Christians in Muslim Lands: An ancient, contrasting and multifaceted story
Marc Rastoin, SJ

 Marc Rastoin, SJ / Issue 1711 / Published Date:14 December 2017/Last Updated Date:11 October 2018

Life for Christians in countries with a Muslim majority is often difficult. The situation is not simple even in countries that do not adhere to an integralist ideology. Throughout history, conditions have often changed, and a certain level of tolerance in some periods and places has let Christians survive in Islamic countries and participate in civil life. It is worth considering why Christians are still present in Egypt but have disappeared from the rest of North Africa, and what elements can support the survival of these Christian communities today in Islamic countries. This article considers five different situations in an attempt to respond to this question.

It is increasingly on the periphery of Arab countries that non-Arabic speaking Muslims remain in daily contact with Christians, for example in Nigeria, Indonesia, Chad, Ivory Coast and Tanzania. This religious homogenization of the Arab world is an unprecedented historical event that is likely to lead to the same cultural impoverishment and the same misunderstandings that were recorded in the Middle Ages among the European Christians who had an awareness of the Muslim world that was often based upon legend.

Among the principal causes of such a numeric decline, particularly the more recent ones, we need to consider the growth since the end of the 19th century of Muslim identity, known as the “awakening of Islam,” which was supported by a remarkable demographic explosion. Between 1900 and 2015, in fact, Muslims went from 220 million to around 1.5 billion. This phenomenon has increasingly marginalized Arab-Christian identity, making it increasingly difficult to recognize. For Christian Arabs, it has become more and more arduous to continue to exist in this way.

Ultimately, the ongoing presence of active Christian minorities will depend on their ability to give theological meaning to their very presence, while at the same time strengthening their intellectual and spiritual identity. However, this will also depend on the ability of other Christians to demonstrate strong solidarity with them and, above all, on the manner in which Muslim societies undertake a process of reconstruction of their religious and national identity.

The author is a Biblical scholar and teaches Sacred Scripture at the Centre Sèvres in Paris.