Holy Land, Disappearing Christians

The Disappearance of Christians in the Holy Lands,

by Brother John M. Samahain

Reprinted from Sophia, Volume 31, Number 1, Jan. – Feb. 2001

In the Holy Lands of Jesus’ time, Christians are becoming an ever-smaller minority. At the beginning of the 20Ih century, Christians accounted for a quarter of the population in the countries of the Middle East. Muslims have been the majority. As we enter the third millennium, the number of Christians has decreased to less than 6% except for Lebanon.

Why are Christians fewer than ever before in the Muslim dominated countries of the Middle Fast? Father Samir Khalil, S.J., professor of Islamic Studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut and the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, offers three reasons based on his experience and observations in that part of the world. These various causes of the shrinking Christian population are demographic change, 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 have averaged 3-4 children, and Muslim households 8-10. 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 Koran and in historical tradition.

According to Islam, a Christian is one who pays special taxes and is tolerated, but in a position subordinate to Muslims. The Koran 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 19th century Egypt under Mehmed Au Pasha, and in Turkey after Ataturk’s revolution in 1923, Christians were trusted with important roles in the modernization of Muslim countries.


Re-Islamization and intolerance have sprung up again 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 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 canceled as its territory was confiscated. Because of 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 Arab/Muslim world perceived Israel as a Western and Christian creation. Unfortunately the identification of “Western” with “Christian” still persists in Muslim society.

Because of their political and military ineptitude against Israel and the West, Muslims in the Arabic-speaking countries and the Middle East became more bitter and vengeful. With the outset of Nasser’s anti-West regime in Egypt in the 1950’s, the flight of Christians from the Near East and Middle East began.

The situation worsened for Christians in the Holy Land areas after the 1967 war, when they were squeezed from both sides.

Further, after the fall of Soviet communism Muslim fear arose that the West would make Islam it 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 beg the émigrés to return to their homelands, but to little avail.

(Brother John Samaha is a Melkite Marianist. He writes from Cupertino, CA.)