The very existence of Arab Christians in the Arab world is under threat, as successive waves of emigration to the west could severely deplete their numbers in the region and obscure their role in shaping the identity and culture of the Middle East.
Arab Christians face an existential threat, with Iraq losing its Christian presence and with Syria heading towards a similar fate.
The number of Christians in the Levant, Egypt and Iraq in 1516 and 1517 during the Ottoman conquest of the Middle East was around 16 million, while 2010 estimates put the Christian population of the region as no more than 17 million.
There are certainly many factors that have contributed to the decline of Christian communities in Arab countries in the past four hundred years – including conversion due to intellectual exchange, repression and migration.
Today, Arab Christians face the threat of extremism, which has increased the rate of Christian emigration from the Arab world due to a sharp decline in religious freedoms and the right to political participation.
According to some estimates, the number of Christians in the Mashriq – the Arab region east of Egypt – will be reduced to only 6 million by 2025 if current migration rates continue.
Demographics of war
In Syria, once the cradle of Christianity, Christians have had no choice but to emigrate after their lives, churches and historic cities such as Maloula were destroyed – and after their priests were kidnapped, hijab was imposed on their women and religious taxes imposed on their men.
The violence and destruction that has afflicted Syria since the start of the 2011 uprising has led to an exodus of Christians.
In the occupied Palestinian territories, Christians have been the victims of the Zionist project and the backwardness of Arab regimes.
While they constituted 20 percent of the population prior to the waves of Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine, Christians now barely make up nine percent of the population of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
In Bethlehem – the birthplace of Jesus – Christians made up 85 percent of the city’s population in 1948. They now comprise just 12 percent.
The situation is similar in Jerusalem, where, in 1922, some 53 percent of the population was Christian. Today, just two percent of Jerusalem residents are Christian.
The waves of extremist and exclusionary ideologies that have hit the region – including both Zionist and Islamic fundamentalism – have had an immense impact on Christian numbers in the Mashriq, and led to Christians being driven out of their historic homelands.
In Iraq, for example, barely any Christians remain after 600,000 Christians left the country in the decade following the US-led invasion in 2003. Latest reports suggest Mosul, the historic home of Iraq’s Christians, has been completely emptied of its oldest inhabitants.
The reality is that both Christians and Muslims face a number of common threats in the Mashriq – the rise of fundamentalist movements, authoritarian states and the recurring horrors of Israeli militarism.
The rise of fundamentalist movements in the region has caused the collapse of cross-community solidarity movements and prevented the formation of joint civil initiatives based on the principles of coexistence and mutual respect.
Furthermore, four decades of authoritarian rule in the region have obstructed the development of all meaningful popular political and social movements, leaving societies easily influenced by fundamentalist ideologies that spread discord and prejudice.
There is also the colonialist state of Israel, whose discriminatory and exclusionary polices and human rights violations have barely ceased since its inception.
Both Muslims and Christians face these threats in the region, but it is Christian communities which have been more affected – due to the inherent vulnerability associated with their minority status.
Events in the Middle East have exposed that the idea of national unity, which the modern Arab nation state was founded upon, is nothing more than a delusion – as our societies are still ruled by sectarian, ethnic and tribal identity politics.
Further, authoritarian regimes that do everything in their power to keep political and economic power concentrated in the hands of a sect, a group or a ruling family have fully exploited these power structures to serve their agendas.
The failure to build equal, pluralistic democracies laid the groundwork for prejudice and discrimination against various groups in the region, and Arab Christians have borne the brunt of such exclusionary practices.