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Adapted from an address by Msgr. Robert L. Stern to the Consulta of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, 3 December 2008

Middle East Christians on the Move

by Robert L. Stern

Demographics. Years ago, a bishop from the Middle East said to me, “Monsignor, you have to understand that in our part of the world numbers have a very symbolic value.” This was a polite way of saying that certain numbers are asserted that may or may not correspond to reality.

Accurate population statistics of Middle East countries are hard to come by; Israel, however, maintains current census data. Let me propose some reasonable estimates.

As of October 2008, some 7,337,000 people lived in Israel; 147,000 or two percent of them are Christian, for the most part Arabs. This ignores more than 300,000 people who have entered Israel according to the Law of Return and officially are classified as non-Jewish. Who are they? Generally, they come from a Marxist Eastern Europe with a family background that is most likely Orthodox Christian. In addition, many Christian guest workers, Filipinos and others, live and work in Israel.

Approximately 3,800,000 people live in Palestine, i.e., the West Bank and Gaza, the occupied territories with their limited degree of Palestinian autonomy. At most, Christians of all denominations total about 40,000 people or one percent of the population.

So, in the traditional Holy Land area, you have a total population of more than 11,000,000 people with less than 200,000 Christians — the smallest proportion of Christians of any country in the region.

Today, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan probably is home to almost 6,000,000 people. Four to six percent of the kingdom’s population — perhaps 250,000 people — are Christian.

Generally, nearly a third of these Holy Land Christians are Latin (Roman) Catholics, about a third are Melkite Greek Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians make up the balance. There are also some other Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant denominations.

About 3,900,000 people live in Lebanon; Christians number about 1,170,000 or thirty percent of the total population. This is a significant decline from when France created the country as a majority Christian enclave.

Syria has somewhat fewer than 20,000,000 people, and about 1,850,000 are Christian — 9.4 percent of the total population.Iraq has somewhat over 28,000,000 people; the most generous estimate would indicate that there are 760,000 Christians left, or 2.7 percent of the population. But, the real numbers are probably much smaller.

Egypt’s population of 81,700,000 people is rapidly growing. Generally, about ten percent of the population is considered Coptic Orthodox. Much smaller Coptic Catholic and evangelical churches exist; Latin Catholics are almost exclusively religious who work in church institutions.

Sociological trends. This demographic information is static. It is important to consider the situation dynamically — to examine the population trends.

Since the conclusion of World War I, which ended 400 years of Ottoman Turkish hegemony in the Middle East, Christian populations have been declining throughout the region. Look at the number of Christians living in Jerusalem a hundred years ago and today; look at Damascus, look at Iran. There is a tremendous reduction in the proportion of Christians and, for the most part, in their absolute number.

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Tags: Middle East Christians Christian-Muslim relations Emigration Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem