It is sometimes said that the Middle East is being denuded of Christians. Against this, church leaders throughout the Middle East urge Christians to remain in their country, or, where conflict makes that impossible, then to at least stay in the region.
The emigration of Christians from the Middle East is part of a complex and diverse topic. What affects one community affects them all. Migration is not one-way: some move to the Middle East, mainly as migrant workers. Some who leave the Middle East do so for short periods, for example as students. Two other motivations for migration are forced displacement due to conflict, and religious motivations such as pilgrimage, missionary callings and fleeing from intense persecution. The latter is especially an issue for converts from Muslim backgrounds.
Those working in support of Christians suffering for their faith encourage people to make informed choices about responding to the challenges they face. They say relocation is the last option that should be considered, the others being quiet acceptance and calm resistance. Leaving is usually the option that is hardest to implement and has long-term consequences.
One observation by an Egyptian church leader to keep in mind is that systematic discrimination causes more harm to the Church than occasional violent attacks. This expresses itself in people leaving quietly as migrant workers securing jobs and residency abroad. Whilst religious demographics are always problematic and much debated, the general trend is clear: the proportion of the population recognised as Christian has declined since the Second World War. In Iraq, the period of international sanctions from 1991 to 2003 probably had a greater effect than subsequent internal conflict. For Syria, land reform in 1958 and 1970 disproportionately affected Christians, prompting many to leave. The brain drain has affected all communities, with long-term consequences for leadership in business, education, public services, politics and religious communities.
Two independent studies suggest that of those who emigrate to the West to escape intense persecution, approximately 90% stop practising their Christian faith within five to ten years of arrival. There are many reasons as to why this occurs, mostly related to the cultural differences between the West and elsewhere. Incidentally, Iran is thought to be an exception to the general pattern. It is more common for converts to be obliged to leave and the drop-out rate after arrival in the West is thought to be lower for Iranians.
Lebanon is a microcosm of migration. It has welcomed numerous migrant workers from within the region and beyond, some of whom are well treated, though others are not. For example, some domestic workers are treated as modern-day slaves, permanently confined to their places of work. The suicide rate in mid-2017 was at least one a week.
Lebanon also illustrates the dynamics of forced displacement. The civil war (1975-91) left the country largely segregated on religious lines. The Church was part of this picture, with some strongly Christian areas and others with little, if any, overt presence of recognised churches. Breaking this culture has not been easy. One observation from recent years has been the increasing willingness of Lebanese churches to engage with non-Christian communities. In some senses, the arrival of vast numbers of Syrians since 2011 has assisted with this. People of compassion and goodwill have responded generously to those with obvious needs for welcome, shelter and listening ears. Lebanon also hosts displaced Iraqis and has a long-standing Palestinian community.
One thing is clear: the nature of the Church in the Middle East is certainly changing. A few long-standing churches are more able to welcome those from Muslim backgrounds into membership. In some locations, the Church now has more people of Muslim backgrounds than of traditional Christian.
Jonathan Andrews has been researching and writing on Middle East affairs since 2003 and is the UK representative of the International Institute for Religious Freedom. To learn more about the trends in this report, read his newly published book, ‘Last Resort – Migration and the Middle East’.