The 2010 Synod on the Middle East was called specifically to address the future of Christians in the area. In Lebanon in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI urged young Christians not to “taste the bitter honey of emigration.” Last November, long before the dates for his recent visit to the Middle East had been announced, Pope Francis said, “We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians.”
Christians in the region, said Pope Francis,“suffer in a particularly severe way the consequences of tensions and conflicts in many parts of the Middle East.”
But although Christians represent a declining percentage of the overall population, from Baghdad to Cairo there are more Christians now in the Middle East than there ever have been in history. Between 1900 and 2010, as the world population exploded, the Christian population of the region more than quadrupled, from 1.6 million to 7.5 million. However, Christians are drowning in a demographic sea of Arab Muslims. That sea has become even more turbulent following wars in Iraq and Syria and the Arab Spring uprising that began in Egypt.
The Christian share of the Middle East’s population has fallen from 10 per cent to five per cent since 1900, according to the Pew Research Centre. Take Egypt’s Copts out of the picture and the Christian proportion of any Middle Eastern population becomes negligible. In the Holy Land itself, Christians represent less than two per cent of the population.
During the same period the Muslim population of Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq grew by 10 times, from 14.2 million to 141.4 million. In Egypt, the Christian population represents 10 per cent of the country, compared to two per cent in Israel, 1.2 per cent in Palestine, five per cent (and falling) in Syria and maybe two per cent in Iraq.
Lebanon was created as a homeland for Christians after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but now Christians represent barely a third of the population, and there are more Lebanese in Brazil than in Lebanon. Similarly, the vast majority of Chile’s 500,000 Palestinians are Christians who fled after the 1948 war.
At the end of his visit to the Holy Land Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew joined together to plead for the Middle East to make room for its Christians so they can take their place in society.
“From this holy city of Jerusalem, we express our shared profound concern for the situation of Christians in the Middle East and for their right to remain full citizens of their homelands. In trust we turn to the almighty and merciful God in a prayer for peace in the Holy Land and in the Middle East in general,” reads their May 25 joint declaration.
This follows up on the urging of Pope Benedict, who visited Lebanon in 2012 and encouraged young Christians to become “protagonists of your country’s future.”
“Not even unemployment and uncertainty should lead you to taste the bitter sweetness of emigration, which involves an uprooting and a separation for the sake of an uncertain future,” he said.