The Arab World’s Vanishing Christians

This Christmas, thousands of worshipers and tourists will travel to the Middle East to celebrate in the land of the Bible. At a time when the Arab world is aflame with sectarian strife, the observance of the Christian holiday is a sad reminder of the fact that the region was once a polyglot, multiethnic mix of peoples and faiths.

PRINCETON – This Christmas, like every Christmas, thousands of pilgrims and tourists will travel to the Middle East to celebrate the holiday in the land of the Bible. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem will lead a midnight mass, while in Syria – where some Christians still speak dialects of Aramaic, similar to the ancient language Jesus spoke – celebrations are likely to be subdued, curtailed by the dangers of a war that is tearing the country apart.

At a time when the Middle East is aflame with sectarian strife, the observance of the Christian holiday is a sad reminder that the region’s distinctive religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity is rapidly disappearing. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Christians made up roughly 20% of the Arab world. In certain areas – including southern Egypt, the mountains of Lebanon, and southeastern Anatolia – they formed an absolute majority. Today, just 5% of the Arab world is Christian, and many of those who remain are leaving, forced out by persecution and war.

Jews, too – once a vital presence in cities like Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad – have all but disappeared from the predominantly Muslim parts of the Middle East, relocating to Israel, Europe, and North America. Even in Muslim communities, diversity has been dwindling. In cities like Beirut and Baghdad, mixed neighborhoods have been homogenized, as Sunni and Shia seek shelter from sectarian attacks and civil war.

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