Being Christian in the birthplace of Christianity—the Middle East—has become increasingly difficult. In recent decades, Christian minority groups in the Middle East have been subjected to harassment, persecution, violence, and killings, leading to a mass exodus from the region. Low birth rates have also been attributed to the shrinking number of Christians in the Arab-speaking world.
The Middle East’s Christian population was about 20 percent a hundred years ago. Now it stands at about 5 percent.
According to an official British report this year, commissioned by the UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the Middle East’s Christian population was about 20 percent a hundred years ago. Now it stands at about 5 percent. The report criticized Turkey, Iraq, and Iran for targeting Christians and creating a hostile environment against them. Many Christians fear that their faith faces literal extinction in its spiritual homeland in coming years, turning a religiously diverse Middle East into a mono-religious region.
Lebanon’s Maronite Christians have maintained perhaps an exceptionally strong presence and power in this country’s political life compared to the rest of the region. Christians, which include Maronites, Armenian and Greek Catholics, and Greek Orthodox, constitute about 40 percent of Lebanon’s population. Maronites are estimated to amount to roughly half of that percentage. Members of this Christian group are followers of a 4th century Syrian hermit, St. Maron. Although they are united with the Roman Catholic Church, they maintain their own traditions.
According to the Lebanese constitution, the president must always be Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker Shia Muslim.
After the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, Lebanon’s constitution granted an inclusive power-sharing arrangement to the country’s deeply divided sectarian community, a model that is unique to the Middle East. According to the constitution, the president must be always Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker Shia Muslim. Holding key positions of power, Maronites for decades pushed for preserving the country’s independence from Syria, which occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years until 2005. They have also maintained pro-Western attitudes.
In the rapidly changing Middle East and in the midst of multiple conflicts, Lebanon is still a relatively safe place for Christians. To a large extent, Maronites are still powerful, but they fear their decline maybe near due to the change of the population makeup because of the influx of more than 1.5 million Syrian, mainly Sunni Muslim, refugees. Lebanese Christians fear that a disproportionate number of refugees in this country of 4 million will destabilize the hard-earned peace and shift the delicate balance of power between Christians and Muslims.
Because Lebanon is also a home to thousands of Palestinian refugees who arrived several decades ago, the country’s Christian population questions whether the arrival of Syrian refugees due to the ongoing civil war there will tip the demographic balance against them and inflame social tensions in this poor country with its already shaky economy and scarce resources. Lebanon’s own 15-year civil war was partially caused by its struggle to absorb a large number of Palestinian refugees. Faced with social and political tensions, and often physical abuse, in Lebanon, hundreds of Syrian Muslim refugees converted to Christianity to increase their chances of receiving humanitarian aid from Christian charities in this country or gaining asylum in Western countries.
Over the past several years, the Maronite church has been calling for the return of Syrian refugees to Syria in order to ease the burden on Lebanon and “help preserve Lebanon’s history, heritage, and culture.”
Over the past several years, the Maronite church has been calling for the return of Syrian refugees to Syria in order to ease the burden on Lebanon and “help preserve Lebanon’s history, heritage, and culture.” For years, Lebanese Christians have been urging the international community to help end the Syrian war and protect Lebanon’s peace and religious plurality. Lebanese politicians and a large segment of the country’s population widely share these sentiments.
However, fear of losing the fragile balance of power has begun causing backlash against Muslims in recent years, sometimes leading to open divisions. Since 2010, a small Maronite Christian-dominated town of Hadath in Lebanon has publicly banned Muslims from renting or buying property from its Christian residents. Some Muslim residents in Hadath have been forced out of their homes by Christian property owners. While the country’s interior minister, Raya al-Hassan, criticized the town’s ban as unconstitutional, its mayor, George Aoun, defended the policy.
According to Aoun, “demographic changes would threaten the co-existence” of Christians and Muslims, and his decision, in fact, is helping preserve co-existence. By imposing such a ban, the town’s Christians reportedly seek to protect their presence and identity. As citizens of Lebanon, local Muslims increasingly feel excluded and resentful about these discriminatory policies that prevent them from living in their own country. Although Hadath’s policies have been in place for almost ten years, it has only in recent months come under close public and media scrutiny.
But such discriminatory practices are not limited to this town. Banning property rental and ownership by Muslims has existed in other parts of Lebanon. For example, the majority Maronite and Melkite Christian town of Jezzine instituted new zoning restrictions in 2014 that prevent local Christian residents from selling their land and made it difficult to construct new buildings. Only Jezzine residents are permitted to buy property in this town.
In a country with a shrinking Christian population, the fragile pluralistic and representative power arrangement may be in jeopardy if divisions along sectarian lines deepen further. Deeper sectarian division has the potential to weaken the existing power position of Maronite Christians.
While the sense of being under siege by a growing majority of Muslims is understandable in towns such as Hadath, which was predominantly Christian thirty years ago and is now dominated by a burgeoning Muslim population, overt discrimination and banning of other religious groups in certain jurisdictions will only exacerbate distrust and social and political tensions in Lebanon that have not fully healed since the end of the civil war. In a country with a shrinking Christian population, the fragile pluralistic and representative power arrangement may be in jeopardy if divisions along sectarian lines deepen further. Deeper sectarian division has the potential to weaken the existing power position of Maronite Christians.
Without dialogue, inclusion, peaceful co-existence, and power-sharing, Lebanon runs the risk of returning to how it was thirty years ago: sectarian rivalry, fighting, and bloodshed.