Christian worshipper lights a candle in the Church of the Nativity, the alleged birth place of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem has lost most of its Christians, and some predict it will lose the rest.
Musa Al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images Christian worshipper lights a candle in the Church of the Nativity, the alleged birth place of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem has lost most of its Christians, and some predict it will lose the rest. .
Christians in their millions are leaving Muslim lands, a heartbreak for the region’s 12 million remaining Copts, Catholics, Chaldeans and other Christian communities, many of which predate Muslim communities. But their exodus also represents a great tragedy for the region’s Muslims: The Middle East’s Christians, with their free-wheeling, free-market orientation, have for centuries created prosperity in an otherwise stagnant Middle East; once the Christians are gone, an economic desolation is likely to revisit their historic homelands.
Much of the Middle East today is known for its economic backwardness — only sub-Saharan Africa fares worse than the Arab world, according to the United Nations Arab Development Report. But it wasn’t always so. When Europe was a backwater in the centuries following Christ’s birth, the Christian Middle East was a splendour, its many peoples made the region among the world’s richest and most vibrant. In the first few centuries following the Arab invasion of the Christian countries in the 7th century AD, when Crusaders from then-backward countries such as England and France tried to take back the Holy Lands, they were amazed at the opulence they found.
The Crusaders ultimately failed in their Holy Wars and much of the Middle East would fall into disrepair under rule of the Ottoman Empire and the restraints of its Sharia Law. Christian Europe advanced, meanwhile, overtaking the Islamic lands in economic prowess by promoting individual liberty and capitalism, not least through the creation of joint stock companies, insurance and other financial innovations that furthered capital formation and international trade.
Muslim merchants could not compete well. For one thing, the Ottomans were insular. Seeing themselves as superior and having little to learn from the West, they sent to the West few embassies that could further trade. For another, under Islamic law a Muslim couldn’t settle disputes in the courts of infidels. This limitation handicapped Muslim-Christian business relations, particularly since under Islamic law the word of Muslims often trumped that of infidels, even when the infidels had documents to back up their claims. For a third, the laudable Islamic desire for equity required that upon death at least two-thirds of a Muslim estate be split among what are often numerous family members — children, wives, parents, siblings. This fragmentation of estates acted to thwart the continuance of family empires and other large business enterprises, typically leading Muslim enterprises to operate on a small scale.
The Ottomans were enlightened, however, in adopting a largely hands-off policy toward their many non-Muslim minorities. Whenever a Muslim wasn’t a party to a transaction, a Copt or Maronite Christian, or any minority for that matter, could freely enter into all manner of business arrangements and operate under the laws of any court the parties chose. With this wide array of structures on offer, and the freedom to choose, business deals were struck between non-Muslims in whatever way was least costly, least bureaucratic, and most secure. Sometimes deals would be structured along Western lines, sometimes along lines local to a Middle East community, sometimes even along Sharia lines — whatever best suited the parties. The effect was soon seen in the trading houses of the Middle East.
In Beirut by the mid-1800s, entrepreneurial Christian families controlled virtually all of the trade with Europe. In the Turkish trading city of Trabzon by the late 1800s, more than 80% of both exporters and importers were local Christians, generally Greek or Armenian. By the early 1900s, although Muslims constituted about 80% of the Ottoman Empire and Christians less than 20%, Muslims played almost no role in trade with Europe and only a small role in trade within the Ottoman Empire — two-thirds of the local traders then were either Greeks or Armenians, just 15% were Muslim.
Over the last century, the once-formidable Christian presence in the Middle East has ratcheted down down down, to now rest at 4% of the region’s population. Armenians fled Turkey in the convulsions of the First World War. The 1950s saw the departure of Egypt’s Greeks — the country’s most affluent and influential minority — under the military dictatorship of Abdul Gamal Nasser. The Lebanese Christians then had their turn to suffer persecution, then the Christians of Iraq. Now the Arab Spring is leading to more convulsions, and to an inevitable further departure of Christians from their native lands. Even Bethlehem, Christ’s very birthplace, has lost most of its Christians, and some predict it will lose the rest.
The Arab Spring with its resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism is striking out one of the hopes for prosperity that the UN Arab report cited — the liberation of women and their enlistment into the workforce. The resurgence of fossil fuel production in the Western world is striking out the likelihood that high energy prices in future will sustain the Middle East’s economies. The loss of the Middle East’s Christians — the region’s indispensable entrepreneurial class — would be the third strike.