The region where Christianity was born is rapidly losing its Christian population due to low birth rates and emigration. Some analysts warn about the negative consequences for the region.
Christian Populations in the Middle East
There are between 12 and 15 million Christians in the Middle East, almost half of them living in Egypt. The exact figures are hard to establish because of the lack of official records and continued migration. Lebanon, with slightly more than one-million Christians, has the highest ratio: about 30 percent of its population is Christian. Most other Middle Eastern countries are less then 10 percent Christian.
Demographers say the Christian population has declined noticeably in most Middle Eastern countries since the beginning of the 20th century. Fred Strickert, professor of religion at Wartburg College in Iowa, says Christians became a minority in the Middle East after the spread of Islam during the 7th Century, but they continued to play an important role, until the decline of the Ottoman Empire.
"In 1908, there was an internal revolution. They called it the Young Turks' revolt. A new group of people came into power and many of them were very biased against the Christians," says Professor Strickert. "They were attempting to draft them into the army and things like that. There was a mass migration from all places in the Middle East - Lebanon, Syria, and Jerusalem - and, by then, many of the Christians, partly because of Christian missionaries, had benefited from schools and hospitals, and sought better conditions in the West for economics. And so, there was a large migration at the very beginning of the 20th Century."
Professor Strickert says emigration of Christians continued in the second half of the 20th century, due to armed conflicts, economic hardship or persecution. He says many Christians emigrated to the west, because it has been relatively easy for them. Most of them are educated, and, therefore, employable, and they have enjoyed support from Christians in the west. Low birth rates are another important cause of the Christian population decline in the region, says Professor Strickert. For example, he says, Lebanon was more than half Christian in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, Christians account for less than one third of its population.
"In 1930, census was taken in Lebanon, and on the basis of that census, the government was arranged to have a certain percent of Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi'ite Muslims, etc. and Christians had a significant number there. The Shi'ite Muslims, who were basically in the southern part of Lebanon, grew at a very rapid rate, simply because they had very high birth rate, while the Christians were dropping slowly."
Professor Strickert says, there also appears to be a decline in Christian populations in Iraq and territories under Palestinian control. A 2003 Israeli study shows that about 12.000 Christians fled historically Christian Palestinian towns, such as Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, since the Palestinian uprising began in 2000. Some Palestinians blame the Israeli government's security measures, such as building a security barrier between parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
"Bethlehem is especially hard hit by the wall," says Philip Farah, a Washington area Palestinian-American who left the region in 1975. "The wall cuts through a lot of people's properties. And if the property is cut by the separation wall, then they stand to lose the part of the property that is on the other side." Philip Farah says the security barrier, as well as Israeli checkpoints make it very hard for Christians from the West Bank and Gaza to maintain business, family and social ties with Christians in Israel. He says many who were able to leave, have done so.
Israelis say the number of Christians in Israel has not declined. There has actually been a slight increase, bringing the total number of Christians close to 120.000. "In Israel they [the Christians] have a small percentage of increase, that is 1.4 pecent of increase per year, which is about the same as that of the Jews in Israel," says Daphne Tsimhoni, a professor of modern Middle East History at Technion, Israel's Institute of Technology.
Leon Hadar, a Middle East analyst and author of the book, Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East, says attitudes toward Christians in Israel may be changing. "There is an interesting development, in which some of the Russian immigrants who came to Israel, probably around 300.000 to half a million are not Jewish, says Mr. Hadar. "They are Christians. And it is quite possible that, if that community - we are not talking about an Arab-Christian community, but an Israeli Hebrew-speaking community - becomes integrated into Israeli society, Israel will become less and less of an exclusive Jewish state, and will become more open to integrating Christians into Israeli society."
Some observers say Christians in the Middle East have fared better under secular governments. Jonathan Adelman, professor of political science at the University of Denver, Colorado, says the rise of fundamentalist Islam is a concern.
"When they hear that Sharia law needs to be introduced, which basically means that Christians cannot testify in court as equals, that they are inferior - this is something that is very hard for any minority in the world, does not matter if they are Christians or not - very hard to understand or to accept in the 21st century, which is about tolerance and is about modernity. That's why we've had millions of them get up and flee to other parts of the world, where they don't feel threatened."
Jonathan Adelman and other analysts say the world should pay attention to the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, because many of those leaving belong to the educated middle class, and tend to be more open to the western democratic ideals. More importantly, adds Professor Tsimhoni, the exodus of Christians represents a loss for Middle Eastern societies and they should make more effort to embrace them in their midst.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.