If there is one region which Christians increasingly want to abandon, it is the biblical heartland of their faith: the Middle East. They are fleeing in greater numbers than ever before. They are fearful of the growing turmoil in places like Syria and Iraq, the spread of radical Islam and, of course, now the presence of Islamic State (IS) and its dire warning to non-believers that ‘there is nothing to give (you) but the sword’. The exodus has alarmed Pope Francis who said: ‘We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christianity’.
That is unlikely to happen, but there won’t be much of it left. According to Time, if the Middle East’s current demographic trends continue, the region’s 12 million Christians will be halved as soon as 2020. It has been a steady decline which has been gathering pace in recent years. A century ago the last Ottoman census revealed that Christians comprised 25% of the region’s population. Today it is said to be less than 5%.
It was St Thomas the Evangelist who introduced Christianity to Egypt in the first century and it was the dominant faith until the arrival of Islam. What is Syria today was associated with the apostles St Peter and St Paul. St Thomas extended it to ancient Mesopotamia which is today’s Iraq. Islam came into being in the 7th century and spread rapidly.
Ironically, in recent decades it was Arab despots who gave Christians the greatest feeling of security. Saddam Hussein made sure Iraq’s came to no harm just as the Assad dynasty had done in Syria until recently and Hosni Mubarak did during his 29 years of governing Egypt. In fact, Saddam’s long-time foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian who used to startle guests by singing Onward Christian Soldiers in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
But when Saddam was toppled by the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians panicked and it was reported that nearly a million of them fled the country, fearful of the alternative. The upheaval in Syria has caused a mass flight from there as well – 1 in 4 of the country’s Christians. In the last census 20 years ago they comprised 8% of the population.
Egypt has the biggest Christian community – about 8 million of mostly Copts. Many were alarmed when Mubarak was ousted in 2011 and the following year replaced by a democratically-elected Moslem Brotherhood government which proposed an Islamist-based constitution. Nearly 100,000 of them cleared out of the country. But those who remained were relieved and indeed cheered when the Brotherhood was overthrown last year and replaced by a government led by another military strongman, Field Marshal Abdel al-Sisi, who has no time for Islamic extremism.
If it hadn’t happened, there would have been a mass exodus, according to Egypt’s richest man, Naguib Sawiris, himself a Christian. He was quoted as saying that majority rule in the Arab world leaves minorities at risk. So it was better to support a secular-leaning coup-maker than risk annihilation by Islamists.
But Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East analyst at the Century Foundation, a US think tank, is not so sure. He is quoted in Time as saying: ‘Christians in the region are forced into these Faustian bargains in which they end up supporting authoritarian regimes for fear of what the alternative would look like. But the price is that it can aggravate underlying sectarian tensions and create further animosities and bigotry’.
The Christians have resettled in the Americas, Europe and Australia. As has been the case in recent weeks, others have been driven into exile by the depredations of IS. Prince Hassan of Jordan, who takes a close interest in regional humanitarian matters, says there are now more Jerusalem Christians living in Sydney than in Jerusalem itself.
Their flight leaves the Arab world depleted culturally. The Lebanese historian, Professor Kamal Salibi, is quoted as saying: ‘Each time a Christian goes, no other Christian comes to fill his place and that is a very bad thing for the Arab world. It is the Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world “Arab” rather than “Moslem”.’
Even if the exodus ceases, the ratio of the Christian population will continue to decline simply because the birthrate among Moslem families is so much higher. ‘The Christian era in the Middle East is over,’ says the Italian author and journalist, Giulio Meotti, who specialises in the Holy Land. He notes that Bethlehem was 80% Christian in 1948 and today they are ‘near extinction’. Nearby Ramallah was 90% Christian and now it is an Islamic city.
Despite Christianity being their dominant faith, Western countries have showed little interest in the plight of their co-religionists in the Middle East. An exception was the recent case of the obscure Yazidis in Iraq, an ancient part Christian sect who were being threatened with starvation by marauding IS followers. Their desperate situation not only prompted a humanitarian airlift, including by the RAAF, but also helped galvanise the current US-led aerial campaign to crush IS.
There is no doubt the Middle East politically as well as demographically is more Islamist than ever. This makes Christians and other minorities feel more isolated and nervous than ever about their future. If anything, we are now entering the Islamic era in the Middle East.
John Tulloh had 40-year career in foreign news.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury