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Christianity in the Middle East

DR. TODD M. JOHNSON

PROFESSOR OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY AND MISSION


In recent history, one of the most profound changes in the global religious landscape has been the unrelenting proportional decline of historic Christian communities in the Middle East. An impassioned appeal for Christians in the region recently came from Patriarch Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic community in Babylon (Iraq). After lamenting the decline of Christians in Iraq and surrounding countries, Patriarch Sako pleaded with Christians around the world not to forget the Christians of the Middle East. He wrote, “The entire international community should insist that Christians remain in the Middle East, not simply as minorities, but as citizens enjoying full equality under the law, and therefore in a position to continue to contribute to peace, justice, and stability.”

So what is happening? Christians were 12.7% of the region’s population in 1900 but only 4.2% in 2020, and it is likely that they will only represent 3.7% of the population by 2050. Muslims have grown from 86% in 1900 to 92.4% in 2020, projected to reach 92.7% by 2050. Projections to 2050 are based on current Christian emigration trends and are particularly apparent in Iraq, Egypt and, most currently, Syria. If the political, economic and/or social conditions worsen in any of these countries, the numbers of Christians remaining in 2050 could be much lower.

Nine Middle Eastern countries experienced significant declines in their Christian percentages of their populations between 1900 and 2020: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey. Of these, the most dramatic changes occurred in Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Palestine, each of which dropped over 10 percentage points over the century. Lebanon dropped an astounding 42 percentage points, largely due to three factors: first, lower birth rates, a consequence of their comparatively higher economic status; second, immigration to the United States, Australia and various European countries, especially during the wars from 1975 to 1990; and third, Christians’ decreasing influence in national affairs. Losses in many Christian communities were already well underway by 1970, but in the case of the three largest Christian populations at the time – Egypt, Lebanon and Syria – their decline accelerated in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Looking toward 2050, the Christian presence in these countries is expected to continue declining in percentage (as well as, for most countries, in actual population). Of particular concern currently is Syria, where the civil war has now forced one million refugees into neighbouring Lebanon, including large numbers of Christians. What began as internal displacement has now evolved into international migration. While some of this might be temporary, it is likely that many Christians will never return. At the same time, six Middle Eastern countries have had massive influxes of Christians, most notably since 1970. These include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Bahrain and the UAE saw the greatest percentage increase, each over 12 percentage points. These Christians are mostly migrants from the Philippines, South Korea and other countries working in oil production, construction, domestic tasks and other jobs in the service industry. Christian communities in all of these countries are expected to fluctuate little between 2020 and 2050.

Orthodox Christians are the largest major Christian tradition in the Middle East. The countries with the most Orthodox Christians are Egypt (Coptic), Cyprus (Greek) and Syria (Armenian, Greek and Syrian), and each of these communities dates back at least 17 centuries. Emigration, however, has profoundly affected the Orthodox churches, with their share of the regional population falling from 11.1% in 1900 to only 2.5% in 2020, and likely continuing to 2.1% by 2050. At the same time, Catholics, Protestants and Independents have increased their proportions of the region’s Christian population. For example, Catholics were 10% of all Christians in the Middle East in 1900 but over 33% in 2020. One reason for this increase is large numbers of Catholic guest workers (such as Filipinos) in countries like Saudi Arabia. One way that smaller, newer traditions, such as missionary Protestants and Independents, have maintained their size is by conversion of Orthodox Christians, a matter of deep concern for ecumenical relations.

For more information, see Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, “Ongoing Exodus: Tracking the Emigration of Christians from the Middle East,” Harvard Journal of Middle East Politics and Policy, Vol. III, 2013-2014.