by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
Christians are becoming an ever smaller minority in the Holy Land countries of Jesus Christ’s time.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Christians accounted for a quarter of the population in the countries of the Near East and Middle East. Muslims have been the majority. One hundred years later in the second decade of the third millennium the number of Christians has decreased to less than five per cent, except in Lebanon.
Why is the Christian population shrinking in these Muslim-dominated countries? Researchers in Beirut and in Rome identify three reasons based on their observations. The causes of shrinking Christian population are demographic changes, emigration, and sterner Islamization.
Muslims multiply faster than Christians. This is due partially because of Muslim polygamy, a fairly common practice in rural areas.
Another contributing factor is improved hygiene and health care. Until a half-century ago, before the use of antibiotics and advanced medical care, infant mortality in these areas was higher in Muslim communities than among the more educated Christian families. Now Muslim families are no longer plagued by that handicap.
In the socio-cultural realm, Christians place strong emphasis on the education of their children, and this accounts for a somewhat lower birth rate. World statistics indicate that groups with a greater educational and cultural achievement, in this case Christians, have fewer children. Christian families used to average three or four children, and Muslims eight to ten. The figures are lower now, and the gap continues to grow.
Worsening social and political factors have caused increased Christian emigration. Christians occupy an inferior position in Islamic society. This is stipulated both in the Qur’anand in historical tradition.
According to Islam a Christian is one who pays taxes and is tolerated, but in a position subordinate to Muslims. The Qur’an actually calls for the “humiliation” of Christians (sura IX, verse 29), although the term has been interpreted differently throughout history by various Muslim rulers. In most, but not all, Muslim countries Christians have been allowed to worship freely, but were subject to diverse humiliations. In times past they had to cede to Muslims passing by, or travel on foot while Muslims were permitted to ride horses.
In the modern era Christians in Muslim lands have worked for equal rights. In fact, in nineteenth century Egypt under Mehmed Ali Pasha, and in Turkey after Ataturk’s revolution of 1923, Christians were trusted with important roles in the modernization of Muslim countries.
While some Muslim and Israeli political leaders pay lip service to equal rights for Christians, the reality is often the opposite.
Re-Islamization and intolerance have sprung up again and been re-fueled with the current crisis in the Arab world caused by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In this era it must be understood objectively that Israel was not founded in a just and equitable manner. For the first time in world history a state was born from nothing at the expense of another people, whose identity was cancelled as its territory was confiscated. Because of a troubled conscience following the Shoah, the West facilitated the population of a new state with Jews from outside the area, mostly from Europe. Consequently the Muslim world perceived Israel as a Western and Christian creation. Unfortunately the identification of “Western” with “Christian” persists in Muslim society.
Because of their political and military ineptitude against Israel and the West, the Muslim countries became more vengeful and bitter. With the onset of Nasser’s anti-West regime in Egypt in the 1950’s the flight of Christians began.
The situation deteriorated for Christians after the 1978 war when they were squeezed from both sides.
Further, after the fall of Soviet communism a Muslim fear arose that the West would make Islam its new number one enemy.
As a result, the flight of Christians from the Holy Land and neighboring countries continues and even increases. Christian bishops of all persuasions -- Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant -- beg the émigrés to return to their homelands, but to no avail.
Additional information for a possible sidebar:
CHRISTIANS IN THE NEAR EAST COUNTRIES
Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon
These figures are recognized as quite accurate.