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Christians in Arab Countries

Mgr. Maroun Lahham, Auxiliary Bishop of Jerusalem and Patriarchal Vicar in Jordan gives us an overview of the Christians in Arab countries.

The Arab countries, which we are taking into consideration are: Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. We are not including the northern African Arab and the Gulf countries because it’s been centuries since Christianity disappeared there, and because, at the present time, Christian Churches in the Maghreb countries are mostly made up of expatriates from dozens of countries, mainly African. It must be underlined that the Christians of the Middle East are Arab, and Christian Arabs have existed and lived in the Middle East since the birth of Christianity. These people are not Arab Muslims converted to Christianity. It may be useful to recall that Christianity was born in Palestine. From the 2nd to the 7th century, Christians made up 80% of the population of the Middle East countries. Christianity’s decline was gradual in those regions; it dropped to 50% at the time of the Crusades, and to 20% in the 19th century.

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With the exception of Lebanon, where Christians make up a third of the population, the percentage of Christians ranges from 10% in Egypt, to 6% in Syria (before the latest events), 4% in Iraq, 3% in Jordan, 2.5% in Israel, and 1.2% in Palestine. It is worth noticing that the number of Christians, in the above mentioned countries, decreases as the political and social instability rises. The Middle East Churches are also called the ‘Churches of Calvary’. Christians here accept this epithet since they are aware that after Calvary there is Resurrection. As far as figures are regarded, we must consider that several Arab governments do not give official figures about the Christian population, for political and social considerations. Besides, figures in the Middle East, are often subjective and rounded off. That said, Christian Arabs range between 15 and 20 millions, half of which are in Egypt.

Christian Churches
The Christians in Arab countries belong to four Christian Churches: the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Church (before the Council of Chalcedon) and the Protestant Church. Each Church encompasses several other religious groups observing different rites. I won’t get into the labyrinth of all practices. Readers just need to know that the rite issue is extremely important in the Orient, to the point that, Arab Christians are defined by the liturgical rite they practise, instead of by their Church membership. In the Orient, one is Latin, Maronite, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Chaldean etc., before being Catholic or Orthodox. With regard to Christians in Jordan, we must remember that the country is part of the Holy Land, and that Catholics are under the Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s jurisdiction. Several holy sites, where events of both Old and New Testament took place, are in Jordan: such as the site of Christ’s Baptism, Mount Nebo, or the site where John the Baptist was beheaded. Christians in the kingdom reach up to 220-225 thousands (3% of the population). They belong to different Churches. The Greek Orthodox Church, the Latin Rite Catholic Church, and the Eastern Rite Catholic Church are the most important. Each of them has its own clergy, parishes and educational and social institutions. It is also interesting to notice that despite the fact that the number of Christians in Jordan continues to increase, the percentage drops constantly, not so much because of emigration (emigration certainly exists, but it is not as massive as in Palestine, Iraq and currently in Syria), but the decline of Christians is mostly due to low birth rate (they were 25,000 when Jordan was founded in the 20s, 150,000 in the 60s, between 200,000 and 250,000 today).

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Christians in Jordan are people of Jordanian origins and those Palestinians that arrived in the kingdom in 1948 and in 1967. The Christians on the east bank of the Jordan river are not less numerous than those of Palestinian origins and, however, intermarriages between the two peoples are gradually eliminating this distinction. Considering both Christians and Muslims, it is also important to highlight a distinguishing trait of Jordanian society, which is perhaps typical of Iraqi society as well: the importance of family or tribe. In both countries, family or tribe, whether big or small is considered as the repository of values and as the guarantor of social and political order. Also in politics, for example, decisions and choices are made according to family or tribal affiliation, instead of according to political party membership. Tribal identification is so important to some Christians – especially those of Jordanian origins – as much as to some Muslims, that both groups, share the same social structures, and several social values: patriarchal values, where solidarity between individuals and families is built mostly around kinship.

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