Arab Christians: Who Are They And Where Do They Live?

Church of St. John the Baptist, a Christian church, is photographed here in Jordan.
Church of St. John the Baptist, a Christian church, is photographed here in Jordan.

Contrary to popular belief, the native population in the Arabic world is not exclusively made up of Muslims. There is a significant population of Arabs who practice Christianity who are commonly known as Arab Christians. The ancestry of these Arab Christians goes back to the genesis of Christianity in the 1st Century CE. Arab Christians are mentioned in several instances in the New Testament which gives the earliest record of the existence of these Christians in Arabia with the Books of Acts (Acts 2:8-11), and Galatians (Galatians 1:15-17) are two examples. Arab Christians grew in numbers and by the 4th century and had significant numbers in the Arabian Peninsula, Sinai Peninsula, and the Mesopotamia. The Christian community in Ethiopia was also influential in the adoption of Christianity by Arabs, with Ethiopian Christians being thought to have lived in Mecca at some point.

History: Pre-Islamic Period

The earliest Arab Christians existed before the Islamic period, and these consisted of ancient tribes of Qahtani origin. These tribes included the early Nabateans and Ghassanids, who spoke Greek as well as Yemeni Arabic languages. Nabateans were some of the earliest inhabitants of Arabia, settling in the Southern Levant as early as the 1st Millennium BC and were also among the first tribes to convert to Christianity in as early as the 1st Century CE. The Roman and Byzantine Empires offered protection as well as refuge to many of these early Arab Christians, but members of few Christian-affiliated sects such as the non-Chalcedonians faced persecution from the Byzantine Empire as heretics. The center of Arab Christianity during the pre-Islamic period was in Najran, an ancient city situated in southern Arabia. The Roman Catholic Church even canonized the leader of Arab Christians in the city, Al-Harith as St. Aretas. Arab Christians in the city of Najran faced great persecution in the hands of Dhu Yawas, King of Yemen who had converted to Judaism.

History: Islamic Period

After the fall of Byzantine rule in Arabia and the expansion of Islamic rule between the 6th and 7th centuries, Arab Christians came under Islamic rule. During this period, Arab Christians were more accepted by the Islamic rulers and were allowed to practice their religious beliefs without interference. Arab Christians were however required to pay taxes known as “Jizyah” to the ruling Islamic Caliphate, as was the case to all other non-Islamic inhabitants who refused to convert to Islam. The taxes were payable in the form of money, goods, or livestock. Arab Christians were better treated under Islamic rule than they were when under the Byzantine Empire as religious persecution became a thing of the past. Islamic Arabs related well with the Arab Christians who they referred to as “people of the book” and by the 9th century, the Islamic rulers had physicians who were Christians. During the early Islamic period, Christians continued to write their books in either Greek or Coptic script, but after many years of Islamic rule, they began writing in Arabic script.

Arab Christians In Syria

The population of Arab Christians in Syria is estimated to be about 0.7 million people which is one of the largest populations of Arab Christians in the world. The Arab Christians in the country are of the Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox denominations. Arab Christians who follow the Greek Catholic Church in Syria are known as the Melkites. The origin of Arab Christians in the country is traced back to the Byzantine Empire. Thousands of Arab Christian immigrated to Syria in the early 20th century after fleeing their native countries as a result of the First World War. The ongoing Syrian Civil War has led to a great decline in the population of Arab Christians in the country (which was estimated to be about 2.3 million Syrians before the war), with thousands fleeing to neighboring countries to escape the religious persecution and execution from the Islamic State. While religious freedom is guaranteed in Syria, Islamic Sharia law is used is the resolution of many civil cases including cases involving inheritance, child custody, and marriage.

Arab Christians In Lebanon

Lebanon has never conducted a population Census for decades, and so the population of Christians in the country is primarily based on estimates. The population of Arab Christians in Lebanon is estimated to number 350,000, one of the largest in any country. Majority of these Arab Christians in the country are followers of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Lebanon is also home to a large number of Maronites (whose identity as Arab Christians is disputed) who are estimated to number about 1 million individuals.

Arab Christians In Jordan

The history of Arab Christians in Jordan goes back to the 1st century CE with the first Christians who settled in the Transjordan. According to data from the Orthodox Church, the country is presently home to an estimated 221,000 Arab Christians. However, in recent years the country has seen an influx of Arab Christian refugees, fleeing in their thousands from neighboring Syria and Iraq.

Arab Christians In The Arabian Peninsula

The Arabian Peninsula had one of the earliest communities of Arab Christians in the world. However, in recent years, the population of Arab Christians has dwindled to only a few thousand in the entire region. Bahrain has a tiny population of Arab Christians who are estimated to number about 1,000 persons. Only a few of these Arab Christians have lived in Bahrain for centuries, with the majority being immigrants from neighboring countries who settled in the country in the early 20th century. Kuwait also has a tiny number of Arab Christians who are less than 400 individuals.

Arab Christians In North Africa

Egypt has the largest number of Arab Christians in North Africa, with a population estimated to be as high as 350,000 persons. Majority of the Arab Christians in Egypt are followers of the Coptic faith and members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. However, the majority of Copts reject the label of being “Arabs” and instead identify themselves as being of ancient Egyptian heritage. Egypt is also home to a significant number of Greek Orthodox Arab Christians who are predominantly found in the Sinai Peninsula. Other countries in North Africa have small populations of Arab Christians, and these are found in Libya, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, the majority of whom identify themselves as Roman Catholics.

Arab Christians: Who Are They And Where Do They Live?

1 Syria520,000–703,000 (also 25,000–52,000 Maronites)
2 Lebanon350,000 (also 0.45–1.062 million Maronites)
3 Jordan221,000 (also 1,000 Maronites)
4 Israel127,300 (including 1,000 Copts and 7,000 Maronites)
5 Palestine38,000 (excluding East Jerusalem)–50,000
6 Iraq10,000
7 Egypt10,000-350,000
8 Turkey18,000
9 Morocco8,000–40,000

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