American Christians love to hear about areas of the world where Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds. Conversions are daily statistics in many African nations, as in South America, India, and China. According to some credible estimates, China's Christian population has multiplied by an astounding 3,200 percent since 1949, now nearing 130 million believers.
The growth story should always delight us. But we should be simultaneously distressed about the decline story, especially that of Christianity in the Middle East. No one knows precisely how many of the Middle East's 293 million people are Christians, but nearly everyone acknowledges that Middle Eastern Christianity has been in steady decline for decades. In some local areas, officials record declines of 75 percent or more. Recent violence in the region is accelerating that decline. Some observers estimate that the region's population of 10 to 15 million Christians will continue to spiral downward during the next 50 years.
On paper, Egypt is the country with the greatest number of Christians—5.8 to 11 million, or 8 to 16 percent of Egypt's 75 million people. But despite their numbers, "Copts," as Egyptian Christians are known, have suffered from oppressive legal restrictions. Until very recently, permission to repair a church roof anywhere in Egypt could only be obtained from the president himself. Those few Muslims who wish to become Christians experience intense persecution. Many Christians in Egypt are seeking a new future in the West.
Until half a century ago, Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country with a Christian majority. But because of immigration and higher birth rates among Muslims, Lebanon's Christian population has dwindled from around 58 percent at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, to an estimated 39 percent (1.4 million) today. So sensitive is the issue that the Lebanese government has not conducted an official census of religious affiliation since 1932. Lebanon's Christians, mostly Maronites (Eastern Rite Catholics), have been traumatized by the killings of Christian politicians and the work of the terrorist group Hezbollah, and have thus fled the country.
This regional pattern of decline is reflected on both national and city levels, where key Christian populations once thrived. In Bethlehem, now under Palestinian authority, Christians have shrunk from 85 percent in 1948 to around 15 percent today. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian Christians are caught between growing Islamic fundamentalism and Israel's quest for security. In Palestinian-controlled areas, Christians number about 60,000, less than 2 percent of the overall population of 3.9 million. Many of these believers live in Christian villages with debilitated economies.
Israel is the one Middle Eastern nation where Christianity has increased. Mostly Arabs, Israel's small Christian population (between 144,000 and 196,000) has risen primarily due to their larger families. In addition, some Israeli Jews have become alarmed by an unexpected phenomenon: Thousands of ethnic Jews who emigrated from the former Soviet Union are in fact Christians, swelling the ranks of Israel's Messianic community, which still comprises only 0.1 percent of the population.
Tragically, Christians in Iraq are currently at the greatest risk. Under dictator Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government protected the ancient Christian community of Chaldeans and Assyrians (1.2 million). Though many Christians welcomed the overthrow of the tyrant in March 2003, all have suffered from the sectarian strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that has engulfed the country since.
Christians by the tens of thousands are among the 2 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria. It is one of the great unintended consequences of the war in Iraq that the U.S., a Christian-majority nation, led its military forces to liberate a Muslim nation, leading to a dramatic drop in religious freedom for this nation's Christian minority.
How best can American evangelicals respond to this historic decline of Christianity? There is more we can do besides purchase an olive wood nativity made in Bethlehem by Christian woodcarvers, although that's not a bad place to start.
Partnerships with local churches, schools, and ministries in the Middle East are possible. Christians of the Middle East don't ask for us to resolve all of their political differences. But they do have a legitimate and deep longing to be better recognized by the global Christian community—especially evangelicals.
One immediate need is for principled advocacy for Iraq's Christian refugees, who, if they remain in the country, might literally be murdered. The U.S. Can and should resettle many more Iraqi refugees here. After all, one of the few places on earth where Aramaic is still spoken is Iraq. Aramaic? That's the language Jesus spoke.
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