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Over 14.5 million Christians in the Middle East. Decreasing numbers but deep roots keep the Church thriving

The total number of Middle-Eastern Christians - including Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Turkey, and the Holy City of Jerusalem - amount to 14.525.880 faithful. The total population of all these Countries adds up to 258 million inhabitants. The figures, relating to the first half of 2017, show a decline of 213.780 faithful compared to data released in 2010, when Christians amounted to 14.739.660. The figures are contained in a Report published by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), an agency established by Pope Pius XI in 1926 for humanitarian and pastoral support to the poor in the Middle East, in North Africa, India, and Eastern Europe

The Report published a few days ago registered the shifting population of Christians across the Middle-East as a result of the past years’ disruptions in the region, notably the war in Syria, in Iraq and the establishment of the self-declared Islamic State, which, reads the presentation, “shattered and splintered cultures and countries that form the very cradle of Christianity, with the followers of Jesus’ faith dispersed and displaced in neighbouring Countries or who fled the region entirely”. Drawing on diverse sources — including the Holy See’s Pontifical Yearbook, the CIA World Factbook, the World Bank, the United Nations and the U.S. Census Bureau — CNEWA has compiled what amounts to a definitive snapshot of Christianity in this tormented world region today.

Iraq is among the Countries with the sharpest decline in the number of Christians, due to wars and sectarian conflicts that have devastated the Country both politically and economically.   “In the 1990s Christians were estimated at over one million. In 2006 less than 300 thousand remained,” states the Report. CNEWA estimates that in the summer of 2014, after the Islamic State invaded the Nineveh Plains, displaced Christians in Kurdistan and in neighbouring Countries (Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon), amounted to 140thousand, 50 thousand fled the Country altogether.

In Syria, destroyed by the civil war that broke out in 2011, the Christian population fell by 50%. The CNEWA Report shows that the Christian population dropped from 2.2 million in 2010 to 1.1 million in 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have left the Country. However, CNEWA notes,

“The church’s roots in Syria clearly run deep. It remains up to the local communities and parishes to keep those roots alive until the displaced Christian population can hopefully return.”

Egypt is the Country with the largest Christian community in the Middle East,  comprising 9.4 million faithful (making up 10% of the overall population). Here too, CNEWA points out, political and economic turmoil is worsened by acts of violence perpetrated by Islamic extremist groups against Christians, with as many as 76 churches set ablaze in the past years. According to the Report, since 1910 the Christian population dropped from 20% to 10%. Most Copts have emigrated to Canada or to the United States.

In Israel, states the Report, there are roughly 170 thousand Christians today, most of whom are Arab Israelis, representing 2.4% of the population. In 1948, the year of the establishment of the State of Israel, Christians amounted to 20%. The outbreak of the war between Arabs and Israel provoked a massive refugee crisis, leading many Palestinian Christians to flee the Country. Today, most of those who remain are Melkite Greek Catholic, but others include Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Latin and Maronite Catholic communities along with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who arrived in Israel under the Law of return (1950). “Some observers suggest a number in excess of 300,000 — including many Orthodox Christians”, states the Report. Israel is also home to 60 thousand immigrants including Eritreans and Ethiopians, Filipinos and Indians, Moldavians and Romanians, from the Horn of Africa, India and Central America, most of whom are Christians. There are 59 thousand Christians in the West Bank (2.5%). In 2010, according to CNEWA, they numbered 50 thousand. In the Gaza Strip, they number only 1.300 on a population of 2 million. The Christian population in Jerusalem is estimated at 15.800, on a population – the Report states – of 870 thousand inhabitants.

The Christian population in Jordan amounts to approximately 350 thousand faithful, slightly more than 2.2% of the population, overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan registered the arrival of over 30 thousand Iraqi Christians in the past three years (2014-2017), in the wake of the war in Syria, in Iraq, and the rise of ISIS. 1.000 families have resettled in Canada and Australia.

Lebanon, where in 1932 half of the population was Christian, has a similar situation, the Report shows. Today the Christian population makes up for 40%, numbering 2 million faithful according to CNEWA (2.6 million in 2010). Thousands of Lebanese are reported to emigrate abroad every year, owing to the inflow of hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Syria, “willing to work for lower wages.”

Uncertain future. “The Report – said Michael J.L. La Civita, Director of Communications at CNEWA – shows that

Despite centuries-long persecutions the region’s Christian population has always proved to be resilient and with a great desire to live.

While constantly moving from one place to the next – leaving behind their ancient sites such as Antioch or the Nineveh Plains to resettle in safer places such as Baghdad and Damascus – the Christian population of the Middle East managed to preserve their identity, culture, language and rites. They rebuilt monasteries and convents, churches and schools, prospering in a modern era even when ideological fanaticism and intolerance were growing.” Nonetheless, La Civita remarked,

“increasing numbers are taking advantage of new opportunities to leave the region altogether. So that instead of remaining they expand the communities in America, Europe and Oceania. The extent to which these communities will manage to foster and preserve their identity and culture is yet to be seen.”

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