The Peace Encyclopedia:
Christians in the Middle East

What is the origin and history of Christians in the Middle East?

"...overwhelming majority of Middle East Christians came from nationalities which did not convert to Islam after the Arab conquest of the seventh century."

What is the situation of Christians in the Middle East today?

Types of Persecutions:

There are various types of persecutions of Christians in the Middle East. We can sort them in two:

a) Religious persecution of individuals (human rights abuse): This persecution is conducted against individuals because of their religious affiliation. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, for examples, individuals are punished for displaying crosses or stars of David, jailed for praying in public, and in some cases punished by death, for not complying with the religious tenants. In these countries, as well as in Egypt and Sudan, converts to Christianity are sentenced to death.

b) Political oppression of religious communities (ethno-religious cleansing): In this case, ruling regimes are oppressing entire religious communities on political, security, and economic levels. The objectives of such oppression is to reduce the influence of the Christian communities, and in certain cases, to reduce it physically.

The ethno-religious cleansing of Christian peoples in the Middle East alternate between military suppression and political oppression. In Egypt, the large Coptic nation is systematically discriminated against on the constitutional, political, administrative, and cultural levels. Moreover para-military fundamentalist groups are conducting pogroms against the Christians, which includes burning Churches and assassinating civilians. In Sudan, the stated objective of the ruling regime is to Arabise and Islamize the African Christian and Animist population of the south. Particularly since 1992, the Sudanese government has been waging a military campaign aimed at dispersing, enslaving, and subduing the southern Blacks.

Last but not least, let us review the third largest Christian community of the region, the Lebanese, who are under political and security oppression in their homeland.

Under occupation by a Moslem power, Syria, the Christian community is systematically suppressed by the Syrian-controlled regime in Beirut. The smaller Christian groups do no better. In Iraq, for example, the Assyrians are another group targeted by the Saddam regime. Growing numbers of Assyrians have been assassinated by radical fundamentalist groups.


Religious persecution of Christians in the Middle East has reached extreme forms of human degradation: In Sudan, abundant reports by international human rights organizations have documented the enslavement by the northern fundamentalist forces of southern African Christians. According to the reports and experts, there are today between 600,000 and one million Black slaves from Sudan, who have either been taken to the north of that country to work as domestics or tending farms, or sold in other Arab countries.

The authors of persecution:

a. The religious persecution and oppression is normally conducted by one religious group against other religious group: for Christians, this case has been the case in Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan. Of course, persecution can also conducted by members of one particular group against other members of the same religious group on the basis of religious fundamentalism (Algeria, Afghanistan, Iran), or racism (Mauritania), but this is not the topic of today's discussion.

b. Persecution of ethno-religious groups, the Mideast Christians in particular, is conducted by legal governments (Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan) or by organizations (National Islamic Front in Sudan, Front Islamique de Salut, the Hizbollah of Lebanon, etc.)

- Prof. Walid Phares, before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Near East and South Asia Subcommittee on "Religious Persecution in the Middle East." Washington DC, April 29, 1997

Iran is now murdering Christian leaders.

The Reverend Mehdi Dibaj had converted from Islam to Christianity 45 years ago. On 21/12/93 he was sentenced to death on charges of apostasy. Released on appeal his body was found on 5 July 1994. The Reverend Haik Mehr, Superintendent of the Church of the Assemblies of God, who had campaigned against Dibaj's death sentence was found dead on 20/1/94. On 2 July 1994 the body of the Reverend Tatavous Michaelian, Chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers in Iran was found with several gun shots to the head. 19/7/98 The GIA has claimed responsibility for the death of Berber singer Lounes Matoub. "It is common knowledge that the slain Lounes Matoub was among the most stubborn enemies of religion and the Mujahideen (Holy warriors)", their statement read.

How many Christians remain in the Middle East?

a. The largest Christian community of the Middle East is found in Egypt, which has ten to twelve million Copts. This Christian group comprises 1/5 to 1/6 of the country's population. Egypt is also a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid, despite blatant violations of religious freedom which occurs weekly in this country.

b. The Southern Sudanese are about six million. Christians are the largest monotheist group.

c. The Christians of Lebanon: about 1.5 million still reside there and more than 6 million live in the diaspora, including about a quarter of that number in the United States. Among the Lebanese Christians, the largest group is the Maronites, which are Catholics which follow Rome. Other smaller religious entities include the Melkites and Orthodox Christians.

d. The Assyro-Chaldeans: Around one million in Iraq with large concentrations in the Kurdish zone.

e. The Christians of Syria: About 1.2 million including Aramaics, Armenians, Melkites and Orthodox.

f. There are small but significant Christian communities in other countries such as Iran, Jordan, Israel, and less significant in Turkey, Algeria. By law there are no Christians in Saudi Arabia.

What has been the situation for Christians in Israel/Palestine?

In the last census conducted by the British mandatory authorities in 1947, there were 28,000 Christians in Jerusalem. The census conducted by Israel in 1967 (after the Six Day War) showed just 11,000 Christians remaining in the city. This means that some 17,000 Christians (or 61%) left during the days of King Hussein's rule over Jerusalem. Their place was filled by Muslim Arabs from Hebron.

During the British mandate period, Bethlehem had a Christian majority of 80%. Today, under Palestinian rule, it has a Muslim majority of 80%. Few Christians remain in the Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank. Those who can - emigrate, and there will soon be virtually no Christians in the Palestinian Authority controlled areas. The Palestinian Authority is trying to conceal the fact of massive Christian emigration from areas under its control.

- from PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS (Prime Minister's Office ) November, 1997

As a result of unceasing persecution, the Christians are forced to behave like any oppressed minority which aims to survive. Christians in PA-controlled areas have taken to praying in secret. The wisdom of survival compels them to assess the "balance of fear", according to which they have nothing to fear from Israel but face an existential threat from the Palestinian Authority and their Muslim neighbours.

They act accordingly: they seek to "find favour" through unending praise and adulation for the Muslim ruler together with public denunciations of the "Zionist entity."

- Middle East Digest - Nov/Dec 1997

Time magazine (April 23, 1990): "After years of relative harmony, friction between Christians and their fellow-Arabs [in the disputed territories] has intensified sharply with the rise of Muslim fundamentalism." (Time went on to cite various examples of Muslims pressuring Christian Arabs).

The Jerusalem Post (May 2, 1991): "Muslim activists have been trying to convert Bethlehem, home of some of Christianity's holiest sites and once predominantly Christian, into a Muslim town. In contrast to the world-wide fuss over the purchase of a hostel in Jerusalem's 'Christian Quarter' by Jews, this steady and often violent encroachment has met with a thunderous silence in the Christian world. The pattern of increased violence has been unmistakable. Last December 21, a school for nuns was torched. During the first week in March, there was an attempt to break through the wall of the Carmelite monastery, followed by a break-in at a Christian school. On March 3 vandals desecrated Bethlehem's Greek Orthodox cemetery, removing crosses and disinterring and mutilating corpses ..."

La Terra Sancta (A Vatican publication, dated 1991): "The Christians are abandoning the Middle East ... [although] the Jewish presence has alarmed the Arabs ... more than anything else, the commercial, cultural and technological contacts of recent years have caused a confrontation between Western civilisation and Middle Eastern culture, or, as is commonly known, Islamic culture against Judeo-Christian."

The Jerusalem Post (May 6, 1994): In April 1994, Israel's Hebrew press reported that Christian Arabs had accused activists of Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO of harassing Franciscan nuns in the Aida convent near Bethlehem. One nun described as a "reign of terror" the behaviour of the activists, who allegedly regularly invaded the convent, vandalised graves, destroyed equipment and painted graffiti.

CNN (December 20, 1995): "Today, Bethlehem is a predominantly Muslim town. At Friday prayers, they spill into Manger Square [the traditional site of Jesus' birth], so crowded are the mosques. Christians complain they're publicly harassed and harangued for their faith. The Christian cemetery has been desecrated and vandalised ... this Christian boy said the Muslims are fascists, bad people. Muslim families of 10 and 12 children leave smaller Christian families awash in an Islamic sea, afraid they will be overwhelmed by the refugee camps and Muslim villages around Bethlehem. Many of the town's Christians are afraid to talk openly now."

The Times (London, December 22, 1997): "Life in [PA-ruled] Bethlehem has become insufferable for many members of the dwindling Christian minority. Increasing Muslim-Christian tensions have left some Christians reluctant to celebrate Christmas in the town at the heart of the story of Christ's birth".

What can we do to help these Christians?

"only a Jewish-Christian alliance will be able to ensure the survival for both the Jews and the Christians in the Middle East"

- Professor Walid Phares, president of the World Lebanese Organisation


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