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The Arab Christians of the Middle East: A Demographic Perspective

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Philippe Fargues

From Christian Communities in the Middle East
© 1998 Oxford University Press
Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press


There are between six and seven million Arab Christians in the Middle East today (1995). They represent 6.3 per cent of the whole population of the countries among which they are spread: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. This is more or less the same percentage the Ottomans found almost 500 years ago, when they wiped out the Mameluke and Persian dynasties which shared control of the region. However, this does not mean that the ratio of Christians to Muslims is permanently fixed. On the contrary, after four centuries of Ottoman rule, during which an unexpected resurgence took place, Christianity reverted to the downward trend it had followed during the first millennium after the Hegira. In the twentieth century Islam has advanced at a pace comparable to that of the pre-Ottoman era. However, the mechanisms which have influenced this modern trend belong to a different kind from those of the pre-Ottoman era; all are linked to modern political, economic, and demographic processes.

The study of the demography of Christians in the Arab East involves looking at the frequency of a particular characteristic - religious affiliation - in the population as a whole, as well as describing the evolution of this characteristic over a very long period of time and over a very wide area. Essentially it means studying Islamization, bearing in mind that the term is used here simply to mean the increase in the percentage of Muslims. There are four processes which may have led to this: conversion from one religion to another, sometimes of individuals, sometimes of whole groups; massacres and exoduses with a religious connotation - both exceptional - which result in the substitution of one population by another; the fusion of population groups of different religions which, through mixed marriages, produces a second generation of one religion; differential population growth, where different birth and death rates influence the speed of population growth according to religious affiliation.

Each of these processes has its own time scale. As demographic processes inevitably occur over long periods of time and follow a rhythm of their own, they do not generally fit in with the important moments of factual history. On the other hand they do coincide with the longer periods of social and economic history or of important geopolitical relations. The explanations for demographic processes therefore lie in general contexts rather than in specific events in history.

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