Who are Egypt's Copts, and the Middle East's other Christian populations?

Recent attacks against Christians in Egypt and Iraq have drawn attention to the Middle East's Christian populations, which are dwindling as Christians flee violence, political strife, and persecution. Christians made up more than 20 percent of the region's population in the early 20th century, but today, they make up less than 10 percent. Here is a look at the status of Christians in seven key countries, from Egypt to Iran.


Horses stride as people gather during Christmas celebrations in Beirut's Christian sector of Ashrafieh, Lebanon, on Dec. 23. (Grace Kassab/AP)

An estimated 39 percent of Lebanon's population practices Christianity, according to the CIA World Factbook. The 1.6 million Christians are predominantly Maronite Christians, but include a sizable number of Greek Orthodox Christians and small numbers of other denominations.

Christians were once the dominant religious group in Lebanon. But the 15-year civil war that began in the 1970s prompted at least 1 million Lebanese Christians to flee and left the country divided along religious lines. Today, relations between Christians and Muslims are calm and Lebanese Christians retain significant political sway through a powersharing agreement that distributes the top three government positions among the country’s main religious and ethnic groups – Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims.

(Editor's note: The original article overstated the size of Lebanon's Christian population.)

Israel and the Palestinian Territories

In Israel, a small percentage of Israeli Arabs practice Christianity – about 2.1 percent of the population, or about 155,000 people (not including populations in the West Bank).

About 8 percent of residents in the West Bank practice Christianity, although the percentage is slightly higher if Jewish settlers, who account for about 17 percent of the West Bank population, are not included in the totals. In the Gaza Strip, Christians make up less than 1 percent of the population.

While relations are generally good between Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians, ongoing violence tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has prompted many Christians to flee Israel and the West Bank. Bethlehem, once a Christian town, is now predominantly Muslim.


Christians make up about 10 percent of the population in Egypt, with the overwhelming majority coming from the Coptic sect.

The growing role of Islam in daily life in Egypt has left Christians, who complain of systematic government discrimination, increasingly uneasy. Sectarian tensions between the Copts and Egypt’s Muslim majority occasionally boil over, as they did last year on Christmas Eve in Nag Hammadi, when gunmen shot worshipers leaving a mass.

Now, global terrorists appear to be exploiting those tensions to justify attacks on Christians. The Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, which attacked a Christian church in Baghdad in November, cited the alleged abduction of two women married to Coptic priests in Egypt who were barred from converting to Islam.

The group repeatedly threatened to attack again, in Egypt, leading to speculation that it may have been behind the New Year's attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria, which left more than 20 people dead – the worst attack in a decade on the Christian minority.


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s status as a religious minority himself (he is an Alawite Muslim) has probably been a factor in the relatively calm relations between Syria’s Muslim majority and Christian minority, which constitutes about 10 percent of the population today. While the percentage has decreased in recent years, Syrian Christians say they have the opportunity to participate in state and society, the Monitor reported. Assad works to tamp down sectarian tension and also cracks down on Islamist extremism within the country.


In Jordan, Christians make up only about 3 percent of the population and have a relatively easy existence as a religious minority, according to a BBC report on the Middle East’s Christian populations. They face little discrimination and enjoy freedom to practice their religion.


Iraq’s Christians, today less than 3 percent of the country's population, have faced serious violence in recent months, particularly in Baghdad. The Iraqi government urged Christians not to flee after the recent spate of attacks, but more vowed to leave – following in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands who fled the country's sectarian conflict.

According to a Monitor report, there were between 800,000 and 1.4 million Christians in Iraq at the beginning of the US invasion in 2003 (about 5 percent of the population) and only 500,000 to 600,000 remained in January 2010. While many more Muslims fled the country, a disproportionate number of the refugees were Christian.


A Christian man and a cleric pray during a New Year mass at Saint Serkis church in central Tehran on Jan. 1. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

More than 98 percent of Iran’s population is Muslim, with Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians making up most of the remainder. While the Iranian Constitution gives all three groups status as “protected” religious minorities, in practice they face significant social discrimination and an uncomfortable political climate, according to a 2009 US State Department report. They also must contend with other types of officially sanctioned discrimination in employment and education.