In recent history, one of the most profound changes in the global religious landscape has been the unrelenting proportional decline of historic Christian communities in the Middle East:
- In 1910, Christians represented 13.6% of the Middle East’s population.
- In 2010, Christians were only 4.2% of the region.
- By 2025, it is expected Christians will constitute 3.6%.
There are three major expressions of Christianity in the Middle East: historic churches (Orthodox and Roman Catholic), modern missionary churches (Protestant and Independent), and immigrant churches (many traditions).
The demographic situation of Christians in the Middle East is quite unique and has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, with two dynamics occurring simultaneously:
- Emigration, where historic Christian communities are leaving the region primarily for Europe, North America, and Australia; and
- Immigration, where Christian guest workers from outside the region are arriving to work mainly in oil-rich Muslim-majority countries.
Another immigration-related trend in the Middle East is the arrival of missionaries into the region, primarily Protestants and Independents.
Between 1910 and 2010, nine Middle Eastern countries experienced significant declines in the Christian percentages of their populations: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Syria, and Turkey.
Two primary reasons have driven these declines:
- Lower birth rates; and
- Emigration due to war, conflict, and persecution.1
At the same time, six Middle Eastern countries have had massive influxes of Christians, most notably since 1970—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These Christians are mostly migrants from the Philippines, South Korea, and other countries working in oil production, construction, domestic tasks, and other jobs in the service industry.
Orthodox Christians are the largest major Christian tradition in the Middle East. The countries with the most Orthodox Christians are Egypt (Coptic), Cyprus (Greek), and Syria (Armenian, Greek, and Syrian). Emigration, however, has profoundly affected the Orthodox churches, with their share of the regional population falling from 11.8% in 1910 to only 2.7% in 2010, and likely continuing to 2.2% by 2025. At the same time, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Independents have increased their proportions of the region’s Christian population. One reason for this increase is large numbers of Roman Catholic guest workers (such as Filipinos) in countries like Saudi Arabia.
These, and other, trends point to an uncertain future for Christians in the Middle East. Christians from these historic communities are now present all over the world, and Christians from all over the world are increasingly drawn to the Middle East. The dual migration trends of Christians to and from the region present a unique challenge for supporting Christians in the Middle East as minority communities under intense social and political pressure.
The expansion of Christianity to the Global South can be viewed as a positive development for Christians under siege in the region, especially in light of the post-colonial break between “Western” and “Christian.” The world is currently more attuned to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Some of their pressing concerns can be addressed by advocating for freedom for all religious minorities in countries experiencing high social and/or governmental restrictions.
Christians from the Middle East in diaspora have new opportunities to engage in interfaith dialogue with people of other religions in a way that is often not possible in their home countries due to tense relationships between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Adherents of these religions are better able to work together from afar to promote peace in their region. All Christians have a renewed responsibility to promote dialogue and cooperation across religious differences in light of the changing religious landscape of the Middle East.
This brief overview has been excerpted from Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, “Ongoing Exodus: Tracking Emigration of Christians from the Middle East,” Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, Spring 2014.
1 Editor’s Note: See article by Wafik Wahba, ‘Turmoil in the Middle East: Implications for Christians there and globally’, in the November 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.