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Religious minorities in the Middle East

by Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

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The Middle East has been the crossroads between the great cultures of Africa, Europe and Asia for almost 5,000 years. Nowhere else on the planet do three continents come together in a way that people can easily pass from one to the other on foot. Throughout the ages, explorers, refugees, traders, soldiers and missionaries have passed back and forth.

With the domestication of the camel in the second millennium B.C., trade between the great centers of Africa, China, Europe, India and the Middle East brought goods from all over the known world to peoples of many different cultures. It was not only material goods, however, that moved between these great cultures. Ideas and beliefs also passed along with the bolts of silk, the bundles of spices and the exotic furs and precious metals.

The Middle East is also the birthplace of three great religions that proclaim belief in one God — the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Two of these religions, Christianity and Islam, are religions with a sense of mission. Since the earliest days of Christianity and Islam, Christians and Muslims have felt impelled to go out and spread the message of their faith. These faiths were geographically placed to spread outwards from the Middle East to the farthest reaches of the then–known world.

Both Christianity and Islam enjoyed success initially in the region of their birth. Within four centuries of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity had become the religion of the entire Mediterranean world and the Middle East up to the borders of the Persian Empire. Monks from the Middle East were missionaries in India and China before some parts of Germany and Scandinavia became Christian.

With the death of Muhammad in 632, Islam began to spread with amazing speed through the countries where Christianity had become established. Within a few centuries, Islam had replaced Christianity as the dominant religion in the Middle East.

Though Christians continue to exist in the Middle East, they comprise a small minority in all countries except Lebanon. They make up no more than ten percent of the populations of Egypt and Syria and considerably less elsewhere in the region. Because Christians, when taken together, constitute the largest single religious minority in the Middle East, it is erroneously thought they are the only religious minority.

Other factors have also colored the impressions that people in the West have of the Middle East. The back–and–forth struggles between Islam and Christianity over almost 15 centuries have led many in the West to believe that the Middle East is entirely Muslim and many in the Middle East to believe that the West is entirely Christian.

The reality is, in fact, far more complex — and interesting. The religious landscape of the Middle East reflects the history and geography of the region. All the ideas, beliefs and traditions that have passed through the region have left behind small — sometimes tiny — communities that cling to beliefs more ancient than Christianity or Islam, all of which are different from “standard” Christianity and Islam.

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Tags: Syria Middle East Muslim Diversity Arab Spring/Awakening