For nearly two thousand years, the Middle East has been home to many Christian communities, especially in Palestine where their ancestors were the original followers of Jesus of Nazareth, but also in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. However, with the increasing Islamization of the region and most especially in recent years as the result of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the numbers of indigenous Christians have dwindled.
Edmund Ghareeb, professor of Middle East history and politics at the American University in Washington, notes that Christianity was the dominant religion in the region until the rise of Islam, spreading out of Arabia in the 7th century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Speaking with host Carol Castiel of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, Professor Ghareeb, who is from a Lebanese Christian family, says the first established Christian churches were in Antioch (in present-day day Syria) and Jerusalem. The schism in the 11th century between the Eastern Orthodox Churches, headquartered in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), and the Catholic Church of Rome, set the stage for further fragmentation among the Christian communities.
Today’s mosaic of Christian communities in the Middle East includes Orthodox Christians of many backgrounds, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Maronites, Armenians, Copts, Anglicans, Protestants of various denominations, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Jacobites, Nestorians, and Yezidis. Professor Ghareeb stresses that one cannot generalize about these groups, whether in the Levant - that is, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria – in Egypt or Iraq, and their relations with their majority Muslim host populations. In North Africa, for example, few indigenous Christian communities remain. And the Coptic Christians of Egypt became less numerous, following President Nasser’s program of nationalization there. In Iraq, the Chaldean, Jacobite, and Nestorian churches, as well as Iraq’s large Jewish community, have come under assault in recent years. And many were forced to emigrate after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Under the complicated confessional system of his native Lebanon, where there are 18 “official” religions and sects, Edmund Ghareeb says the Christians play a unique role. Under the constitution, the President of Lebanon is always a Maronite Christian, just as the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament is a Shi’a Muslim. Many Lebanese Christians emigrated to Europe and North America during the two periods of civil war in the 20th century, Professor Ghareeb says, and they probably no longer constitute an actual majority of the population. Today there are unusual political alliances among the Sunnis, Druze, and some Christian leaders as well as an alliance of Shi’a Muslims, Hezbollah, and the Christian Phalangist leader, General Michel Aoun.
The Palestinian Christian community has suffered a great deal in recent years, especially after the war of 1967 when they represented 10-12 percent of the population. Continuing violence due to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has prompted many Christians whose livelihoods depended on religious tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem to leave. Throughout the Middle East generally, Professor Ghareeb says, Christian churches are facing a real challenge. Their numbers are dwindling, and they face serious economic and political pressures.
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