The Arab World’s Vanishing Christians

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.

The waning of diversity in the Middle East goes back more than a century, to the bouts of ethnic and religious cleansing that took place during the Ottoman Empire, including the murder and displacement of 1.5 million Armenian and Syriac Christians in eastern Anatolia. After the empire’s collapse in 1918, the rise of Arab nationalism placed Arabic language and culture at the center of political identity, thereby disenfranchising many non-Arab ethnic groups, including Kurds, Jews, and Syriacs. Many Greeks who had been living in Egypt for generations, for example, lost their livelihoods in the 1950s, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the great standard-bearer of pan-Arabism, nationalized privately owned businesses and industries. Others were forced to flee the country altogether.