That the Middle East is the cradle of the world’s three monotheisms is a phrase one encounters in every high-school textbook or tourist brochure about the region. But this fact alone reveals little about present-day conditions that see two of the three great religions thriving in their geographic points of origin while the third, Christianity, appears in a state of terminal regional decline.
For its part Christianity may have surely "won the world" in the sense of being the most widespread religion in history with the largest number of adherents, but it is steadily losing ground in and around its birthplace. Why is that? Today, between 10–12 million native Christians remain in the Middle East, concentrated mainly in Egypt, the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestine territories), and Iraq. Their numbers, however, continue to dwindle due to a variety of factors, both internal and external.
Most prominent among the outside sources of pressure has been the rise in recent decades of Islamic extremism, or Islamism, in both its Sunni and Shiite varieties. This is only the latest among potentially calamitous dangers besetting Middle Eastern Christians, not least because it tends to stir ancient antagonisms and revive atavistic rejections of the different other as the despised infidel.
Taking the longer historical view, it becomes apparent that Christianity had begun to exhaust its meager reservoir of hospitality in the Near East and Arabia toward the end of the first millennium, during the adolescent period of the new faith. This faith, which claimed that God Himself became a man so that all humans may be saved from their sins, was never able to find sustained easy acceptance nor permanent fertile soil in the Middle East where it first appeared—a mystery that is perhaps partially explained as confirmation of the familiar adage that no prophet receives honor in his place of origin among his people.
The Christian faith that had started out long ago as "a stumbling block for the Jews and absurdity for the Greeks" also became blasphemy for the Muslims, and it has not been too difficult for Islamist radicals to resuscitate this primordial repulsion from Christianity latent within political Islam and adorn it with a violent disposition. If forced or gradual conversions were the leading factors that diminished Christian numbers throughout the Middle East during the centuries following the early Islamic conquests, emigration has become the principal avenue in the last one hundred years or so through which the native Christian population is being culled, and this hemorrhaging by an exodus of individuals, families, and whole communities proceeds unabated.
Nurturing prosperous and reasonably free and secure native Christian communities in the Middle East can promote Islamic openness and moderation.
Suspicion of the West— prevalent in much of the Islamic world and often transformed into outright hatred because of the ravages attributed to Western colonialism and imperialism and unqualified support for Israel— has also served on occasion as a pretext to scapegoat indigenous Christians because they have been perceived as sharing the same religious beliefs with the vilified Westerners.
As this attrition of the region’s Christians accelerates, the lingering impression in the outside world is that what remains of these communities amounts to nothing more than vanishing relics of the past. The relic phenomenon is an alarming one and the numbers offer sobering evidence of its impending reality. In 1948 Jerusalem was about a fifth Christian; today, it is less than 2 percent. For centuries Christians used to constitute over 80 percent of Bethlehem’s population, but today they are barely a third and falling. In 1943, at the time of its independence, Lebanon was a majority-Christian country, but after thirty years of war and foreign occupation Lebanon’s Christians now make up around a third of the population and the trend is demographic contraction. It is estimated that about half of Iraq’s 1.4 million Christians have fled the country since the American invasion in 2003.
Accepting the relic status of Middle Eastern Christianity betrays at best a cold indifference and at worst complicity in the ongoing extinction. There are objective reasons why a Muslim-majority Middle East that nevertheless continues to exhibit pluralist acceptance of its non-Muslim indigenous communities, regardless of their demographic size or geographic spread, is a healthier Middle East that is less prone to extremism.
The crux of the problem for these native Christians lies in the resurgence of precisely this Islamic religious fanaticism, or Islamism. This phenomenon has been given a variety of names: fundamentalism, militant extremism, Islamism, Jihadism, Political Islam, radical Islam, Salafism, and more—but essentially they all boil down to the same thing for non-Muslims: intolerance, hostility, and violence.
Contributing to the success in recent decades of Islamist movements to attract followers among Muslim youth and become established across Muslim societies as a force not to be trifled with have been the perceived failures of secular ideologies like Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism, and Nasserism. The bitter fruits of these ideologies, as seen through an Islamist prism, have been the authoritarian regimes of Arab states that repress their peoples and act as Western surrogates inside the House of Islam. Add to this the worsening socioeconomic conditions in many Arab states in which populations have been on the increase, while the rift separating rich and poor has continued to widen, and nothing of innovative significance is being invented and produced by Arabs that the rest of the world is queuing up to acquire.
But none of this was supposed to have happened had the original notions and expectations of the theoreticians who first formulated the ideologies that imparted life to these regimes been accurate or realistic. Secularism did finally make its way to Middle Eastern shores in the middle of the last century, but this was not the liberal, democratic, free-market, and humanist secularism of the West. Instead, it was a curious blend of the violent and intolerant secularism of the socialists and ideological left mixed with its mirror image from the fascists and extreme nationalists of the far right, and transposed to a Third World setting to be manifested brutally through bloodshed and totalitarian-like rule.
The men who came up with this concoction were all Greek Orthodox Christian Arabs. The fatal flaw of these Arabists, born of their obsequious attitude toward Islamic requirements and priorities, lay in their misplaced choice of a secularism that necessarily had to pass through their adapted nationalist and socialist hybrids. And when their ideological brew helped catapult tyrants to power, shedding pools of their own people’s blood in the process, it came as no surprise—except maybe to them—to see an Islamist revival as the logical backlash.
In 1948 Jerusalem was about a fifth Christian; today, it is less than 2 percent.
Alongside Islamist fanaticism and the nasty regimes that have shown the ugly face of secularism, the Middle East’s Christians have had to contend with Western indifference to their plight as targeted Christians coupled with American "pragmatism" and "realism." Fundamentally, United States policies in the Middle East have never placed a significant priority on the conditions of indigenous Christians or the threats they have been up against just for being Christian. There is an ingrained culture in Washington’s foreign policy establishment that prefers to avoid addressing the existential phobias of the region’s Christians. These beleaguered Christian communities have become marginalized in American strategic thinking and hence expendable next to larger and more pressing economic, political, and security interests.
Despite the bleak tapestry, there are glimmers of good news for the Middle East’s long-suffering Christians. There is tangible evidence in many Christian communities across the region of spiritual renewal among the youth. Such a phenomenon is bound to guarantee the persistence of Christians rooted indefinitely in their native Middle Eastern environment. Outsiders are free to wash their hands of these Christians; however, certain steps that are not costly if undertaken could help advance the interests of both the Islamic societies and the wider world at large.
Nurturing settled, stable, prosperous, and reasonably free and secure native Christian communities in the Middle East has served in many instances as a factor promoting Islamic openness and moderation. Such moderation is sure to be strengthened when Muslims interact daily with confident fellow-native adherents to a creed that does not condone suicide bombers, respects women, is not out for religious domination, upholds the principle of religious pluralism, is compatible with liberal democracy, defends personal and group rights, emphasizes the centrality of education, and is not uncomfortable with many features of secular modern living.
What Muslims living in the West demand for themselves—and receive—by way of rights and legal protections they ought to be ready to grant to Christians living in Muslim-majority countries. Promoting democracy among Muslims that stresses minority rights, contemplating boldly federal options for local autonomy, and supporting benign liberal secularism wherever feasible—these would be ingredients for a roadmap toward anchoring a healthy pluralism in the Middle East.
This essay is an excerpt of the Hoover Institution volume "Islamism and the Future of the Christians in the Middle East."