25 April 2015

An introduction to Islam and the plight
of Christians in the Middle East today

Exhausted and traumatised Christians from villages in north-east Syria gather at an Orthodox Church in Hasakah, seeking refuge after their small communities were terrorised a few weeks ago (Photograph: IOCC/GOPA)

Patrick Comerford

In recent months, many of us have been exercised by developments or changes in the Middle East and North Africa. These events have been given significant coverage in all media, and they include:

● The murder and martyrdom of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians by the self-styled Islamic State in Libya.

● The break-up of Syria and Iraq, with the consequent militant drive by ‘Islamic State’.

● The plight of refugees in the Mediterranean, fleeing their homes in many parts of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

● The attacks on shopping centres, universities and tourists by Islamic jihadists based in Somalia but with support in the Middle East, and the attacks on tourists in Tunisia.

● The conflict in Israel, Palestine and the West Bank.

● The present civil war in Yemen, involving Shia and Sunni Muslims, and linked to the competing interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

● The kidnapping of bishops and nuns in Syria.

●The bombing of churches in Pakistan.

●The role of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the subsequent electoral rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by a military coup.

● The plight of persecuted Yazidis in an area on the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

All of this has been made more difficult to discuss rationally when we think of:

● the recent spate of violence throughout Europe,

● the attacks on Charlie Hebdo,

● the attacks on a kosher supermarket in France, and on synagogues in Belgium and Denmark,

● the weekly anti-Muslim xenophobic marches in Dresden and other German cities, and so on.

So this afternoon, I want to introduce us to some of the main aspects of politics and Islam in the Islamic world, and perhaps also to look at some of the other religious communities in the Middle East and the Islamic world.


With Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun in the Western Desert in Egypt

The three major families of religion in the Middle East are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all claiming religious and spiritual descent from the religion of Abraham, and each originating in the Middle East.

But the Middle East and the Islamic world are not co-terminus, nor are the Middle East and the Arab world.

The country with the largest Muslim population in the world is Indonesia, which is not in the Middle East, and the second largest is Pakistan. The two largest Muslim countries in the Middle East are not Arab countries or Arabic speaking – they are Turkey and Iran. And, of course, Israel is also part of the Middle East.

Fewer than 15 per cent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs. The majority of Muslims live outside the Middle East, in places like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Pakistan.

Both Pakistan and Turkey have had women Prime Ministers, so it is important to be careful about stereotyping Islamic societies and their attitudes, values and cultural heritage.

Islam in its many forms is by far the largest religious grouping in the Middle East, but it is divided into many diverse branches, schools and sects.

In addition, the followers of many other religions exist, smaller minority religions are found as minorities throughout the Middle East, including the Bahá'í, the Druze, the Yazidis, the Mandaeans, the Sabaeans, the Samaritans, Parsees or Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus and so on.

The rise of political Islam

What are the differences between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS)? How do the three groups compare? Why did they split?

The Taliban (“students”) is an Islamic fundamentalist political movement founded in 1994 in Afghanistan. It spread throughout Afghanistan and formed a government, ruling as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from September 1996 until December 2001, with Kandahar as the capital. However, it gained diplomatic recognition from only three states: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Mohammed Omar is the founder and the spiritual leader of the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda (meaning “The Base,” “The Foundation” or “The Fundament”) is a global militant Islamist organisation founded by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and several other militants, around 1988-1989, and its origins can be traced to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 the group has been led by an Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Its network includes a multinational, stateless army and an Islamist, extremist, wahhabi, jihadist group. It was responsible for 9/11, the Bali bombings, and other attacks across the globe. In the Syrian civil war, al-Qaeda factions started fighting each other, as well as fighting the Kurds and the Syrian government.

As Salafist jihadists, they believe the killing of non-combatants is religiously sanctioned. Al-Qaeda also opposes what it regards as man-made laws, and wants to replace them with a strict form of sharia law It is responsible for instigating sectarian violence among Muslims, and the leaders of al-Qaeda regard liberal and secular Muslims ,Shias, Sufis and many other Muslims as heretics and have attacked their mosques and gatherings.

Their sources of income included the heroin trade and donations from supporters in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaeda believes it is the primary duty of Jihadists today to fight Jihad; in particular, they believe that it is a religious duty to fight a type of Jihad called Jihad Al-Daf or “defensive Jihad.”

Strange as it sounds, al-Qaeda actually claims it is fighting a defensive war and that establishing a caliphate cannot be achieved by force.

On the other hand, ISIS believes the duty of Jihadists is to establish the caliphate, and that it can only be established by force of arms. This is significant because in their understanding once the Caliphate is established Muslims who do not submit to it are considered Khawarij and as such can be fought and killed.

ISIL or ISIS is a Salafi jihadist force that evolved out of a group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who moved to Iraq after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. He later launched al-Qaida in Iraq, where it was responsible for bombing of the Askari mosque in Samarra and so triggering Iraq’s civil war 2006-2007.

The group was renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria after its leader was killed in a US raid in 2006, and it was weakened in 2007 after US forces aligned with Sunni Iraqi tribes to fight the group.

ISIS believes the battle against secularist and moderate Muslims today takes precedence over fighting those they regard as infidels. In recent days, Abdu Bakar al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has called the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar “a fool and illiterate warlord”. Al-Baghdadi has said that Mullah Omar does not deserve a spiritual or political credibility.

Yet, last October the Pakistani Taliban declared its backing for ISIS and ordered fighters across the region to help the group in its campaign to set up an Islamic caliphate. In a message to mark the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, the Pakistani Taliban said it fully supported ISIS’s goals to set up a caliphate in the Middle East.

ISIS has been described as the richest terrorist organisation in the world. After capturing the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last year, ISIS fighters looted about $420 million (€308 million), and Iraqi officials estimate the group has perhaps $2 billion in its war chest.

Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting the ISIS jihadis. Last year [17 June 2014], the then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused Saudi Arabia of being responsible for the financial and moral support given to ISIS.

Günter Meyer, Director of the Centre for Research into the Arabic World at the University of Mainz, has told Deutsche Welle that the most important source of financing for ISIS to date comes from the Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia but also Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Additional financing sources include the oil fields of northern Syria, northern Iraq and perhaps Libya, and there is a continuing flow of money from the systematic extortion conducted by ISIS in Mosul and other captured areas.

Hizbullah (the “Party of Allah” or “Party of God”) is a Shi'a Islamist militant group and political party based in Lebanon. It is headed by Hassan Nasrallah.

Earlier this year, an assessment from the US director of National Intelligence removed it from its list of terror threats to the US, although it remains classified by the US as a terrorist organisation.

Hizbullah was formed by Shia clerics and funded by Iran following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and was primarily formed to offer resistance to the Israeli occupation. Its leaders were followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, and its forces were trained and organised by Iranian Revolutionary Guards with support from the Syrian government.

Hizbullah holds seats in the Lebanese government (11 out of 30 cabinet seats), runs radio and television stations, and programmes for social development. We could call it a “state within a state,” and its paramilitary wing is more powerful than the Lebanese Army. It has become embroiled in in the Syrian civil war and is helping President Assad and the Syrian government.

The Syrian conflict has helped to revive ISIS, which provided support to one of its members, Abu Mohammed al-Jaulani, to form a group in Syria after the 2011 uprising. In April 2013, the group’s current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced a merger between his group and Jabhat al-Nusra, under the name of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

However, the merger was rejected by Jabhat al-Nusra and most of its foreign jihadists then defected to Isis. Since then, Isis has been at war with Syrian rebels to impose itself as a state that accepts no other group acting in rebel-held areas unless they pledge allegiance to it. On 29 June 2014, on the first day of Ramadan, Isis announced that al-Baghdadi was “elected” by the Shura Council as a caliph for all Muslims, and it changed its name to the Islamic State.

The avalanche of ISIS is powerful and I imagine that worse is yet to come. Beyond these military and practical factors, it is important to view the Isis phenomenon as part of two wider trends within Sunni Islam that will make Isis a long-term ideological menace, even if it is reined in militarily.

What is motivating ISIS?

A recent map by the Economist showing areas controlled by ISIS at the end of last year

The rise of Isis should be seen in the context of the Sunni sense of alienation that is common, particularly in the region from Lebanon to Yemen and from Egypt to Iran. Sunnis throughout this part of the region behave as a minority: insecure and under siege, with no defenders.

ISIS emerges out of this desperate situation its seizure of Sunni provinces in Iraq was widely celebrated. There is concern among some governments in the region that Isis has sympathisers within the religious establishment.

Before he died earlier this year, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia criticised the “silence and laziness” of the ulema or body of Muslim scholars, in speaking out against Isis extremism. His public scolding of the senior ulema was unprecedented.

A second trend that makes ISIS a more perilous phenomenon is the neglected ideological shakeup of Sunni Islam’s traditional Salafism. This has been taking place more noticeably since the Arab Spring, when Salafis became increasingly politicised.

Salafism was traditionally inward-looking and loyal to the political establishment. Salafists, religiously speaking, hold extremist views, but also tend to hold pragmatic political positions. Jihadists, who are heavily influenced by Salafi ideas but equally influenced by political Islam, started polarising the Salafi landscape and steadily, if slowly, eroding traditional Salafism.

ISIS is not a disease. It is a symptom – of a political vacuum, a sense of rejection among Sunnis, and an ideological shakeup within Salafism. It is important to emphasise, however, that there are grounds for optimism. While the strength and appeal of ISIS should not be underestimated, its rise has triggered a unique debate in the region.

Since ISIS took over large swaths of Iraq, in particular, the Arabic media have produced reports about the nature of the group and the source of its ideology. Mohammed Habash, a cleric from Syria, blames the rise of ISIS on mosque imams, saying: “ISIS did not arrive from Mars; it is a natural product of our retrograde discourse.”

A Saudi commentator, Ibrahim al-Shaalan, tweeted that ISIS is “but an epitome of what we’ve studied in our school curriculum. If the curriculum is sound, then Isis is right, and if it is wrong, then who bears responsibility?”

The factors that led to the rise of ISIS are still not addressed, while ISIS has not even reached its potential. It is still steadily advancing in Syria, although the rebels still outnumber ISIS and communities in some areas are deeply angered by random killings by ISIS.

After Iraqi forces chose a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to replace Nouri al-Maliki, the new government’s priority has been to work with Sunni tribes to fight ISIS.

The takeover by ISIS of Sunni areas bordering the Kurdish region has pushed the Kurds to annex oil-rich Kirkuk and move closer to independence from Iraq. ISIS controls many villages near Turkey’s borders with Iraq and may control key border crossings, posing profound challenges for Turkish authorities.

The ethnic groups of the Middle East

The ethnic groups in the Middle East

The most important colour on this map of Middle Eastern ethnic groups is yellow: the Arabs are the majority group in almost every Middle East country, including the North African countries not shown here.

The exceptions are mostly-Jewish Israel in pink, mostly-Turkish Turkey in green, mostly-Persian Iran in orange, and a heavily diverse Afghanistan.

The Kurds are spread throughout the Middle East and have no nation-state of their own

The Kurds have no country of their own but have a significant presence in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They have long lived as a disadvantaged minority in several parts of the Middle East s, and have long struggled for a nation of their own. Iraqi Kurds now have autonomous self-rule in Iraq’s north.

So, there is remarkable ethnic diversity from Turkey to Afghanistan, but much of the rest of the Middle East is dominated by ethnic Arabs.

Islam in the Middle East:

Islam accounts for the largest single religious grouping in the Middle East. About 20% of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East.

Islam is monotheistic believing in the one God – the word Allah in Arabic simply translates into English as “the God.” The sacred scripture of Muslims is the Qur'an.

Muslims believe Islam is an extension, continuity or fulfilment of Judaism and Christianity. They believe Muhammad is the final prophet of God, in a long chain of prophets, from Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses through to John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

The majority of Muslims are Sunni, followed by Shi'a.

There are smaller sects who have varying degrees of affinity or separation with the mainstreams of Islam. The Alawites, who include the minority ruling class in Syria are regarded as part of mainstream Shia Islam. The Ahamdi Muslims or Ahmadiyya, but many Muslims count them outside the fold of Islam, and the Saudis refuse many of those groups permission to take part in the haj to Mecca. The Druze are normally seen as being outside Islam.

Sufi Islam is a mystical approach within mainstream Sunni Islam, but often appeals to Shia Muslims.

Sunni and Shi'a Islam:

A map illustrating the Sunni and Shi'a divisions in the region

A major source of conflict in the Muslim world is the division between the two main branches of Islam: the Sunni and Shi'a branches. This conflict is expressed in much of the present violence in Yemen, southern Iraq, some of the eastern Gulf states and, further afield, in Pakistan.

Since then, other differences have arisen in practices, beliefs and culture, giving rise to further conflicts between the two communities.

The story of Islam’s division between Sunni and Shia started with the death of Muhammed in 632. There was a power struggle over who would succeed him in ruling the Islamic Caliphate, with most Muslims wanting to elect the next leader but some arguing that power should go by divine birth-right to Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali. The pro-Ali faction was known as the “Partisans of Ali,” or Shi'atu Ali in Arabic, hence Shia. “Sunni” roughly translates as “tradition.”

Ali’s eventual succession sparked a civil war, which he and his partisans lost. The Shia held on to the idea that Ali was the rightful successor, and grew into an entirely separate branch of Islam. Today about 10 to 15 per cent of Muslims worldwide are Shia – they are the majority only in Iran and Iraq – while most Muslims are Sunni.

Today, that religious division is again a political one as well: it is a struggle for regional influence between Shia political powers, led by Iran, against Sunni political powers, led by Saudi Arabia. This struggle looks like a regional cold war, with proxy battles in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

Sunni Islam:

A mosque and the Mevlevi tekke in Konya in central Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam and dominates most countries in the Middle East.

Within Sunni Islam, the most vocal group politically is the Salafist or Salafi movement. It is often seen as being synonymous with Wahhabism, although Salafists regard the term “Wahhabi” as derogatory.

Some commentators describe Salafism as a hybrid of Wahhabism and other post-1960s movement. Salafism is associated with literalist, strict and puritanical expressions of Islam that reject religious innovation and with the Salafi Jihadis who espouse offensive jihad against those they deem to be enemies of Islam as a legitimate expression of Islam.

It is believed by many that Salafism is the fastest-growing Islamic movement in the world.

In legal matters, Salafis are divided between those who, in the name of independent legal judgment (ijtihad) reject strict adherence (taqlid) to the four schools of law (madhahib) and others who remain faithful to these.

Salafi scholars from Saudi Arabia or influenced from Saudi Arabia are generally bound by Hanbali fiqh and advocate following an Imam rather than understanding scripture oneself.

Salafist jihadists groups include al-Qaeda and the now defunct Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

Shia Islam:

Shia Muslims make up the largest Muslim populations in Iraq (60 to 65%), Iran (90 to 96%), Lebanon (25 to 35%), and Bahrain (75-80%), and they also include the Zaydi in Yemen (55%).

Shia Muslims are scattered throughout the rest of the Middle East, with minority Shia populations in Turkey as the Alevi sect (20-25%), in Saudi Arabia (10-15%), and in Syria (15%).

Although these two traditions agree on the fundamental beliefs of Islam and the teachings of the Qur'an, they disagree about who would lead the Muslim community after the death of their Prophet Muhammad.

Appendix A: Christianity in the Middle East:

A church in a provincial town in the Nile Valley in Egypt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Of course, Christianity also traces its origins to the Middle East, and it was the major religions in the region until the Arab Muslim conquests in the second half of the 7th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Christians were 20% of the population of the Middle East. Today, 100 years later, Christians have dwindled to a mere 5% of the population in the Middle East. It is estimated that at the present rate, the Middle East’s 12 million Christians will drop in numbers to 6 million by the year 2020.

The decline of Christians in the Middle East is due to a number of factors, including:

● Lower birth rates compared with their Muslim neighbours;

●Extensive emigration;

●Ethnic and religious persecution;

● Political turmoil – remember that Christian Palestinians face the same oppression as their Muslim compatriots on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

1, Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iraq

Iraq’s Christians can justly claim they are a Biblical people: they trace their origins to the first Pentecost and the early missionary activities of the Apostles, especially Thomas. The early church in the region developed rapidly so that by the 4th century there was a thriving church in Mesopotamia that was part of the Patriarchate of Antioch. At one time, the see at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad, was the most important Christian centre outside the Roman or Byzantine Empire.

After the church in Mesopotamia declared its independence, the other Eastern Orthodox churches accused it of the Nestorian heresy, which it has always denied. Despite its isolation and accusations of heresy, the Assyrian Church of the East, as it became known, was a vigorous missionary church, sending missionaries to the Far East who reached Tibet, China and Mongolia centuries before the voyages of Marco Polo.

The Assyrian church survived the invasions by Muslims and the horrors of the Crusades. Although numbers dwindled through wars, persecutions and massacres, these Christians maintained their unity until the arrival of Latin missionaries, intent on suppressing Nestorianism and bringing about union with Rome. These efforts eventually caused a major rift in the 16th century, and the main churches have remained divided for almost 500 years.

Today Iraq is the only Middle East country in which the largest church of the Christian minority is in communion with Rome. The Chaldean Church is a uniate church, dating back to 1552. That church survived further splits in 1672, 1681, and the 1790s and again in 1830, and remains a vital force in the Christian world of the Middle East.

Despite these divisions, the Assyrian Church of the East survived, although there have been further internal divisions, rival patriarchs, massacres at the hands of both Kurds and Turks, and grave disappointment at the failure of the West to recognise Assyrian claims to nationhood after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

Apart from the Chaldeans and Assyrians, Iraq’s Christian minority includes the Syrian Orthodox Church; the Syrian Catholics and Greek Catholics or Melkites, who are both in communion with Rome; the Armenian Apostolic Church, which remembers genocide and massacre at the hands of the Turks, beginning 100 years ago in 1915; and a tiny Greek Orthodox community. There is also a tiny Anglican presence in Baghdad.

In recent generations, there has been a steady migration from the traditional Christian towns and villages in northern Iraq, so that the majority of Christians now live in Baghdad. All the churches report the number of Christians in Iraq is shrinking dramatically and drastically as many leave the country. Those who remain fear the way extremists can drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians.

Archbishop Justin Welby with Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic Patriarch, in Cairo last June

2, The Coptic Orthodox Church:

The largest Christian group in the Middle East is the originally Egyptian speaking, but now Arabic-speaking Egyptian community of Copts, who number 6 to 11 million people, although Coptic sources put the figure is closer to 12 to 16 million. Copts live mainly in Egypt, although there are tiny communities also in Israel, Cyprus and Jordan.

3, The Greek Orthodox churches:

The four principal, historic Patriarchates of the Orthodox Church are identified with cities now in the Muslim Middle East: Constantinople (Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

The Church of Alexandria is tiny in Egypt (250,000-300,000), when compared with the Coptic Orthodox Church. But, paradoxically, because this Patriarchate extends to all of Africa, it is the fastest-growing Church in Africa.

The Church of Sinai is a separate church with its own archbishop and abbot.

Antioch is now in Turkey, and the Patriarchate has long removed to Damascus. The Church of Antioch has about 1.25 million members scattered throughout the Middle East, mainly in Syria (10% of the population), Lebanon and south-east Turkey, and a total world membership of about 4.3 million.

Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, who is a director of the Institute for Orthodox Studies in Cambridge, where I have studied, is with his people in Damascus at the centre of civil war. Metropolitan Paul (Yazigi) of Aleppo, a visiting lecturer at IOCS, is, along with the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, being held hostage and at the mercy of rebel forces.

The Church of Jerusalem has about 200,000 members, mainly in Palestine, Israel, the Gaza Strip and Jordan. Some Palestinian Christian families say they can trace their ancestry to the earliest Christians of the Holy Land.

Geographically speaking, the biggest Greek Orthodox community in the Middle Eastern region lives in Cyprus, which is the only Christian majority state in the Middle East, although Cyprus is part of the European Union.

4, Maronites:

The Arabic-speaking Lebanese Maronites are found mainly in Lebanon. They take their name from the Syriac Christian Saint Maron, whose followers migrated to the area of Mount Lebanon from Antioch, establishing the nucleus of the Maronite Church.

My most recent figures, from 2007, suggest there are about 930,000 Maronites in Lebanon, where they make up to 22% of the population. In all, Maronites account for 1.1 to 1.2 million Christians across the Middle East. Although they speak Arabic, many claim that they are not Arabic but descended from Phoenician and Canaanite people, the descendants of the Syro-Phoenician woman in the Gospel, or her kith and kin.

They maintain some Orthodox-like styles of liturgy, and they have married clergy, but they are one of the many Middle East Churches in full communion with Rome yet retaining their independent ecclesiastical structures, governance and traditions.

5, The Melkites or Greek Catholics:

The Melkite Christians or Greek Catholics include about almost 1 million Christians in the Middle East, and 1.6 million worldwide. Like the Maronites, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is in full communion with Rome but maintains its autonomy and traditions, its Byzantine liturgy, and has married priests.

They are found mainly in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, and they have been in with Rome since 1724. The Patriarchate is based in Damascus.

6, Syriac Christians:

There are 2 to 3 million Syriac Christians. They too would say they are not Arab in their ethnic or linguistic background.

The Syriac Christians include the indigenous Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrians of Iraq, south- east Turkey, north-east Syria and north-west Iran. The say the language they speak is the closest language to the Aramaic spoken by Christ.

They have suffered ethnic and religious persecution over the last few centuries. The Assyrian Genocide forced many of them to flee to the west or to group together in concentrated areas in north Iraq and north Syria. In Iraq, the number of indigenous Assyrians has from perhaps as many as 1.4 million before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to 800,000 or perhaps even just 500,000 today.

Currently, the largest community of Syriac Christians in the Middle East lives in Syria … but for how long? Until the present conflict broke out, they numbered between 880,000 and 1.1 million. They include Neo-Aramaic speaking Assyrians and Arabic-speaking Christians whose original language was the almost extinct Western Aramaic.

7, The Armenians:

There are large communities of Armenians Christians in many parts of the Middle East, where they number around half a million people, with their largest community in Iran (200,000 to 300,000 people).

In addition, there are Armenian communities in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Israel, with an Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. It is difficult to know the numbers of Armenians who still live in Turkey.

8, Other Christian groups:

In the Gulf states, Bahrain has 1,000 Christian citizens, while Kuwait has 400 native Christian citizens, as well as 450,000 Christian foreign residents. In all, there are several million Christian foreign workers in the Gulf area, mostly from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Appendix B: Other religious groupings in the Middle East:

1, Judaism:

Judaism in the Middle East exists mostly in Israel, but a few other countries in the Middle East have significant Jewish populations, including Turkey.

Israel’s population is 75.3% Jewish, with the remainder made up of Muslims (20.6%), Christians, Druze, Bahá'í and other minorities (4.1%).

2, The Samaritans:

The Samaritans are close, historically, to Judaism, and there is a large Samaritan community in Israel. The Samaritan communities in Egypt and Syria collapsed by the late 19th century. Today, the number of Samaritans is estimated at about 800.

3, The Bahá'í Community:

Bahá'í numbers have been considerable in the past in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Turkey, and there are about 6 to 8 million Bahá'ís around the world. The international Bahá'í headquarters are on the northern slope of Mount Carmel at Haifa, Israel.

They were founded in Iran in 1863 by Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad of Shiraz, who is revered as the ‘Bab’ or “the Gate,” but the revered figure is an Iranian named Mírzá Husayn ’Alí Núrí, later titled Bahá'u'lláh or “Glory of God.”

4, The Druze:

The Druze faith is a monotheistic religion found in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Their numbers range from 100,000 in Israel, to 700,000 in Syria. This faith has developed from Isma'ilite teachings originating in Shia Islam, but Druze teaching incorporates Jewish, Christian, Iranian and other elements.

They prohibit conversion to their religion – you have to be born Druze, you cannot sign up. Many of their beliefs and practices are secret not only from outsiders but even from many members, so that only an elite group, the uqqal (“knowers”) are fully aware of Druze beliefs and practices.

5, The Yazīdī:

The Yazidis, who are found in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, came to international notice last summer when they became the target of a particularly brutal attack on them collectively by ‘Islamic State.’

Their religion combines Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish and Nestorian Christian elements along with elements of mystic Shia and Sufi beliefs and practices. They maintain complete segregation from the rest of the population. They number fewer than 100,000. Their respect for a divine messenger they known as Malak Ṭāʾūs (“Peacock Angel”) has led to them being labelled devil worshippers by ISIS and other Islamic extremists.

6, The Mandaeans:

There are between 60,000 and 70,000 Mandaeans worldwide, and their heartland in the Middle East is in Iraq and Iran. They claim they are the spiritual descendants of the original disciples of the John the Baptist and they reject both Christ and Muhammad as prophets, although they revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enoch and Noah.

Like many of these small religious minorities in the Middle East, they do not allow conversion.

7, Zoroastrianism:

Zoroastrianism is found in central Iran, where there are an estimated 20,000 Zoroastrians. They follow one of the oldest monotheistic religions, dating back 3,500 years ago. Indeed, this was one of the most powerful religions in the world for about 1,000 years.

Today, however, it has 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.

The principal sacred scripture of Zoroastrians is the Avesta.

8, Other religious minorities:

In addition, there are many Hindus and Buddhists in Arab states, due mainly to the migration of Indians and other Asians to the oil-rich states around the Gulf. There are Hindu temples in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman.

Sikhs too have a tiny presence in the Middle East, mainly in the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iran. Most of them are Punjabi-speaking Indian expatriates.

Appendix C: religion in the Middle East country-by-country:

1, Iraq:

In Iraq, 97% of the people are Muslims: Shiite 60% to 65%, Sunni 32% to 37%. The other 3% are mainly Christians. There is major tension between the majority Shia and minority Sunni Muslims.

Many of the churches in Iraq today continue to use Syriac, a language close to the Aramaic spoken by Christ. Indeed, Iraq is a biblical land and that there is a strong and vibrant Christian community there today.

Many Muslims were shocked by the overt secularism of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist party, while prominent politicians in his cabinet included Tariq Aziz, who was a member of Iraq’s largest Christian community, the Chaldeans, and both Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

Sunni Muslims have formed the urban middle class, and in the past exercised influence and power beyond their numbers in urban, economic, social and political life.

The Jews of Iraq were once an important community, culturally and socially, but their numbers have dwindled dramatically in recent generations. The Baha’is have a long history in Iraq, first fleeing persecution in Iran, where they were accused of blasphemy and heresy. Two minorities almost unique to Iraq are the followers of the Yazidi and Mandaean religions.

Religious groups in Lebanon, by Sergey Kondrashov (Licensed under CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

2, Lebanon:

Lebanon has the most unique religious mixture in the Middle East, with consequences that are enshrined the country’s constitutional politics.

Lebanon had a Christian majority in the first half of the 20th century. Today, the majority of Lebanese people are Muslim (57.5%), but in the Lebanese ways of counting this includes not only the Sunni and Shi'a population, but also the Druze, Isma'ilite, Alawite and Nusayri people.

Christians are 41.5% of the population, and include the Maronites, Melkites, Assyrians, Armenians, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Assyrian Orthodox, Chaldeans, Copts and some Protestant. In addition, about 1% are Jews.

Lebanon has a confessional political system. So, regardless of political parties, the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’ite, and the Deputy Prime Minister Greek Orthodox.

In addition, the Army General and the Bank Governor must be Christians too, and 50% of the seats in Parliament are reserved for Christian deputies.

3, Egypt:

The population breakdown in Egypt is 90% Muslim, mostly Sunni Muslims; 9% Coptic Christians; and 1% other Christians.

Of course, there is much tension between Muslims and Copts, with Copts feeling they suffer because of legal and administrative discrimination and that they are under-protected from religious hate-crimes.

The other current religious tension in Egypt is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt. Before the recent coup, the previous government that came to office in the election after the Arab Spring sought to introduce Sharia law in Egypt.

4, Syria:

Christians and Muslims in Syria

In Syria, 70% of the people are Sunni Muslims, 12% Alawite (including President Assad and his family), 5% Druze, and other Islamic derived groups, and 10% Christians. It is said there are some tiny Jewish communities in Damascus, al-Qamishli, and Aleppo.

The religious diversity within Syria is a significant factor in the Syrian civil war. That war began as about internal politics but has become in some ways a religious proxy war between Sunni and Shia – with Christian groups forced alongside the Shia and Alawite minority that currently holds power.

5, Iran:

The demographic make-up of Iran today

Iran is the only Middle East country that was never conquered by a European power, although it came pretty close to that in the 1900s, when it lost much territory to Russia. After that, Russia and Britain divided Iran's north and south into “zones of influence.” This remains a point of major national resentment in Iran today.

Persians form the largest ethnic group in Iran but the larger ethnic minorities include Arabs in the south, Kurds in the west, and Azeris in the north.

The population of Iran is Shi'a 89%, Sunni 9%, Zoroastrian 2%, and smaller Jewish, Christian and Bah'ai minorities.

6, Yemen:

As you might expect, Yemen is overwhelmingly Muslim, although there are smaller numbers of Christians, Jews and Hindus. But the present violence is the working out of a major historical conflict between the Shia majority in the North and the Sunni majority in the south.

7, Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia is allegedly 100% Muslim, and it is illegal there to practice any religion other than Islam. There is tension between the Sunni and the Shia populations, although the Shia Islam has never been a threat and represents a small proportion of the population. Sunni Islamists present a larger threat to the government and they often dissent through violence targeted at government, Western or non-Muslims and Shiites.

Some estimates suggest that 7% of Saudis are non-Muslim, although they are divided between Christians, who have ancient roots there, and the Hindus and Buddhists who are mostly migrant workers.

8, Israel:

Israel’s religious population (2003) is: Jews 77%, Muslims 16%, Christians 2%, Druze 2%. The majority of Palestinians are Muslim and the majority of current Israeli citizens are Jewish. Jews, Christians and Muslims all lay particular claims to Jerusalem as their own holy city.

9, Jordan:

In Jordan, the religious distribution is: Muslim (mostly Sunni) 92%, Christian (mostly Greek Orthodox) 6%, and others 2%.

10, Turkey:

The population of Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim (99.8%), and at that mostly Sunni. For decades, Turkey was dominated by the military, with a unique brand of Kemalist secularism. Under President Erdogan, religious freedom has become a greater part of the agenda, with a growing religious resurgence and laws prohibiting the hijab in schools and public places are no longer in force.

The Christian population of Turkey is estimated at more than 160,000, including 80,000 Armenians, 35,000 Roman Catholics, 21,000 ethnic Assyrians (in the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church), up to 22,000 Orthodox (3,000-4,000 Greek Orthodox, 10,000-18,000 Antiochian Orthodox) and small numbers of Bulgarians, Georgians, Anglicans and Protestants. In addition, there is a tiny Jewish community.


In TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi,’ one of the Wise Men says after his return from Bethlehem to Babylon, is left wondering:

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a talk at the annual Global Vision Day organised by the Methodist Missionary Society (Ireland) and the Dublin District of the Methodist Church in Ireland in Dundrum Methodist Church, Dublin, on 25 April 2015.

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