Coptic Christian church in Egypt
Photo: Ido Becker
The Middle East's Christian population has been gradually dwindling and is on the defensive with respect to its identity - and even its very existence. In the early 20th century Christians made up some 20% of the Middle East's population. Today they amount to less than 5% of the population.
The reasons for the Christians' crisis in our region are related to their success as a modern group with low growth rate and free immigration to Western countries. But the assault on the Christians in their home countries stems mostly from the processes of Islamization, which push them away from the Arab collective.
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If not so long ago the Christians considered themselves an integral part of the Arab nation (as did many Arab leaders), things have changed dramatically over the past few decades. The Christians were proud of their loyalty to the Arab nation and of the fact that Christian Arabs played a key role in shaping the Arab national identity, which is free of religious preferences.
But the Arab-national vision that includes the Christians does not exist anymore – not even in theory. In traditional Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the Christians have lost their place entirely. But their situation has deteriorated in other countries as well. Hardly any Christians remain in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, where in the past they were almost the majority. The Christians' situation in Iraq took a turn for the worse following the fall of Saddam Hussein, who used them against the Shiite majority.
Over the past decade repeated attacks on Christian communities have lead to the mass migration of Christians to Australia, Europe and even the US. The Islamization processes in Egypt are resulting in the departure of thousands of Coptic Christians from the country, and the new constitution will only increase the pressure and deep concern among this minority. A sharp drop in the number of Christians has also been recorded in Gaza and the West Bank and, naturally, Hamas' vision does not bode well for them.
In Lebanon, where Christianity was dominant, the Christians have recently lost their status and are currently trying to find their way amid the rise of Hezbollah. During his visit to Beirut in 2012 the pope tried to instill some hope among his followers in the Middle East, but the Catholic Church is aware that the era of Christianity in the region is under an existential threat.
Syria's Christians are probably in the worst situation of all. Assad's regime protected them for many decades as part of the attempt to present itself as secular and pluralist. The civil war has dramatically affected the Christians, who found themselves caught in the test of loyalty to the Assad regime and to the Arab nation and have become a persecuted minority that is seeking asylum in Lebanon and several other countries.
Thousands of Christians are fleeing Syria. Terry Waite, who was held captive by Hezbollah for about five years, was sent to Lebanon a few weeks ago due to the persecution of the Christians in the country. He told The Guardian of the Christians' dire situation and said the "Arab Spring" is being used as an excuse to persecute Christians.
The Christians' difficult situation in the Middle East is somewhat similar to the situation of the Jews in Europe. The world's relative silence in the face of their plight serves as another warning sign to those who believe the enlightened world is willing to lend a hand at times of crisis.
Professor Yossi Shain heads Tel Aviv University's Abba Eban Program of Diplomacy