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Christian Emigration From the Middle East

23 Jan 2002 – Christian emigration from the Middle East cannot be attributed to one cause, nor are Christians alone in the region in quest of a better life in Europe or the New World, reported the directors of the Pontifical Mission, Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s (CNEWA) operating agency in the Middle East. The directors delivered their reports on regional population movements (reports are available at this site; see links below) at a meeting of funding agencies concerned for the Eastern churches, convened at the Vatican on 23 January by the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

Christian emigration from the Middle East began in the late 19th century, the directors reported, but economic, political and social uncertainties, particularly in the last 30 years, have spurred emigration.

Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war more than a decade ago, between 200,000 and 300,000 people have left Lebanon, 54 percent of them Muslim. According to Mr. Issam Bishara, Regional Director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, more than two-thirds of those who have left are seeking employment in the Gulf states, Africa, Australia, Europe or the Americas. Bishara also reported that persons with advanced degrees were most likely to leave Lebanon.

Lebanon continues to play its traditional role as the region’s refugee host, as Iraqis, Sudanese, Syrians and others join the Palestinian refugees who first fled to Lebanon in 1949.

While Jordan remains politically stable, asserted Mr. Ra’ed Bahou, Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq, the kingdom’s well-educated Christian minority continues to seek opportunities in Europe and the Americas. Jordan’s Iraqi refugees, many of them Christian, use Jordan as a steppingstone, flooding Western embassies in Amman with visa requests.

Nowhere is emigration more dramatic than in the Holy Land, particularly in those urban centers where Christians once formed a substantial community, if not the majority: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Ramallah. According to Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus, some 230,000 Arab Christians have left the Holy Land since 1948, more than a third since June 1967. The current Palestinian uprising and the subsequent Israeli response have decimated tourism, an industry employing more than 80 percent of the Christian population in the Holy Land. More than two-thirds of all Palestinians live below the poverty level ($2 a day) yet less than a third, Gockel reported, receive financial assistance.

Citing Israeli sources, Gockel also reported a lesser known fact – well over 100,000 immigrants to Israel, many of them from Eastern Europe or Ethiopia, are in fact Christian.

Pope Pius XII founded the Pontifical Mission in 1949. Today, it serves as the Vatican’s relief and development agency in the Middle East.