Religion in the Middle East
Three major religious groups, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, originated in the Middle East. Smaller minority religions, such as the Bahá'í Faith, Druze, Yazidism, Mandaeism, Gnosticism, Yarsanism, Samaritanism, Shabakism, Ishikism, Ali-Illahism, and Zoroastrianism, are also present in the Middle East. Islam is the prevalent religion in most of the region.
- 1 Bahá'í Faith
- 2 Christianity
- 3 Druze faith
- 4 Ishikism
- 5 Islam
- 6 Judaism
- 7 Mandaeism
- 8 Samaritanism
- 9 Shabakism
- 10 Yazīdī
- 11 Zoroastrianism
- 12 Other religions
- 13 Countries
- 14 References
The Bahá'í Faith has noteworthy representation in Iran, United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Israel and Turkey. Its international headquarters are located on the northern slope of Mount Carmel at Haifa, Israel. Founded in Iran in 1863, the Bahá'í Faith is one of the youngest world major religions. According to most encyclopedias, in the early 21st century there are an estimated 6 to 8 million Bahá'ís across the globe.
Christianity originated in the region in the 1st century AD, and was one of the major religions of the region until the Muslim conquests of the mid-to-late 7th century AD. Christianity in the Middle East is characterized with its diverse beliefs and traditions compared to other parts of the old world.
Christians now make up 5% of the population, down from 20% in the early 20th century. The number of Middle Eastern Christians is dropping due to such factors as low birth rates compared with Muslims, extensive emigration and ethnic and religious persecution. In addition, political turmoil has been and continues to be a major contributor pressing indigenous Near Eastern Christians of various ethnicities towards seeking security and stability outside their homelands. Christian Palestinians face the same oppression as their Muslim compatriots. Recent spread of Jihadist and Salafist ideology, foreign to the tolerant values of the local communities in Greater Syria and Egypt has also played a role in unsettling Christians' decades-long peaceful existence. It is estimated that at the present rate, the Middle East's 12 million Christians will likely drop to 6 million by the year 2020.
The largest Christian group in the Middle East is the originally Coptic-speaking, but now Arabic-speaking Egyptian ethnoreligious community of Copts, who number 6–11 million people, although Coptic sources claim the figure is closer to 12–16 million. Copts reside in mainly Egypt, but also in Sudan and Libya, with tiny communities in Israel, Cyprus and Jordan.
Syriacs and Assyrians
Syriac Christians of various non-Arab ethnoreligious heritages number roughly 2 to 3 million. The indigenous Eastern Aramaic speaking Assyrians of Iraq, south eastern Turkey, north western Iran and north eastern Syria have suffered both ethnic and religious persecution over the last few centuries such as the Assyrian Genocide, leading to many fleeing to the west or congregating in areas in the north of Iraq and Syria. In Iraq numbers of indigenous Assyrians has declined to somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000 (from 0.8–1.4 million before 2003 US invasion) or 6% of the population of 23 million.
Currently, the largest community of Syriac Christians in the Middle East resides in Syria, numbering 877,000–1,139,000. These are a mix of Neo-Aramaic speaking Assyrians and largely Arabic-speaking Christians (originally speakers of the almost extinct Western Aramaic language) who ethnically identify as Syriacs.
In the Middle Eastern states, there is a large community of Armenians. The Armenians in the Middle East number around 350,000-400,000 and are mostly concentrated in Iran, Lebanon, Cyprus, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, although well-established communities exist in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, and other countries of the area. Some other sources claim that the Armenians number around half a million, with their largest community in Iran with 200,000 - 300,000 members. The number of Armenians in Turkey is disputed having a wide range of estimations. More Armenian communities reside in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and to lesser degree in other Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Israel. The Armenian Genocide during and after World War I drastically reduced the once sizeable Armenian population.
Other Christian groups
In the Persian Gulf states, Bahrain has 1,000 Christian citizens and Kuwait has 400 native Christian citizens, in addition to 450,000 Christian foreign residents in Kuwait. Arab Christians, and those who tend to identify as Arabs, are mostly adherents of the Greek Orthodox Church. In 2010 they numbered 1.1 million in Syria, 250,000 in Lebanon, 250-300,000 in Jordan, 150,000 in Israel and Palestine and smaller numbers in Iraq. Protestant converts number around 400,000. Melkite Christians who are ethnically Arab Catholic Christians of the Greek Rite compose almost 600,000. Syrian Orthodox number about 1 million in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, with the great majority being in Syria.
The ethnic Greeks, who had once inhabited large parts of the western Middle East and Asia Minor, have declined since the Arab conquests and recently severely reduced in Turkey, as a result of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, which followed World War I. Today the biggest Middle Eastern Greek community resides in Cyprus numbering around 793,000 (2008). Cypriot Greeks constitute the only Christian majority state in the Middle East, although Lebanon was founded with a Christian majority in the first half of the 20th century.
Smaller Christian groups include; Georgians, Messianic Jews, Russians and others, such as Kurdish, Turcoman, Iranian, Shabak, Azeri, Circassian and Arab converts exist in small numbers. There are currently several million Christian foreign workers in the Gulf area, mostly from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Middle Eastern Christians are relatively wealthy, well educated, and politically moderate, as they have today an active role in various social, economical, sporting and political aspects in the Middle East.
Druze, or Druse, is a monotheistic religion found in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Representation ranges from 100,000 in Israel, to 700,000 in Syria. Developing from Isma'ilite teachings, Druze incorporates Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonic and Iranian elements.
Ishikism (also known as Chinarism or Ishik Alevism), a religious movement within Alevism that rejects its Islamic roots, is found in Turkey. Ishikīs consider themselves to esotericists, claiming that Alevism is esotericism itself, meaning that they identify themselves with every type of esotericism in history. They claim that Alevism is the oldest religion in the world, that has changed shapes throughout time. This "First and True Religion" of the world, is claimed by Ishikís to have been a main source for all other religions and beliefs in the world.
Islam is the most widely followed religion in the Middle East. About 20% of the world's Muslims live in the Middle East. Islam is monotheistic believing in Allah and follows the teaching of the written sacred text, the Qur'an. Islam is believed to be an extension of Judaism and Christianity with the belief that Muhammad is the final prophet of God, in a long chain of prophets, from Adam on down to John the Baptist, Jesus, and finally Muhammad. The majority of the Muslims are Sunni, followed by Shi'a. Smaller sects include the Ahmadiyya.
A major source of conflict in the Muslim Middle East is the divisive nature between the two main sects of Islam: Sunni and Shi'a. Sunni is the largest branch of Islam and dominates most countries in the Middle East. Shia have their largest populations in Iraq (60–65%), Iran (90–96%), Lebanon (27%–35%), the Zaydi in Yemen (45%) and Bahrain (75-80%) and are generally scattered otherwise. Minority Shia communities are also found in Turkey as the Alevi sect (20-25%), Saudi Arabia (10-15%), and Syria (15%). Though these two sects agree on the fundamentals of Islam and the teachings of the Qur'an, they are in conflict about who would lead the Muslim community after the Prophet Muhammad's death. The Battle of Siffin was a significant schism between the two sects. Throughout the years, other differences have arisen between practices, beliefs and culture. Many conflicts between the two communities have occurred.
Judaism in the Middle East is mostly in the country of Israel. Israel’s population is 75.3% Jewish, with the remainder made up of Muslims (20.6%), Christians, Druze, Bahá'í and various other minorities (4.1%). There are few other countries in the Middle East with significant Jewish populations, but there are small, scattered communities.
There are between 60,000 and 70,000 Mandaeans worldwide and in the Middle East they are found in Iraq and Iran. They reject Jesus and Muhammad and view Christianity and Islam negatively, but revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh and Noah. Mandaeans are an ethnoreligious community, which doesn't allow conversion.
Samaritanism is a closely affiliated religion with Judaism, practiced by the ethnoreligious Samaritan community, largely residing in Israel. In the past, Samaritans used to populate also Egypt and Syria, but their community had almost collapsed by the late 19th century due to religious persecution by radical Islamists. Today the Samaritan community has grown to about 800 persons from as few as 150 in the early 20th century.
There are about 60,000 Shabak people living today all in northern Iraq. They are an ethnic group with a religion similar to orthodox Islam and Christianity. The Shabak have much in common with the Yazidis.
Yazidis ( Yezīdī, Azīdī, Zedī, or Izdī ) are found in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. It is a fusion of Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish, Nestorian Christian and Islamic elements. They do not see themselves as descendent from Adam and maintain complete segregation from the rest of the population (5). They number fewer than 100,000 and worship a main divinity called Yazīdī is Malak Ṭāʾūs (“Peacock Angel”).
In the Middle East, Zoroastrianism is found in central Iran. Today, there are estimated to be under 20,000 Zoroastrians in Iran. It is one of the oldest monotheistic religions as it was founded 3500 years ago. It was also one of the most powerful religions in the world for about 1000 years. Now, however, it is considered one of the smallest religions with only 190,000 followers worldwide. There are two deities: Azhura Mazda, who fights for a person’s goodness, and Ahriman, who fights for a person’s evil. It is ultimately up to the individual to decide which deity they will follow. Zoroastreans follow the Avesta which is their primary sacred text.
There are many Hindus in Arab states, many due to the migration of Indians to the oil-rich states around the Persian Gulf. Hindu temples have been built in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman.
Though Buddhism has had a presence in the Middle East for over 1000 years, it has recently[when?] experienced a revival with an estimated 900,000 people (perhaps more) who profess Buddhism as their religion. Buddhist adherents make up just over 0.3% of the total population of the Middle East. Many of these Buddhists are workers who have migrated from other parts of Asia to the Middle East in the last 20 years,[when?] many from countries that have large Buddhist populations, such as China, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. A small number of engineers, company directors, and managers from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea have also moved to the Middle East.
Sikhism, the fifth-largest organized religion in the world after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, having over 25 million Sikhs worldwide, has a small presence in the Middle East too, mainly in the U.A.E, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iran. Most of them are Punjabi-speaking Indian expatriates.
Religion in Egypt consists of Islam (mostly Sunni Muslim) 90%, Coptic Christians 9% and Other Christians 1%. As Egypt has modernized with new forms of media and the Egyptian press was liberalized in the 2000s, Coptic Christianity has become a main topic of religious controversy. There is much tension between the Muslims and Copts of Egypt as Copts argue for more representation in government and less legal and administrative discrimination; they also feel underprotected from religious hate-crimes . With this greater freedom of press, the Coptic issue has just begun to break into public awareness, but also due to rises in extremism in both communities, media may also be exacerbating the sectarian tension by only publicizing examples of prejudice.
Another current religious tension in Egypt is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt. Many countries have now developed their own branches. Many are violent and most Arab governments actively try to restrain the group by arresting and killing members. Currently, as the new government of Egypt is trying to establish itself, many are concerned that a member of the Muslim Brotherhood will again step in and claim leadership. For the current candidates for presidency, more than one is likely to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood is however unpopular among the majority of Egyptians on account of its fundamentalist views, its clampdown on tourism and its desire to impose Sharia law on the nation.
Religion in Iran is made up of 98% Islam (Shi'a 89%, Sunni 9%) and 2% Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i. There was much religious oppression and executions of members of the Bah’ai faith. Religious minorities are now beginning to hold a larger presence and significance in Iran and are being acknowledged as such.
The Islamic Revolution replaced an old world monarchy with a theocracy based on a grand position of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih). This is a mix of republicanism and religion that would use religion to rule for elective and democratic institutions; it was to be a blend of liberalism and religious injunctions (abs). Islam would be protected under this Islamic Republic and unelected positions like the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council would have unlimited power over the nation. With the nuclear program developing in Iran and much conflict after September 22, 2001, Iran and the Islamic Republic are at a crossroads.
Religion in Iraq is represented by 97% Islam (Shiite 60%–65%, Sunni 32%–37%), and 3% Christian or other. Because of this large majority of Shia over Sunni Muslim, there is much tension between the two groups.
Religion in Israel is represented by the following religious make-up: Judaism 77%, Islam 16%, Christian 2%, Druze 2% (2003). Israel represents the religious Holy Land for Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha'is. All religions are present in Israel and lay personal claim to the land. Due to the significant Israeli/Palestinian conflict, tensions are high in the religious community. The majority of displaced and upset Palestinians are Muslim and the majority of current Israeli citizens are Jewish so establishing the state borders is highly influenced by religion.
One of the main difficulties in establishing peace between the two countries is because of Jerusalem. Each of the three main religions is incredibly attached to this city and claim it as their own. Therefore, it is difficult to determine whether Palestinian Territories or Israel will encompass this region. Maps produced within the territories actually represent Jerusalem differently. Palestinian maps draw Jerusalem as divided and Israeli maps show it as a part of Israeli territory.
Religion in Lebanon is the most unique[clarification needed] in the Middle East, and a mix of religions make up Lebanon, represented by 57.5% Muslim (Shi'a, Sunni, Druze, Isma'ilite, Alawite/Nusayri), 41.5% Christian (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Protestant, and Christian churches non-native to Lebanon like Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenian Catholic Church, Armenian Evangelical Church, Roman Catholic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria), and 1% Jews. Lebanon has a confessional political system in which, regardless of political parties, the President is always Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’ite Muslim, and the Deputy Prime Minister Greek Orthodox Christian. Also, the Army General has to be Christian and the Bank Governor has to be always Christian as well. In addition, 50% of the Parliament is represented by Christian Members, according to the law in Lebanon since the end of the war until today. This is the foundation of uniqueness of Lebanon and the source of much of its conflicts; and while changes have been made to attempt to make parliamentary representation more even, many are still urging for reform and change. Some would like the confessionalist government to be abolished.
Religion in Saudi Arabia is allegedly 100% Muslim. It is illegal to practice any other religion than Islam in Saudi Arabia. There is still tension, however, between the Sunnis and the Shiias. Shiite Islamist revolution has never been a huge threat to the Saudi Arabian government, though, because it is such a small population. Sunni Islamists, though, present a larger threat to the government because of their large Saudi Arabian population. These Sunni groups often dissent through violence targeted at government, Western or non-Muslims that threat the Muslim nation, Shiites, and sometimes generally directed against moral corruption.
Religion in Syria is represented by 70% Islam (Sunni), 12% Alawite, 5% Druze, and other Islamic sects, 10% Christian (various sects), and there is some Jewish representation (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo).
Religion in Turkey is represented by 99.8% Muslim (mostly Sunni and approximately 20% are Alevi), and 0.2% other (mostly Christians and Jews). Originally a militarily secularized government, under the relatively new president Erdogan, religious freedom for Muslims has become much more accessible in Turkey. There has been a growing religious resurgence in Turkey and more and more citizens find significance in their religious identities. The previous laws disallowing the Hijab, religious headscarf, in schools and public places has been a huge source of contention. Now, it is a matter of civil rights in courts. The case of Sahin 2004 was one that really exemplified the tension between religious secularism, civil rights and the government’s power in Turkey. The case revolved around a student at university being allowed to wear the Hijab in class. Religious education is also a topic of debate in Turkey. Before 1980, private religious education was banned and then it was changed to be required. As it is currently being reevaluted, the question is whether religious education should be banned again, optional or if it should be obligatory and plural.
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