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Christians of the Middle East: Country-By-Country Facts

A Presence Dating Back Two Millennia

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middle east christians

Christians of the Middle East, in their multiplicity of denominations, may not all follow the Vatican's lead, but they're eager Vatican flag-wavers when the pope visits.

Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Updated May 09, 2009

The Christian presence in the Middle East dates back, of course, to the advent of Jesus Christ during the Roman Empire. That 2,000-year presence has gone uninterrupted since, especially in the countries of the Levant: Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, Syria—and Egypt. But it's been far from a unified presence.

The Eastern and Western Church don't quite see eye to eye--haven't for about 1,500 years. Lebanon's Maronites split off from the Vatican in a huff centuries ago, then agreed to return to the fold, preserving to themselves rites, dogmas and customs of their choice (don't tell a Maronite priest he can't marry!)

Much of the region either forcibly or voluntarily converted to Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. In the Middle Ages, the European Crusades attempted, brutally, repeatedly but ultimately unsuccessfully, to restore Christian hegemony over the region.

Since then, only Lebanon has maintained a Christian population approaching anything like a plurality, although Egypt maintains the single-largest Christian population in the Middle East.

Here’s a country-by-country breakdown of Christian denominations and populations in the Middle East:

Lebanon:

Lebanon last conducted an official census in 1932, during the French Mandate. So all figures, including total population, are estimates based on various media, government and non-government organizations’ numbers.

  • Total population, including non-Christians: 4 million
  • Percent Christian: 34-41%
  • Maronite: 700,000
  • Greek-Orthodox: 200,000
  • Melkite: 150,000

Syria:

Like Lebanon, Syria has not conducted a reliable census since French Mandate times. Its Christian traditions date back to the time when Antioch, in present-day Turkey, was early Christianity’s center.

  • Total population, including non-Christians: 18.1 million
  • Percent Christian: 5-9%
  • Greek-Orthodox: 400,000
  • Melkite: 120,000
  • Armenian-Orthodox: 100,000
  • Small numbers of Maronites and Protestants.

Occupied Palestine/Gaza & the West Bank

According to the Catholic News Agency, “In the last 40 years, the Christian population in the West Bank has slumped from about 20 percent of the total to less than two percent today.” Most Christians then and now are Palestinians. The drop is a result of the combined effect of Israeli occupation and repression and a rise in Islamic militancy among Palestinians.

  • Total population, including non-Christians: 4 million
  • Greek Orthodox: 35,000
  • Melkite: 30,000
  • Latin (Catholic): 25,000
  • Some Copts and a small number of Protestants.

Israel:

Israel’s Christians are a mixture of native-born Arabs and immigrants, including some Christian Zionists. The Israeli government claims 144,000 Israelis are Christians, including 117,000 Palestinian Arabs and several thousand Ethiopian and Russian Christians who migrated to Israel, with Ethiopian and Russian Jews, during the 1990s. The World Christian Database puts the figure at 194,000.

  • Total population, including non-Christians: 6.8 million
  • Greek Orthodox: 115,000
  • Latin (Catholic): 20,000
  • Armenian Orthodox: 4,000
  • Anglicans: 3,000
  • Syrian Orthodox: 2,000

Egypt:

About 9% of Egypt’s population of 83 million are Christians, and most of them are Copts—descendants of Ancient Egyptians, adherents to the early Christian Church, and, since the 6th century, dissidents from Rome. For more details about Egypt’s Copts, read “Who Are Egypt's Copts and Coptic Christians?

  • Total population, including non-Christians: 83 million
  • Copts: 7.5 million
  • Greek Orthodox: 350,000
  • Coptic Catholic: 200,000
  • Protestant: 200,000
  • Small numbers of Armenian Orthodox, Melkites, Maronites and Syrian Catholics.

Iraq:

Christians have been in Iraq since the 2nd century—mostly Chaldeans, whose Catholicism remains deeply influenced by ancient, eastern rites, and Assyrians, who are not Catholic. The war in Iraq since 2003 has ravaged all communities, Christians included. A rise in Islamism diminished Christians’ security, but attacks on Christians appear to be receding. Nevertheless, the irony, for Iraq's Christians, is that on balance they were far better off under Saddam Hussein than since his downfall. As Andrew Lee Butters writes in Time, "About 5 or 6 percent of Iraq's population in the 1970's were Christian, and some of Saddam Hussein's most prominent officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz were Christians. But since the American invasion of Iraq, Christians have fled in droves, and constitute less than one percent of the population."

  • Total population, including non-Christians: 27 million
  • Chaldean: 350,000 – 500,000
  • Armenian Orthodox: 32,000 – 50,000
  • Assyrian: 30,000
  • Several thousand Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Protestant.

Jordan:

As elsewhere in the Middle East, the number of Jordan’s Christians has been declining. Jordan’s attitude toward Christians had been relatively tolerant. That changed in 2008 with the expulsion of 30 Christian religious workers and an increase in religious persecutions overall.

  • Total population, including non-Christians: 5.5 million
  • Greek Orthodox: 100,000
  • Latin: 30,000
  • Melkite: 10,000
  • Protestant Evangelical: 12,000

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