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Briefing: Why Christians are declining in Mideast

The Iraq war, a declining birth rate, and discrimination are causing Christians to abandon a region they've lived in for two millenniums. 

By Correspondent / January 29, 2010

Displaced: Iraqi Christians attended Christmas Eve mass in Amman, Jordan. Thousands have fled to neighboring Jordan in the wake of bombings that targeted Iraqi churches in recent years.

Ali Jarekji/Reuters

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Across the Middle East, where Christianity was born and its followers once made up a sizable portion of the population, Christians are now tiny minorities. Driven by different factors – the search for better opportunities abroad, their status as targets of Iraq's sectarian conflict, a low birth rate, and discrimination – the trend largely holds true across a region where Christians have maintained a presence for two millenniums.

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Where are Christians dwindling most?

All around the region, Christians made up more than 20 percent of the population in the early 20th century; today, they make up less than 10 percent. Iraq has seen perhaps the most dramatic decline. Estimates of its Christian population at the time of the US-led invasion in 2003 ranged from 800,000 to 1.4 million – roughly 5 percent of the population. But targeted by killings, kidnappings, and threats, many fled – in far higher proportions than their Sunni and Shiite compatriots: an estimated 20 percent of Iraqi refugees abroad are Christians. Only an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 remain.

Why are their numbers dropping?

Outside Iraq, which is a unique case, the most common motivator is economics, not persecution. "People want to seek a better life, and that's relevant for all people in the region, Muslims as well," says Fiona McCallum, a professor at Scotland's University of St. Andrews who studies Christian communities in the Middle East. But Christians in the region have traditionally been better positioned to emigrate than their Muslim counterparts because of their higher education levels.

With a lower birth rate than Muslims, the Christian population would decline even without emigration as Muslim births outpace Christian births. And religious discrimination is also a factor. In Egypt, Coptic Christians say they are subject to systemic government discrimination. And in the Palestinian territories, Christians cite intimidation and land theft.

Is there more tension with Muslims now?

The level of sectarian strife in Iraq is certainly elevated. In Israel, relations between Muslims and Christians are generally stable, says Dr. Una McGahern, who recently completed her doctoral thesis on Palestinian Christians in Israel. "While there are elements within both communities who would view the other in more hostile terms, there is a broader consensus of unity and acceptance that exists and that builds on historic patterns of coexistence in the region," she says. In some cases, she adds, the two communities are brought together by perceived Israeli attempts to sow dissension.

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