Arab Christians

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Arab Christians
ﺍﻟﻤﺴﻴﺤﻴﻮﻥ ﺍﻟﻌﺮﺏ
Arab Christians.png
Christian populations of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Egypt
Regions with significant populations
(excluding 25,000[2]–52,000 Maronites)
(excluding 1 million Maronites)
(excluding 1,000 Maronites)
(excluding 1,000 Coptic Christians and excluding 7,000 Maronites)
State of Palestine Palestine38,000[5]–50,000[6]
(excluding East Jerusalem)
(excluding 9-15 million Coptic Christians and 5,000 Maronites[8])
 Morocco8,000 [10]–40,000.[11]
(including Berbers)
Arabic, Hebrew (within Israel), French (within Lebanon and diaspora), English, Spanish and Portuguese (diaspora)
Roman Catholic
(Eastern, various rites and jurisdictions; Latin)
Eastern Orthodox
(Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria)

[a].^ excluding Copts
[c].^ excluding Maronites
[d].^ prior to Syrian civil war

Arab Christians (Arabic: ﺍﻟﻤﺴﻴﺤﻴﻮﻥ ﺍﻟﻌﺮﺏal-Masīḥiyyūn al-ʿArab) are Arabs of the Christian faith.[12] Some are descended from ancient Arab Christian clans that did not convert to Islam, such as the Sabaean tribes of Yemen (i.e., Ghassanids, Banu Judham) and the Nabataeans who settled in Transjordan and Syria, and others are descended from Arabized Christians, such as Melkites and Antiochian Greek Christians. Arab Christians are estimated to number 520,000[1]–703,000[2] in Syria, 350,000[1] in Lebanon, 221,000 in Jordan,[3] 10,000[13]–350,000[1] in Egypt, 134,130 in Israel and 50,000 in Palestine. There are also Arab Christian communities in Iraq and Turkey.

Emigrants from Arab and Arabized Christian communities make up a significant proportion of the Middle Eastern diaspora, with sizable population concentrations across the Americas, most notably in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and the US, however those emigrants in the Americas, especially from the first wave of emigration, have not passed the Arabic language nor the Arab identity to their descendants.[14]

The first Arab tribes to adopt Christianity were likely Nabataeans and Ghassanids. During the fifth and sixth centuries, the Ghassanids, who at first adopted monophysitism, formed one of the most powerful confederations allied to Christian Byzantium, being a buffer against the pagan tribes of Arabia. The last king of the Lakhmids, al-Nu'man III ibn al-Mundhir, a client of the Sasanian Empire in the late sixth century, also converted to Christianity (in this case, to the Nestorian sect favoured by the native Christians of al-Hira).[15]

Arab Christians played important roles in al-Nahda movement in modern times, and because Arab Christians formed the educated upper class and the bourgeoisie,[16] they have had a significant impact in politics, business and culture of the Arab world.[17][18] Today Arab Christians still play important roles in the Arab world, and Christians are relatively wealthy, well-educated, and politically moderate.[19]

Arab Christians are not the only Christian group in the Middle East, with significant non-Arab indigenous Christian communities of Assyrians, Armenians, and others. Although sometimes classified as "Arab Christians", the largest Middle Eastern Christian groups of Maronites and Copts often claim non-Arab ethnicity: a significant proportion of Maronites claim descent from the ancient Phoenicians while a significant proportion of Copts also eschew an Arab identity, preferring an Ancient Egyptian one.[20]


Classic antiquity[edit]

The Aqaba Church in Jordan in the fourth century AD, it is considered to be the world's first purpose built Christian church.[21]
Jubail Church is a 4th-century church building near Jubail, Saudi Arabia. It belonged to the Church of the East, an ancient Nestorian branch of Christianity in the Middle East. It is one of the oldest churches in the world.[22]

Arab Christians are Indigenous peoples of Western Asia, with a presence there predating the seventh-century Early Muslim conquests in the Fertile Crescent. There were many Arab tribes which adhered to Christianity beginning with the 1st century, including the Nabateans and the Ghassanids.[23]

Nabateans were possibly among the first Arab tribes to arrive at the Southern Levant in the very late first millennium BC. The Nabataeans initially adopted pagan beliefs, but they became Christians by the time of the Byzantine period around the 4th century.[24] The new Arab invaders, who soon pressed forward into their seats found the remnants of the Nabataeans transformed into peasants. Their lands were divided between the new Qahtanite Arab tribal kingdoms of the Byzantine vassals, the Ghassanids and the Himyarite Kingdom, the Kindah in North Arabia.

The tribes of Tayy, Banu Abdul Qays, and Taghlib are also known to have included many Christians in the pre-Islamic period. The southern Arabian city of Najran was a center of Arabian Christianity, made famous by the persecution by one of the kings of Yemen, Dhu Nawas, who was himself an enthusiastic convert to Judaism. The leader of the Arabs of Najran during the period of persecution, al-Ḥārith, was canonized by the Catholic Church as Arethas. Some modern scholars suggest that Philip the Arab was the first Christian emperor of Rome.[25] By the fourth century, a significant number of Christians occupied the Sinai Peninsula, Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula.

The New Testament has a biblical account of Arab conversion to Christianity recorded in the book of Acts. When Saint Peter preaches to the people of Jerusalem, they ask, "And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? [. . .] both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." (Acts 2:8, 11, English Standard Version).[citation needed] Arab Christians are thus one of the oldest Christian communities.

The first mention of Christianity in Arabia occurs in the New Testament as the Apostle Paul refers to his journey in Arabia following his conversion (Galatians 1: 15-17). Later, Eusebius discusses a bishop named Beryllus in the see of Bostra, the site of a synod c. 240 and two Councils of Arabia. Christians existed in Arab lands from at least the 3rd century onward.[25]

Also, there were Christian influences coming from Ethiopia in particular in pre-Islamic times, and some Hejazis, including a cousin of Muhammad's wife Khadija bint Khuwaylid, according to some sources, adopted this faith, while some Ethiopian Christians may have lived in Mecca.[26]

Islamic era[edit]

Arab Christian, Saint Abo, who converted from Islam and went on to practice his faith in what is now Tbilisi, Georgia, before being martyred (d.786)

Following the fall of large portions of former Byzantine and Sasanian provinces to the Arab armies, a large indigenous Christian population of varying ethnicities came under Arab Muslim dominance. Historically, a number of minority Christian sects were persecuted as heretic under Byzantine rule (such as non-Chalcedonians). As Muslim army commanders expanded their empire and attacked countries in Asia, North Africa and southern Europe, they would offer three conditions to their enemies: convert to Islam, or pay jizya (tax) every year, or face war to death. Those who refused war and refused to convert were deemed to have agreed to pay jizya.[27][28]

It is a common agreement that after the rapid expansion of Islam from the 7th century onward, many Christians chose not to convert to Islam. Many scholars and intellectuals like Edward Said believed Christians in the Arab world have made significant contributions to the Arab civilization since the 7th century AD and still do. Some of the top poets at certain times were Arab Christians, and many Arab (and non-Arab) Christians were physicians, writers, government officials, and people of literature.

As "People of the Book", Christians in the region were accorded certain rights under Islamic law to practice their religion (including having Christian law used for rulings, settlements or sentences in court). In contrast to Muslims, who paid the zakat tax, they paid the jizya, an obligatory tax. The jizya was not levied on slaves, women, children, monks, the old, the sick,[29][30] hermits, or the poor.[31] In return, non-Muslim citizens were permitted to practice their faith, to enjoy a measure of communal autonomy, to be entitled to Muslim state's protection from outside aggression, to be exempted from military service and the zakat.[32][33][34]

Role in al-Nahda[edit]

Maryana Marrash (1848-1919) was a Syrian writer and poet. She was the first Syrian woman to publish a collection of poetry
May Ziadeh (1886-1941) is considered to have been a key figure of the Nahda in the early 20th-century Arab literary scene, and a "pioneer of Oriental feminism"
Saleem Takla (1849-1892) was the Lebanese founder of the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram
Qustaki al-Himsi (1858-1941) was a Syrian writer and poet. Qustaki is considered to be the founder of modern literary criticism among the Arab scholars

The Renaissance of Arab culture or al-Nahda was a cultural renaissance that began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it began in the wake of the exit of Muhammad Ali of Egypt from the Levant in 1840.[35] Beirut, Cairo, Damascus and Aleppo were the main centers of the renaissance and this led to the establishment of schools, universities, theater and printing presses. It also led to the renewal of literary, linguistic and poetic distinctiveness. The emergence of a politically active movement known as the "association" was accompanied by the birth of the idea of Arab nationalism and the demand for the reformation of the Ottoman Empire. The emergence of the idea of Arab independence and reformation led to the calling of the establishment of modern states based on the European-style.

It was during this stage that the first compound of the Arabic language was introduced along with the printing of it in Arabic letters. This led into music, sculpture, history and the humanities generally, as well as in economics and human rights. This cultural renaissance by the Arabs during the late Ottoman rule was the quantum leap for them in the post-industrial revolution, and can not be limited to the invidual fields of cultural renaissance in the nineteenth century within these categories, as it only extended to include the spectrum of society and the fields as a whole. It is almost universally agreed among historians the importance of the role played by the Arab Christians in this renaissance, both in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and their role in the prosperity through participation in the diaspora also.[17][18][36]

Because Arab Christians formed the educated and bourgeois classes, they have had a significant impact on politics, business and culture of the Arab World.[16] Some of the most influential Arab nationalists were Arab Christians, for example, Saleem Takla and his brother Bishara Takla founded the Al-Ahram newspaper in Egypt and it is now the most widely circulated Egyptian daily newspaper and second oldest.[37] Christian colleges like Saint Joseph University and the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, Al-Hikma University in Baghdad and others played leading role in the development of civilization and Arab culture.[38] In Iraq, active father Anastas Marie Carmelite, and in the literature mentioned, Gibran Khalil Gibran, Mikhail Naima, Ameen Rihani, Abd al-Masih Haddad, Shafiq Maalouf and Elias Farhat. In politics, Alazuri Shokri Ghanem and Jacob Abov, Faris Nimr and Boutros-Ghali.

Given this growing Christian role in politics and culture, the Ottoman ministers began to have Arab Christians in their governments. In the economic sphere, a number of Christian families such as the Sursock became prominent. Thus, the Nahda led the Muslims and Christians to a cultural renaissance and national general despotism which formed Rkizath Society of Union and Progress and Policy Turkification. This established the renaissance and solidified Arab Christians as one of the pillars of the region and not as a minority on the fringes.[39]

The Mahjar (one of its more literal meanings being "the Arab diaspora") was a literary movement that succeeded the Nahda movement. It was started by Arabic-speaking writers who had emigrated to America from Ottoman-ruled Lebanon, Syria and Palestine at the turn of the 20th century. These writers, in South America as well as the United States, contributed indeed to the further development of the Nahda in the early 20th century. Kahlil Gibran is considered to have been the most influential of the "Mahjar poets" or "Mahjari poets". The writers of the Mahjar movement were stimulated by their personal encounter with the Western world and participated in the renewal of Arabic literature, hence their proponents being sometimes referred to as writers of the "late Nahda".

Modern era[edit]

Melkite Greek Catholic and Maronite Christians suffered a religiously-motivated Genocide at the hands of the Ottomans and their allies in the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon during World War I, which ran in conjunction with the Assyrian genocide, the Armenian Genocide and the Greek genocide.

Fares al-Khoury (1887-1962) was the two-time prime minister of Syria, statesman, minister, speaker of parliament and resolute Syrian nationalist
Antoun Saadeh (1904-1949) was a Lebanese philosopher, writer and politician who founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP)
Michel Aflaq (1910-1989) was Syrian philosopher, sociologist and Arab nationalist. He is considered to be the founder of Ba'athism
George Habash (1926-2008) was the Palestinian founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

Some of the most influential Arab nationalists were Greek Orthodox Christians, like the Syrian intellectual Constantin Zureiq, the influential ba'athism proponent Michel Aflaq and Jurji Zaydan, who was reputed to be the first Arab nationalist. Several Arab Palestinian Christians edited and owned the leading newspapers in Mandatory Palestine including Falastin, edited by cousins Issa El-Issa and Yousef El-Issa, and Al-Karmil, which was edited by Najib Nassar. Khalil al-Sakakini, a prominent Jerusalemite, was also an Arab Orthodox, as was George Antonius, author of The Arab Awakening. Similary the first Pan-Syrian propenents were also Arab Christian including Antoun Saadeh, the founder behind the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party and Butrus al-Bustani; a Maronite convert to Protestantism, considered to be the first Syrian nationalist.

Mikhail Mishaqa whom converted from the Greek Catholic Church to Protestantism, was born in Rashmayyā, Lebanon, and is reputed to be the first historian of modern Ottoman Syria. Other academics include the essayist and scholar, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, intellectual Edward Said and Nobel Prize winners Elias James Corey and Peter Medawar. Another intellectual of the Mahjar movement, Abraham Mitrie Rihbany, was an American theologian, philologist and historian of Greek Orthodox Lebanese descent, born in Shweir. His best-known book, The Syrian Christ (1916), was highly influential in its time in explaining the cultural background to some situations and modes of expression to be found in the Gospels. The founder and subsequent editors of the Lebanese An-Nahar newspaper belonged to the Greek Orthodox Tueni family. The Tueni family is one of the original Greek Orthodox aristocratic “Seven Families” of Beirut, along with the Bustros, Fayad, Araman, Sursock, Fernaine, and Trad families, who constituted the traditional high society of Beirut. Charles Debbas was the first president of Lebanon and was a Greek Orthodox and Fares al-Khoury was the twice prime minister of Syria and "godfather of modern Syrian politics". Faris Koury's position as prime minister is, as of 2020, the highest political position a Christian has ever reached. Fares was born into a Greek Orthodox Christian family that eventually converted to Presbyterianism.

During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, a number of Palestinian Arab Greek Orthodox communities were ethnically cleansed and driven out of their towns, including al-Bassa, Ramla, Lod, Safed, Kafr Bir'im, Iqrit, Tarbikha, Eilabun and the city of Haifa. In addition around 20,000 Christians fled Haifa, 20,000 fled West Jerusalem, 700 fled Acre and 10,000 fled Jaffa.[citation needed] However prominent members remained such as Tawfik Toubi, Emile Touma and Emile Habibi and they went on to be leaders of the Palestinian Communist party in Israel. George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was Palestinian Arab Christian. Many Palestinian Christians were also active in the formation and governing of the Palestinian National Authority since 1994. Another Palestinian Christian, Wadie Haddad was a Palestinian leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's armed wing.

With the events of the Arab Spring, the Syrian Arab Christian community was heavily hit in line with other Christian communities of Syria, being victimized by the war and specifically targeted as a minority by Jihadist forces. Many Christians, including Arab Christians, were displaced or fled Syria over the course of the Syrian Civil War, however some stayed on and continue to fight with the Syrian Armed Forces and the allied Syrian Social Nationalist Party against insurgents today. Jules Jammal, the legendary Syrian military officer who martyred himself ramming a French ship during the Suez Crisis in Egypt, was also an Arab Christian. According to a narrative prevailing in the Arab world, Jammal rammed his boat into a French warship, thereby sinking the ship. Sana'a Mehaidli was born into a large Greek Orthodox family in Anqoun, near Sidon, and is believed to have been the worlds first female suicide bomber. She is known as "the Bride of the South" and martyred herself in Jezzine, Lebanon, during the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon.


West Asia[edit]


Interior of a church in Mosul, 1852.

Christianity has a presence in Iraq dating to the first century, and Syriac Christianity, the Syriac language and Syriac alphabet evolved in Assyria in northern Iraq. The Arab Christian community in Iraq is relatively small, and further dwindled due to the Iraq War to just several thousand. Most Arab Christians in Iraq belong traditionally to Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches and are concentrated in major cities such as Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.

The vast majority of the remaining 450,000 to 900,000 Christians in Iraq[40] are Assyrian people, who follow Syriac Christianity, most notably the Chaldean Catholic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, Assyrian Evangelical Church and Assyrian Pentecostal Church. More than two-thirds of Iraqi Christians have fled or immigrated to other countries[which?] this century.[41][failed verification]. In the 1987 Iraq census there were 1.4 million Christians in a population of 22 million but the numbers had fallen to 800–900,000 by the outbreak of the 2003 war due to emigration (Irinnews 2006 and BBC article 2010).

While there has been voluntary relocation of many Assyrian Christian families to the Assyrian homeland in northern Iraq, recent reporting indicates that the overall Christian population may have dropped by as much as 50 percent since the fall of Ba'athist Iraq in 2003, with many fleeing to Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon (2010 est.)[42] Significant persecution and displacement of Iraqi Christians in Mosul and other areas held by ISIS occurred from 2014 onwards, with Christian houses identified with the Arabic letter "N" for "Nasrani" (Christian).[43]


In December 2009, 122,000 Arab Christians lived in Israel, as Arab citizens of Israel, out of a total of 151,700 Christian citizens.[44] According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, on the eve of Christmas 2013, there were approximately 161,000 Christians in Israel, about 2 percent of the general population in Israel. 80% of the Christians are Arab[45] with smaller Christian communities of ethnic Russians, Greeks, Armenians, Maronites, Ukrainians and Assyrians.[46] People born into Christian families or clans who have either Aramaic or Maronite cultural heritage are considered an ethnicity separate from Israeli Arabs and since 2014 can register themselves as Arameans. There are 117,000 or more Christian Arabs in Israel (and more than 35,000 non-Arab Christians).[47]

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the background is venerated by Christians worldwide as the site of the Burial of Jesus

As of 2014 the Melkite Greek Catholic Church was the largest Christian community in Israel, where about 60% of Israeli Christians belonged to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church,[48] while around 30% of Israeli Christians belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.[48] Other denominations are the Anglicans who have their cathedral church in East Jerusalem. Baptists in Israel are concentrated in the north of the country and have four churches in the Nazareth area, and a seminary. The cities and communities where most of Christians in Israel reside are Haifa, Nazareth, Jish, Mi'ilya, Fassuta and Kafr Yasif.[49] Many Christian towns or neighborhoods were totally or partially ethnic cleansed and destroyed in the period between 1948 and 1953 such as Iqrith, Al bassa, kufur birim, Ma’loul, West Jerusalem neighborhoods, all residents of Safed, Beisan, Tiberias (including Christians), a big part of the Christians in Haifa, Jaffa, Lydda, Ramleh and other places.

Among Arab Christians in Israel, some emphasize pan-Arabism, while a small minority enlists in the Israel Defense Forces.[50][51] There are Arab Christian representation in kenneset.

Arab Christians are one of the most educated groups in Israel. Maariv has described the Christian Arabs sectors as "the most successful in education system",[52] Statistically, Christian Arabs in Israel have the highest rates of educational attainment among all religious communities, according to a data by Israel Central Bureau of Statistics in 2010, 63% of Israeli Christian Arabs have had college or postgraduate education, the highest of any religious and ethno-religious group.[53][54] Christian Arabs also have one of the highest rates of success in the matriculation examinations per capita, (73.9%) in 2016[55][56] both in comparison to the Muslims and the Druze and in comparison to all students in the Jewish education system as a group,[54] Arab Christians were also the vanguard in terms of eligibility for higher education.[54] and they have attained a bachelor's degree and academic degree more than Jewish, Muslims and Druze per capita.[54]

The rate of students studying in the field of medicine was also higher among the Christian Arab students, compared with all the students from other sectors.[54] despite the fact that Arab Christians only represent 2.1% of the total Israeli population,[57] in 2014 they accounted for 17.0% of the country's university students, and for 14.4% of its college students.[58]

Socio-economically, Arab Christians are closer to the Jewish population than to the Muslim population.[59] They have the lowest incidence of poverty and the lowest percentage of unemployment which is 4.9% compared to 6.5% among Jewish men and women.[60] They have also the highest median household income among Arab citizens of Israel and second highest median household income among the Israeli ethno-religious groups.[61] Also Arab Christians have a high presentation in science and in the white collar professions.[citation needed]


A Greek Orthodox Church during a snow storm in Amman, Jordan
Jordanian Bedouin Christians, 1904

Jordan contains some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, their presence dating back to the first century AD. Today, Christians today make up about 4% of the population, down from 20% in 1930.[62] This is due to high immigration rates of Muslims into Jordan, higher emigration rates of Christians to the west and higher birth rates for Muslims.[63]

Jordanian Arab Christians (some have Palestinian roots since 1948) number around 221,000, according to a 2014 estimate by the Orthodox Church. The study excluded minority Christian groups and the thousands of western, Iraqi and Syrian Christians residing in Jordan.[3] Another estimate suggests the Orthodox number 125–300,000, Catholics at 114,000 and Protestants at 30,000 for a total 270–450,000. Most native Christians in Jordan identify themselves as Arab, though there are also significant Assyrian and Armenian populations in the country. There has been an influx of Christian refugees escaping Daesh, mainly from Mosul, Iraq, numbering about 7000[64] and 20,000 from Syria.[65]

Religious conversion of a Muslim to another religion is technically not permitted. Christian ex-Muslims are not permitted to legally convert and do not enjoy the same rights as other Christians in Jordan.[citation needed] However, there are cases in which a Muslim will adopt the Christian faith, secretly declaring his/her faith. In effect, they are practicing Christians, but legally Muslims; thus, the statistics of Jordanian Christians does not include Muslim converts to Christianity. A 2015 study estimates some 6500 practicing Christians from a Muslim background in Jordan.[66]

Christians in Jordan are exceptionally well integrated in the Jordanian society and enjoy a high level of freedom.[67] Christians are allotted nine out of a total of 130 seats in the Parliament of Jordan, and also hold important ministerial portfolios, ambassadorial appointments, and positions of high military rank. All Christian religious ceremonies are publicly celebrated in Jordan.[68]

Petra is an ancient Nabataean city in Jordan and it is considered to be a sacred site for many Arab Christians in the Levant.[69]


Lebanese Christian men from Mount Lebanon, late 1800s
Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Qana, Lebanon

Lebanon holds the largest number of Christians in the Arab world proportionally and falls just behind Egypt in absolute numbers. About 350,000 of Christians in Lebanon are Orthodox and Melkites, while the most dominant group are Maronites with about 1 million population, whose Arab identity is somewhat disputed.[70]

Christians formed about 40% of Lebanese citizens after 1920.[71] The exact number of Christians in modern Lebanon is uncertain because no official census has been made in Lebanon since 1932. Lebanese Christians belong mostly to the Maronite and Greek Orthodox Churches, with sizable minorities belonging to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and Armenian Apostolic Church. The community of Armenians in Lebanon is the most politically and demographically significant in the Middle East. Lebanese Christians are the only Christians in the Middle East with a sizable political role in the country. The Lebanese constitution requires that the Lebanese president, half of the cabinet, and half of the parliament follow one of the various Lebanese Christian rites.

While most Maronites claim pre-Arab origins in the region, with relation to Mardaites and perhaps even Phoenicians of the ancient times, there is no question Arabization of this population took place over centuries of Muslim rule and Arab domination in the region. The indigenous Western Aramaic language among the Maronites was abandoned as a spoken tongue by the end of the Middle Ages, making this community also to adopt elements of Arab culture from their Arab Christian and Arab Muslim neighbors. Nevertheless, many Maronites still strongly point out their unique origins, separate from Arab peoples, and predating the Arab migrations to the region. Some Maronites tend to oppose such divergence opinions, and actually see themselves as part of the Arab nation, defined by the Pan-Arab identity. There are even voices aiming to link Maronites with Arabs by bloodline. For example, according to Kamal Salibi some Maronites may have been descended from an Arabian tribe, who immigrated thousands of years ago from the southern Arabian Peninsula. Salibi maintains, "It is very possible that the Maronites, as a community of Arabian origin, were among the last Arabian Christian tribes to arrive in Syria before Islam".[72]


Most of the Palestinian Christians claim descent from the first Christian converts, Arameans, Ghassanid Arabs and Greeks who settled in the region. Between 36,000 and 50,000 Christians live in Palestine, most of whom belong to the Orthodox (Including Greek, Syriac and Armenian Orthodox), Catholic (Roman and Melchite) churches and Evangelical communities. The majority of Palestinian Christians live in the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas with a less number in other places.[73]

Interior of the house of a Christian Family in Jerusalem, ca 1850

Many Palestinian Christians hold high-ranking positions in Palestinian society, particularly at the political and social levels. They manage the high ranking schools, universities, cultural centers and hospitals.

Christian communities in the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip have greatly dwindled over the last two decades. The causes of the Palestinian Christian exodus are widely debated and it started since the Ottoman times.[74] Reuters reports that many Palestinian Christians emigrate in pursuit of better living standards,[73] while the BBC also blames the economic decline in the Palestinian Authority as well as pressure from the security situation upon their lifestyle.[75] The Vatican and the Catholic Church saw the Israeli occupation and the general conflict in the Holy Land as the principal reasons for the Christian exodus from the territories.[76] The West Bank barrier and restrictions on Palestinian movement were cited by the former Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs' chief liaison to Christians as the primary issues facing local Christians.[citation needed]

The decline of the Christian community in the Palestinian controlled areas follows the general trend of Christian decline in the Muslim dominated the Middle East. Some churches have attempted to ameliorate the rate of emigration of young Christians by building subsidized housing for them and expanding efforts at job training.[77]

Gaza Strip[edit]

In 2007, just before the Hamas takeover of Gaza, there were 3,200 Christians living in the Gaza Strip.[78] Half the Christian community in Gaza fled to the West Bank and abroad after the Hamas take-over in 2007.[79]


Mosaic depicting Mary holding an Arabic text, Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery, a Greek Orthodox Church in Sednaya, Syria

In Syria, according to the 1960 census which recorded just over 4.5 million inhabitants, Christians formed just under 15% of the population (or 675,000). This represents a decline from 20% in 1937 when the population was 335,000.[citation needed] The combined population of Syrian and Lebanon in 1910 was estimated at 30% in a population of 3.5 million. Since 1960 the population of Syria has increased five-fold, but the Christian population only 3.5 times. Due to political reasons, no newer census has been taken since. Most recent estimates prior to the Syrian civil war suggested that overall Christians comprised about 10% of the overall population of Syrian 23 million citizens, due to having lower birth rates and higher emigration rates than their Muslim compatriots.[80] Today, a sizeable share of Syrian Christians hold on to their ethnic Antiochian Greek, Assyrians (particularly in the northeast), and Armenian origins, with a major recent influx of Assyrian Iraqi Christian refugees into these communities after massacres in Turkey and Iraq during and after WWI and then post-2003. Due to the Syrian civil war, a large number of Christians fled the country to Lebanon, Jordan, and Europe, though the major share of the population still resides in Syria (some being internally displaced).

John of Damascus, an Arab monk and presbyter, 7th century (Greek icon)

The Arab Christians of Syria are Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic (Melkites) as well as some Latin Rite Roman Catholics. Non-Arab Syrian Christians include Assyrians (mainly in the northeast), Syriac-Arameans, Greeks and Armenians. The largest Christian denomination in Syria is the Greek Orthodox church,[81] most of whom are Arab Christians, followed in second place by the Syriac Orthodox, many of whose followers espouse an Aramean or Assyrian identity. The appellation "Greek" refers to the liturgy they use. Sometimes it is used to refer to the ancestry and ethnicity of the members, however not all members are of Antiochian ancestry; in fact, the Arabic word used is "Rum", which means "Byzantines", or Eastern Romans. Greeks in Syria constitute a distinct separate ethnicity, numbering 4,500 in Syria today. Overall, the term is generally used to refer to the Greek liturgy. Melkite Church is another major religious denomination of Arabized Christians in Syria. Melkites, the followers of the Greek Catholic Church form another major group.

Though religious freedom is allowed in the Syrian Arab Republic, all citizens of Syria including Christians, are subject to the Shari'a-based personal status laws regulating child custody, inheritance, and adoption.[81] For example, in the case of divorce, a woman loses the right to custody of her sons when they reach the age of thirteen and her daughters when they reach the age of fifteen, regardless of religion.[81]


St. Paul Orthodox Church in Antakya (ancient Antioch)

Antiochian Greeks who mostly live in Hatay Province, are one of the Arabic-speaking communities in Turkey, their number approximately 18,000.[82] They are Greek Orthodox. However, they are sometimes known as Arab Christians, primarily because of their language. Antioch (capital of Hatay Province) is also the historical capital of Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. Turkey is also home to a number of non-Arab Armenians (who number around 70,000),[83] Greeks (who number around 5,000 not including Antiochian Greeks) and Assyrian Christians in the southeast.

The village of Tokaçlı in Altınözü District has an entirely Arab Christian population and is one of the few Christian villages in Turkey.[84]

Arabian Peninsula[edit]

Kuwait's native Christian population exists, though is essentially small. There are between 259 and 400 Christian Kuwaiti citizens.[85][86][87]

Christian Kuwaitis can be divided into two groups. The first group includes the earliest Kuwaiti Christians, who originated from Iraq and Turkey.[87] They have assimilated into Kuwaiti society, like their Muslim counterparts, and tend to speak Arabic with a Kuwaiti dialect; their food and culture are also predominantly Kuwaiti. They makeup roughly a quarter of Kuwait's Christian population. The rest (roughly three-quarters) of Christian Kuwaitis make up the second group. They are more recent arrivals in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly Kuwaitis of Palestinian ancestry who were forced out of Palestine after 1948.[87] There are also smaller numbers who originally hail from Syria and Lebanon.[87] This second group is not as assimilated as the first group, as their food, culture, and Arabic dialect still retain a Levant feel. However, they are just as patriotic as the former group, and tend to be proud of their adopted homeland, with many serving in the army, police, civil, and foreign service. Most of Kuwait's citizen Christians belong to 12 large families, with the Shammas (from Turkey) and the Shuhaibar (from Palestine) families being some of the more prominent ones.[87]

Holy Family Cathedral in Kuwait

Native Christians who hold Bahraini citizenship number approximately 1,000 persons.[88] The majority of Christians are originally from Iraq, Palestine and Jordan, with a small minority having lived in Bahrain for many centuries; the majority have been living as Bahraini citizens for less than a century. There are also smaller numbers of native Christians who originally hail from Lebanon, Syria, and India.

The majority of Christian Bahraini citizens tend to be Orthodox Christians, with the largest church by membership being the Greek Orthodox Church. They enjoy many equal religious and social freedom. Bahrain has Christian members in the Bahraini government.

North Africa[edit]

St. Augustine of Hippo was a Christian theologian, philosopher, and the bishop of Hippo Regius in Numidia, modern-day Algeria
Kabyle Christians of Algeria

There are tiny communities of Roman Catholics in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco due to colonial rule - French rule for Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, Spanish rule for Morocco and Western Sahara, and Italian rule for Libya. Most Christians in North Africa are foreign missionaries, immigrant workers, and people of French, Spanish, and Italian colonial descent. The North African Christians of Berber or Arab descent mostly converted during the modern era or under and after French colonialism.[89][90]

Arguably, many more Maghrebi Christians of Arab or Berber descent live in France than in North Africa, due to the exodus of the pieds-noirs in the 1960s. Charles de Foucauld was renowned for his missions in North Africa among Muslims, including African Arabs. Today conversions to Christianity have been most common in Algeria,[91] especially in the Kabylie, and Morocco[92] and Tunisia.[93] A 2015 study estimates 380,000 Muslims converted to Christianity in Algeria.[66] While it's estimated that between 8,000[94]-40,000[95] Moroccans converted to Christianity in the last decades; although some estimate the number to be as high as 150,000.[96] In Tunisia, however, the number of Tunisian Christians is estimated to be around 23,500.[97]


If one excludes the Copts who adhere to an Ancient Egyptian heritage, the numbers of the Greek Orthodox Church adherents in Egypt, who are ethnically Greek and possibly Arab, is rather small - on the order of several thousand each. There are several isolated Greek Orthodox communities, largely composed of Arabs, in the Sinai Peninsula, though the rest of Egypt also has tiny numbers of other than Copts minorities.

Iconostasis of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Sabbas, Alexandria, Egypt

Most Egyptian Christians are Copts, who are mainly members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Although Copts in Egypt speak Egyptian Arabic, many of them do not consider themselves to be ethnically Arabs, but rather descendants of the ancient Egyptians. The Copts constitute the largest population of Christians in the Middle East, numbering between 8,000,000 and 15,000,000. The liturgical language of the Copts, the Coptic language, is a direct descendant of the Egyptian language. Coptic remains the liturgical language of all Coptic churches.


Hundreds of thousands of Arab Christians also live in the diaspora, outside of the Middle East. They reside in such countries as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, the United States and Venezuela among them. There are also many Arab Christians in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, France (due to its historical connections with Lebanon and North Africa), and Spain (due to its historical connections with northern Morocco), and to a lesser extent in Ireland, Germany, Italy, Greece and the Netherlands. Among those, across the Americas, an estimated of a million Palestinian Christians are living in the Palestinian diaspora.


Like Arab Muslims, Arab Christians refer to God as Allah, as an Arabic word for "God".[98][99] The use of the term Allah in Arab Christian churches predates Islam by several centuries.[98] In more recent times (especially since the mid-19th century), some Arab Christians from the Levant region have been converted from these native, traditional churches to more recent Protestant ones, most notably Baptist and Methodist churches. This is mostly due to an influx of Western, predominantly American Evangelical, missionaries.

Affiliated communities[edit]

The Arab Christians largely belong to the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem or Antiochian Eastern-Orthodox and Antiochian Oriental-Orthodox Churches, though there are also adherents to other churches: Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Latin Catholic Church and Protestant Churches.


Arabized Melkite societies in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine, trace their roots to Greek and Aramaic-speaking Byzantine Christians. They are also generally included under the definition of Arab Christians, although this label is not universally accepted by all.

Greek Orthodox[edit]

Greek Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox, also known as Rûm, Orthodox Christian communities, part of the Rūm Millet, which have existed in Southern Anatolia (Turkey) and Syrian region since the early years of Christianity: they are generally affiliated along geographic lines either to the Antiochian ("Northern") or Jerusalemite ("Southern") patriarchal jurisdictions.

Orthodox Church of Jerusalem[edit]

Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem is an autocephalous Orthodox Church within the wider communion of Orthodox Christianity. The Arab Orthodox Society exists in Jerusalem and is one of the oldest and largest is the Arab Orthodox Benevolent Society in Beit Jala, Palestine.

There have been numerous disputes between the Arab and the Greek leadership of the church in Jerusalem from the Mandate onwards. Jordan encouraged the Greeks to open the Brotherhood to Arab members of the community between 1948 and 1967 when the West Bank was under Jordanian rule.[citation needed] Land and political disputes have also been common since 1967, with the Greek priests portrayed as collaborators with Israel. Land disputes include the sale of St. John's property in the Christian quarter on 11 April 1990, the transfer of fifty dunams near Mar Elias monastery, and the sale of two hotels and twenty-seven stores on Omar Bin Al-Khattab square near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A dispute between the Palestinian Authority and the Greek Patriarch Irenaios led to the Patriarch being pushed aside because of accusations of a real estate deal with Israel.

Orthodox Church of Alexandria[edit]

Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria is an autocephalous Byzantine Rite jurisdiction of the Eastern Orthodox Church, having the African continent as its canonical territory. It is commonly called the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria to distinguish it from the Oriental Orthodox Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. Members of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate were once known as Melkites because they remained in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople after the schism that followed the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Orthodox Christian community of Egypt is thus unaffiliated with Copts and does mostly adhere to an Arab identity.

Rum Christians[edit]

Many members of the Northern Antiochian communities still call themselves Rûm which literally means "Roman", or "Asian Greek" in Turkish, Persian and Arabic. In that particular context, the term "Rûm" is used in preference to "Yāvāni" or "Ionani" which means "European-Greek" or Ionian in Biblical Hebrew (borrowed from Old Persian Yavan = Greece) and Classical Arabic. Some members of the community also call themselves "Melkites", which literally means "monarchists" or "supporters of the emperor" in Semitic languages (a reference to their past allegiance to Macedonian and Roman imperial rule), but, in the modern era, that term tends to be more commonly used by followers of the Greek Catholic church.

Evangelic adherents[edit]

Some Arab Christians are a more recent end result of Evangelization.[66]

Question of identity[edit]

Arab Christians include descendants of ancient Arab tribes, who were among the first Christian converts, as well as some recent adherents of Christianity. Sometimes, however, the issue of self-identification arises regarding specific Christian communities across the Arab world.


The Assyrians form the majority of Christians in Iraq, northeast Syria, south-east Turkey and north-west Iran. They are specifically defined as non-Arab indigenous ethnic group, including by the governments of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, and Turkey.[citation needed] Assyrians practice their own native dialects of Syriac-Aramaic language, in addition to also sometimes speaking local Arabic, Turkish or Farsi dialects. Despite their ancient pre-Arabic roots and distinct lingo-cultural identities,[100] Assyrians are sometimes erroneously referred by Western sources as "Christians of the Arab World" or "Arabic Christians", creating confusion about their identity[101] Assyrians were also wrongly related as "Arab Christians" by pan-Arabist movements and Arab-Islamic regimes.[12][102]

After the ascent of the nationalist Ba'ath party in Iraq in 1963 Assyrian Christians were referred to as "Arab Christians" by Arab nationalists who denied the existence of a distinct Assyrian identity, despite Assyrians speaking the pre-Arab Aramaic language and being a pre-Arab indigenous people of Ancient Mesopotamian heritage with a 5,000-year history in the region (see Assyrian continuity). In 1972 a law was passed to use Syriac language in public schools and in media, shortly afterward however Syriac was banned and Arabic was imposed on Syriac language magazines and newspapers.[103]

By the time of the 1977 census, Assyrians were being incorrectly referred to as either Arabs or Kurds. Assyrian Christians were forced to deny their identity as Assyrian nationalism was harshly punished. One example of this "Arabization" program was Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, an Assyrian member of the Chaldean Catholic faith who changed his surname from Mikhael Youhana upon joining the Baath Party.[104]

By the 1990s Assyrians were exempt from the Oil-for-Food program and did not receive their monthly food rations.[104] Many Assyrians were expelled from their villages in northern Iraq, others were forced to replace their Mesopotamian or Syriac names with Arab ones.[105]

They likewise pointed out that Arab nationalist groups have wrongly included Assyrian-Americans in their headcount of Arab Americans, in order to bolster their political clout in Washington. Some Arab American groups have imported this denial of Assyrian identity to the United States. In 2001, a coalition of Assyrian-Chaldean and Maronite church organizations, wrote to the Arab-American Institute, to reprimand them for claiming that Assyrians were Arabs. They asked the Arab-American Institute "to cease and desist from portraying Assyrians and Maronites of past and present as Arabs, and from speaking on behalf of Assyrians and Maronites."[104][106]


The Copts are the native Egyptian Christians, a major ethnoreligious group in Egypt. Christianity was the majority religion in Roman Egypt during the 4th to 6th centuries and until the Muslim conquest[107] and remains the faith of a significant minority population. Their Coptic language is the direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian spoken in the Roman era, but it has been near-extinct and mostly limited to liturgical use since the 18th century.

Copts in Egypt constitute the largest Christian community in the Middle East, as well as the largest religious minority in the region, accounting for an estimated 10% of Egyptian population.[108] Most Copts adhere to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.[109][110][111] The remaining (around 800,000) are divided between the Coptic Catholic and various Coptic Protestant churches.

As a religious minority, the Copts are subject to significant discrimination in modern Egypt, and the target of attacks by militant Islamic extremist groups.


At the March 1936 Congress of the Coast and Four Districts, the Muslim leadership at this conference made the declaration that Lebanon was an Arab country, indistinguishable from its Arab neighbors. In the April 1936 Beirut municipal elections, Christian Maronite and Muslim Politicians were divided along Phoenician and Arab lines in concern of whether the Lebanese coast should be claimed by Syria or given to Lebanon, increasing the already mounting tensions between the two communities.[112]

Lebanese nationalism, which rejects Arab identity, has found strong support among some Maronites and even other Orthodox Christians. However, this form of nationalism, nicknamed Phoenicianism, never developed into an integrated ideology led by key thinkers, but there are a few who stood out more than others: Charles Corm, Michel Chiha, and Said Aql in their promotion of Phoenicians.[112]

In post civil-war Lebanon, since the Taif Agreement, politically Phoenicianism, as an alternate to Arabism, has been restricted to a small group.[113] Phoeniciansm is deeply disputed by some scholars, who have on occasion tried to convince these claims are false and to embrace and accept the Arab identity instead.[114][115] This conflict of ideas of an identity is believed to be one of the main pivotal disputes between the Muslim and Maronite Christian populations of Lebanon and what mainly divides the country from national unity.[116] It's generalized that Muslims focus more on the Arab identity of Lebanese history and culture whereas Christians focus on the pre-arabized & non-Arab spectrum of the Lebanese identity and rather refrain from the Arab specification.[117]

During a final session of the Lebanese Parliament, a Marada Maronite MP states his identity as an Arab: "I, the Maronite Christian Lebanese Arab, grandson of Patriarch Estefan Doueihy, declare my pride to be a part of our people's resistance in the South. Can one renounce what guarantees his rights?"[118]

Maronite Deacon Soubhi Makhoul, administrator for the Maronite Exarchate in Jerusalem, has said "The Maronites are Arabs, we are part of the Arab world. And although it’s important to revive our language and maintain our heritage, the church is very outspoken against the campaign of these people.”[119]

Aramean identity[edit]

A number of Syrian Christians, mainly adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church in Syria adhere to an Aramean identity harking back to ancient Aramea which encompassed most of what is today modern Syria. They are now almost exclusively Arabic speaking, though small numbers still retain their native Western Aramaic tongue. Many use the term Syriac-Aramean to describe themselves, and have their own Aramean flag and migrant communities from Syria (particularly in Scandinavia have their own football and sports teams.

In contrast to most Arab Christians in Israel, a handful of Arabic-speaking Christian Israelis do not consider themselves Arab, noting their non-Arab, Aramean ancestry as a source. This is especially evident in the Maronite-dominated city of Jish in Galilee, where Aramean nationalists have been trying to resurrect Aramaic as a spoken language. In September 2014, Israel recognized the "Aramean" ethnic identity, in which Arabic-speaking Christians of Israel, with Aramean affinity, can now register as "Aramean" rather than Arab. This recognition comes after about seven years of activity by the Aramean Christian Foundation in Israel, led by IDF Major Shadi Khalloul Risho and the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, headed by Father Gabriel Naddaf of the Greek-Orthodox Church and Major Ihab Shlayan.[120] The Aramean ethnic identity can be given to Aramaic-speaking adherents of five Christian Eastern Syriac churches in Israel, including the Maronite Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Greek Catholic Church, Syriac Catholic Church and Syrian Orthodox.[121]

The re-registration of Arameans began in October 2014, and first will be applied to 200 Maronite families of Jish,[122] who had already requested such recognition; in further future it is expected to apply to up to 10,000 Israeli citizens, formerly registered as Arab Christians. According to Shadi Khalloul, one of the initiators of the move, "All Christians from the 133,000 Christians who live in Israel and belong to one of the Eastern churches can now be listed as a Aramean...".[123] The move was met also with opposition by large parts of the Arab Christian society and was denounced by the Greek Orthodox Christian Patriarchate.[124]

Pan-Syrian identity[edit]

Although the majority of the followers of Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches in the Levant adhere to Arab nationalism, some politicians reject Arabism, such as the secular Greek Orthodox Antun Saadeh, founder of the SSNP, who was executed for advocating the abolition of the Lebanese state by the Kataeb led government in the 1940s. Saadeh rejected Arab Nationalism (the idea that the speakers of the Arabic language form a single, unified nation), and argued instead for the creation of the state of United Syrian Nation or Natural Syria encompassing the Fertile Crescent. Saadeh rejected both language and religion as defining characteristics of a nation and instead argued that nations develop through the common development of a people inhabiting a specific geographical region. He was thus a strong opponent of both Arab nationalism and Pan-Islamism. He argued that Syria was historically, culturally, and geographically distinct from the rest of the Arab world, which he divided into four parts. He traced Syrian history as a distinct entity back to the Phoenicians, Canaanites, Amorites, Arameans, Assyrians and Babylonians etc.[125]

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  • Sir Ronald Storrs, The Memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs. Putnam, New York, 1937.
  • Itamar Katz and Ruth Kark, 'The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and its congregation: dissent over real estate' in The International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 37, 2005.
  • Orthodox Shun Patriarch Irineos
  • Seth J. Frantzman, The Strength and the Weakness: The Arab Christians in Mandatory Palestine and the 1948 War, unpublished M.A thesis at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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