country.
How will the church in the West react? Will Christians in the West welcome their brothers and sisters from the Middle East with open arms, understanding their plight and offering them both hospitality and sanctuary? Will Western nations that are majority Christian give priority to Christians driven out from the Middle East?
The jury is out on those questions, but the early signs are not good, with repeated reports of Western governments and agencies refusing to “discriminate on the basis of creed”,8 and with some Western churches even offering to take down symbols of Christianity from churches so as not to offend Muslim refugees.9
It seems that while Middle Eastern Christians are losing their homes en masse, Western Christians are losing their way – and their identity – in equal proportion. On both counts, Christians of the Middle East are victims, which is one of the great tragedies of the early 21st century.
Sahih Muslim Book #019, Hadith #4366
“Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population”, Pew Research Center, December 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-regions/ (accessed December 11, 2015).
“The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050”, Pew Research Center, April 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/middle-east-north-africa/ (accessed December 11, 2015).
“Globally, Religious Minorities Fare Worst in Middle East”, The Weekly Number, November 25, 2013, http://theweeklynumber.com/1/post/2013/11/globally-religious-minorities-fare-worst-in-middle-east.html (accessed December 11, 2015).
Alissa Scheller & Antonia Blumberg, “How Christianity Is Disappearing In The Middle East In One Chart”, The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2014/05/23/chart-christianity-middle-east_n_5378582.html?ir=Australia (accessed December 11, 2015).
“Syrian Refugees: Discriminating by Religion Is Unacceptable,” Citizens for Public Justice, n. d. http://www.cpj.ca/refugee-statement (accessed December 11, 2015).
Oliver Lane, “Parish Church Strips Out Crosses, Pulpit, Pews for the Comfort of Migrants”, Breitbart, November 1, 2015, http://www.breitbart.com/london/2015/11/01/parish-church-strips-crosses-pulpit-pews-comfort-migrants/ (accessed December 11, 2015).