Religion in the Middle East

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The Middle East is very religiously diverse. The three major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all Abrahamic religions, and each originated within the Middle East.1 Islam in its many forms is by far the most heavily represented religion in the region though many branches and sects diversify and segment it. In addition to the widely acknowledged religions, smaller minority religions such as Bahá'í, Druze, Yazidi, Mandean, Gnosticism, Yarsanism, Shabakism and Zoroastrianism are also prevalent throughout the Middle East.

Middle Eastern Religions

Islam

Islam is the most widely followed religion in the Middle East. About 20% of the world's Muslims live in the Middle East.2 Islam is monotheistic believing in Allah and follows the teaching of the written sacred text, the Qur'an.2 Islam is believed to be an extension of Judaism and Christianity with the belief that Muhammad is the final prophet of God, in a long chain of prophets, from Adam on down to John the Baptist, Jesus, and finally Muhammad.

Sunni and Shi'a Islam

A major source of conflict in the Muslim Middle East is the divisive nature between the two main sects of Islam: Sunni and Shi'a. Sunni is the largest branch of Islam and dominates most countries in the Middle East. Shia have their largest populations in Iraq (60–65%), Iran (90–96%), Lebanon (25–35%), the Zaydi in Yemen (30%) and Bahrain (65%) and are generally scattered otherwise.3 Minority Shia communities are also found in Turkey as the Alevi sect (10–15%), Saudi Arabia (10%), and Syria (15%).3 Though these two sects agree on the fundamentals of Islam and the teachings of the Qur'an, they are in conflict about who would lead the Muslim community after the Prophet Muhammad's death.4 The Battle of Siffin was a significant schism between the two sects. Throughout the years, other differences have arisen between practices, beliefs and culture. Many conflicts between the two communities have occurred.

Judaism

Judaism in the Middle East is mostly in the state of Israel. There are few other countries in the Middle East with significant Jewish populations, but there are small, scattered communities. Israel’s population is 75.3% Jewish, with the remainder made up of Muslims 20.6%, Christians, Druze, Bahá'í and various other minorities 4.1%.5 The main text of Judaism is the Torah, The Bible in Hebrew. It is one of the oldest monotheistic religions, pre-dating both Christianity and Islam by thousands of years.6 It affirms the belief in one God as the Creator of all Creation, Yahweh. Judaism was the first organised monotheistic religion in the Middle East, providing the religious foundations present in both Islam and Christianity.7 One of Judaism’s foundational principles is that God promised the Land of Israel as an eternal inheritance as long as the Jews followed the guidelines delineated in the covenant.8 The fact that the Jews were re-gathered back into their ancient homeland is seen as a fulfillment of this prophecy by many Jews and Christians after their expulsion in 70 A.D by the Romans.9 Judaism still awaits the coming of the Messiah who will usher in an age of peace and prosperity, not only in Israel, but the world.10

Christianity

Christianity in the Middle East, originated in the region in the 1st century AD, and was one of the major religions of the region until the Arab Muslim conquests of the mid-to-late 7th century AD. Christianity in the middle east is characterized with its diverse beliefs and traditions compared to other parts of the old world. Christians now make up 5% of the population, down from 20% in the early 20th century.11

The number of Middle Eastern Christians is dropping due to such factors as low birth rates compared with Muslims, extensive emigration and ethnic and religious persecution. In addition, political turmoil has been and continues to be a major contributor pressing indigenous Near Eastern Christians of various ethnicities towards seeking security and stability outside their homelands. Christian Palestinians face the same oppression as their Muslim compatriots.12 Recent spread of Jihadist and Salafist ideology, foreign to the tolerant values of the local communities in Greater Syria and Egypt has also played a role in unsettling Christians' decades-long peaceful existence.13 It is estimated that at the present rate, the Middle East's 12 million Christians will likely drop to 6 million by the year 2020.14

Copts

The largest Christian group in the Middle East is the originally Egyptian speaking, but now Arabic-speaking Egyptian ethnoreligious community of Copts, who number 6–11 million people,15 although Coptic sources claim the figure is closer to 12–16 million.1617 Copts reside in mainly Egypt, with tiny communities in Israel, Cyprus and Jordan.

Maronites

Arabic-speaking Lebanese Maronites number some 1.1–1.2 million across the Middle East, and often avoid an Arabic identity in favour of a pre-Arab Phoenician-Canaanite heritage. Syriac Christians of various Non-Arab ethnoreligious heritages, number roughly 2 to 3 million. The indigenous Eastern Aramaic speaking Assyrians of Iraq, south eastern Turkey, north western Iran and north eastern Syria have suffered both ethnic and religious persecution over the last few centuries such as the Assyrian Genocide, leading to many fleeing to the west or congregating in areas in the north of Iraq and Syria. In Iraq numbers of indigenous Assyrians has declined to somewhere between 500,000 to 800,000 (from 0.8–1.4 million before 2003 US invasion).18

Other Christian groups

Currently, the largest community of Syriac Christians in the Middle East resides in Syria, numbering 877,000–1,139,000. These are a mix of Neo-Aramaic speaking Assyrians and largely Arabic-speaking Christians (originally speakers of the almost extinct Western Aramaic language) who ethnically identify as Syriacs-Arameans, together with a large community of Armenians.

In the Persian Gulf states, Bahrain has 1,000 Christian citizens19 and Kuwait has 400 native Christian citizens,20 in addition to 450,000 Christian foreign residents in Kuwait.21 Arab Christians, and those who tend to identify as Arabs, are mostly adherents of the Greek Orthodox Church or Protestant converts, number around 400,000 and combined with Melkite Christians (who are usually related as Arab Christians as well) compose almost 1 million. Armenian Christians number around half a million, with their largest community in Lebanon with 254,000 members. The number of Armenians in Turkey is disputed having a wide range of estimations. More Armenian communities reside in Syria, Jordan and to lesser degree in other Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Iran and Israel. The Armenian Genocide during and after World War I drastically reduced the once sizeable Armenian population.

The Greeks, who had once inhabited large parts of the western Middle East and Asia Minor, have declined since the Arab conquests and recently severely reduced in Turkey, as a result of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, which followed World War I. Today the biggest Middle Eastern Greek community resides in Cyprus numbering around 793,000 (2008).22 Cypriot Greeks constitute the only Christian majority state in the Middle East, although Lebanon was founded with a Christian majority in the first half of the 20th century.

Smaller Christian groups include; Georgians, Messianic Jews, Russians and others, such as Kurdish, Turcoman, Iranian, Shabak, Azeri, Circassian and Arab converts exist in small numbers. There are currently several million Christian foreign workers in the Gulf area, mostly from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Middle Eastern Christians are relatively wealthy, well educated, and politically moderate,23 as they have today an active role in various social, economical, sporting and political aspects in the Middle East.

Samaritanism

Samaritanism is a closely affiliated religion with Judaism, practiced by the ethnoreligious Samaritan community, largely residing in Israel. In the past, Samaritans used to populate also Egypt and Syria, but their community had almost collapsed by the late 19th century due to religious persecution by radical Islamists. Today the Samaritan community grew to about 800 persons from as little as 150 in the early 20th century.

Bahá'í Faith

Within the Middle East, Bahá'í has noteworthy representation in Iran, United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Turkey. Its international headquarters are located upon the northern slope of Mount Carmel at Haifa, Israel. Founded in Iran in 1863,24 the Bahá'í Faith is one of the youngest world major religions.24 The faith was started with Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad of Shiraz who is called The Bab (the Gate). He proclaimed that another of God’s messengers descendent from Abraham would soon appear. That messenger was a young Iranian named Mírzá Husayn `Alí Núrí, later titled Bahá'u'lláh (Glory of God). The Bahá'í Faith is founded on the principle that each of the world’s religions has truth. In the line of prophets of the past and to come, God’s message will continue to be revealed; the Bahá'í Faith refers to this as progressive revelation.24 Another aspect of the ideal of common truth, is unity within the Bahá'í Faith. The Bahá'í Faith holds that all people must feel united with one another with a goal of improving all of humanity.24 According to most encyclopedias, in the early 21st century there are an estimated between 6 to 8 million Bahá'ís across the globe. Little more than 150 years old and second only to Christianity, the Bahá'í Faith is considered to be the most geographically diverse religion spreading across the globe to every country except North Korea and Vatican City.25 Its scriptures appear in more than 700 languages.

Druze faith

Druze, or Druse, is a monotheistic religion found in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Representation ranges from 100,000 in Israel, to 700,000 in Syria . Developing from Isma'ilite teachings, Druze incorporates Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonic and Iranian elements.26 It is a strict monotheism, they call themselves muwahhidun, meaning monotheists.26 The Druze prohibit all conversion to the religion.4 Much of their practices and beliefs are kept secret from outsiders because of its esoteric nature and even within the faith only an elite group called the uqqal (“knowers”) are fully aware of Druze practices.26

Yazīdī

Yazidi, Yezīdī, Azīdī, Zedī, or Izdī is found in Iraq, Syria, and Iran.27 It is a fusion of Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish, Nestorian Christian and Islamic elements.27 They do not see themselves as descendent from Adam and maintain complete segregation from the rest of the population (5). They number fewer than 100,000 and worship a main divinity called Yazīdī is Malak Ṭāʾūs (“Peacock Angel”).27

Mandeanism

There are between 60,000 and 70,000 Mandaeans worldwide28 and within the Middle East they are found in Iraq and Iran.29 They reject Jesus of Nazareth and view Christianity negatively, but revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh and Noah. Mandaeans are an ethnoreligious community, which doesn't allow conversion.

Shabakism

There are about 60,000 Shabak people living today all in northern Iraq.30 They are an ethnic group with a religion similar to orthodox Islam and Christianity. The Shabak have much in common with the Yazidis.

Zoroastrianism

In the Middle East, Zoroastrianism is found in central Iran.31 Today, there are estimated to be under 20,000 Zoroastrians in Iran.32 It is one of the oldest monotheistic religions as it was founded 3500 years ago.31 It was also one of the most powerful religions in the world for about 1000 years.31 Now, however, it is considered one of the smallest religions with only 190,000 followers worldwide.31 There are two deities: Azhura Mazda, who fights for a person’s goodness, and Ahriman, who fights for a person’s evil.33 It is ultimately up to the individual to decide which deity they will follow. Zoroastreans follow the Avesta which is their primary sacred text.33

Other religions

There are many Hindus in Arab states, many due to the migration of Indians to the oil-rich states around the Persian Gulf. Hindu temples have been built in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman.

It is estimated that in the Middle East around 900,000 people, perhaps more, profess Buddhism as their religion. Buddhist adherents make up just over 0.3% of the total population of the Middle East. Many of these Buddhists are workers who have migrated from other parts of Asia to the Middle East in the last 20 years, many from countries that have large Buddhist populations, such as China, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. A small number of engineers, company directors, and managers from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea have also moved to the Middle East.

Sikhism is the fifth-largest organized religion in the world, with over 30 million Sikhs34

Countries

41.5% in Lebanon are Christians representing the mosaic of the Middle East, and contributing heavily in the Media, Politics, Entertainment, Banking... sectors in Lebanon and the World.

Lebanon

Religion in Lebanon is the most unique in the Middle East, and a mix of religions make up Lebanon. Represented by 57.5% Muslim (Sunni, Shi'a, Druze, Isma'ilite, Alawite/Nusayri), 41.5% Christian (Maronite, Melkite, Assyrian, Armenian, Roman Catholic, Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian Orthodox, Chaldean, Copt, Protestant), and 1% Jews.3 Lebanon has a confessional political system in which, regardless of political parties, the President is always Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’ite, and the Deputy Prime Minister Greek Orthodox. Also, the Army General has to be Christian and the Bank Governor has to be always Christian as well. In addition, 50% of the Parliament is represented by Christian Parliament Members, according to the law in Lebanon since the end of the war until today. This is the foundation of uniquity of Lebanon and the source of much of its conflicts; and while changes have been made to attempt to make parliamentary representation more even, many are still urging for reform and change.35 Some, even, would like the confessionalist government to be abolished.35

Egypt

Religion in Egypt consists of Islam (mostly Sunni Muslim) 90%, Coptic Christians 9% and Other Christians 1%.3 As Egypt has modernized with new forms of media and the Egyptian press was liberalized in the 2000s, Coptic Christianity has become a main topic of religious controversy.36 There is much tension between the Muslims and Copts of Egypt as Copts argue for more representation in government and less legal and administrative discrimination; they also feel underprotected from religious hate-crimes . With this greater freedom of press, the Coptic issue has just begun to break into public awareness, but also due to rises in extremism in both communities, media may also be exacerbating the sectarian tension by only publicizing examples of prejudice.36

Another current religious tension in Egypt is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt. Many countries have now developed their own branches. Many are violent and most Arab governments actively try to restrain the group by arresting and killing members. Currently, as the new government of Egypt is trying to establish itself, many are concerned that a member of the Muslim Brotherhood will again step in and claim leadership. For the current candidates for presidency, more than one is likely to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is however unpopular among the majority of Egyptians on account of its fundamentalist views, its clampdown on tourism and its desire to impose Sharia law on the nation.

Iran

Religion in Iran is made up of 98% Islam (Shi'a 89%, Sunni 9%) and 2% Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i.3 Before the 2009 elections and demonstrations, the Basij and religious police were in a power position with the rights to arrest and punish people for acting immorally (i.e. wearing makeup or drinking alcohol). There was much religious oppression and executions of members of the Bah’ai faith. Religious minorities are now beginning to hold a larger presence and significance in Iran and are being acknowledged as such.

The Islamic Revolution replaced an old world monarchy with a theocracy based on a grand position of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih).37 This is a mix of republicanism and religion that would use religion to rule for elective and democratic institutions; it was to be a blend of liberalism and religious injunctions (abs). Islam would be protected under this Islamic Republic and unelected positions like the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council would have unlimited power over the nation. With the nuclear program developing in Iran and much conflict after September 22, 2001, Iran and the Islamic Republic are at a crossroads.37

Turkey

Religion in Turkey is represented by 99.8% Muslim (mostly Sunni), and 0.2% other (mostly Christians and Jews).3 Originally a militarily secularized government, under the relatively new president Erdogan, religious freedom has become much more accessible in Turkey. There has been a growing religious resurgence in Turkey and more and more citizens find significance in their religious identities. The previous laws disallowing the Hijab, religious headscarf, in schools and public places has been a huge source of contention. Now, it is a matter of civil rights in courts. The case of Sahin 2004 was one that really exemplified the tension between religious secularism, civil rights and the government’s power in Turkey.38 The case revolved around a student at university being allowed to wear the Hijab in class.38 Religious education is also a topic of debate in Turkey. Before 1980, private religious education was banned and then it was changed to be required. As it is currently being reevaluted, the question is whether religious education should be banned again, optional or if it should be obligatory and plural.

Iraq

Religion in Iraq is represented by 97% Islam (Shiite 60%–65%, Sunni 32%–37%), and 3% Christian or other.3 Because of this large majority of Shia over Sunni Muslim, there is much tension between the two groups.

Saudi Arabia

Religion in Saudi Arabia is allegedly 100% Muslim.3 It is illegal to practice any other religion than Islam in Saudi Arabia. There is still tension, however, between the Sunnis and the Shiias. Shiite Islamist revolution has never been a huge threat to the Saudi Arabian government, though, because it is such a small population.39 Sunni Islamists, though, present a larger threat to the government because of their large Saudi Arabian population. These Sunni groups often dissent through violence targeted at government, Western or non-Muslims that threat the Muslim nation, Shiites, and sometimes generally directed against moral corruption.39

Yemen

Religion in Yemen is represented by a majority Islam (including Sunni and Shiite), small numbers of Jewish, Christian, and Hindu.3

Syria

Religion in Syria is represented by 70% Islam (Sunni), 12% Alawite, 5% Druze, and other Islamic sects, 10% Christian (various sects), and there is some Jewish representation (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo).3

Israel

Religion in Israel is represented by the following religious make-up: Judaism 77%, Islam 16%, Christian 2%, Druze 2% (2003).3 Israel represents the religious Holy Land for Jews, Christians and Muslims. All religions are present in Israel and lay personal claim to the land. Due to the significant Israeli/Palestinian conflict, tensions are high in the religious community. The majority of displaced and upset Palestinians are Muslim and the majority of current Israeli citizens are Jewish so establishing the state borders is highly influenced by religion.

One of the main difficulties in establishing peace between the two countries is because of Jerusalem. Each of the three main religions is incredibly attached to this city and claim it as their own. Therefore, it is difficult to determine whether Palestinian Territories or Israel will encompass this region. Maps produced within the territories actually represent Jerusalem differently. Palestinian maps draw Jerusalem as divided and Israeli maps show it as a part of Israeli territory.40

Jordan

Religion in Jordan is represented by 92% Muslim (Sunni), 6% Christian (mostly Greek Orthodox), and 2% other.3

References

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  10. ^ Maimonides writes: "The anointed king is destined to stand up and restore the Davidic Kingdom to its antiquity, to the first sovereignty. He will build the Temple in Jerusalem and gather the strayed ones of Israel together. All laws will return in his days as they were before: Sacrificial offerings are offered and the Sabbatical years and Jubilees are kept, according to all its precepts that are mentioned in the Torah. Whoever does not believe in him, or whoever does not wait for his coming, not only does he defy the other prophets, but also the Torah and Moses our teacher. For the Torah testifies about him, thus: "And the Lord Your God will return your returned ones and will show you mercy and will return and gather you... If your strayed one shall be at the edge of Heaven... And He shall bring you" etc.(Deuteronomy 30:3-5)." "These words that are explicitly stated in the Torah, encompass and include all the words spoken by all the prophets. In the section of Torah referring to Bala'am, too, it is stated, and there he prophesied about the two anointed ones: The first anointed one is David, who saved Israel from all their oppressors; and the last anointed one will stand up from among his descendants and saves Israel in the end. This is what he says (Numbers 24:17-18): "I see him but not now" - this is David; "I behold him but not near" - this is the anointed king. "A star has shot forth from Jacob" - this is David; "And a brand will rise up from Israel" - this is the anointed king. "And he will smash the edges of Moab" - This is David, as it states: "...And he struck Moab and measured them by rope" (II Samuel 8:2); "And he will uproot all Children of Seth" - this is the anointed king, of whom it is stated: "And his reign shall be from sea to sea" (Zechariah 9:10). "And Edom shall be possessed" - this is David, thus: "And Edom became David's as slaves etc." (II Samuel 8:6); "And Se'ir shall be possessed by its enemy" - this is the anointed king, thus: "And saviors shall go up Mount Zion to judge Mount Esau, and the Kingdom shall be the Lord's" (Obadiah 1:21)." "And by the Towns of Refuge it states: "And if the Lord your God will widen up your territory... you shall add on for you another three towns" etc. (Deuteronomy 19:8-9). Now this thing never happened; and the Holy One does not command in vain. But as for the words of the prophets, this matter needs no proof, as all their books are full with this issue." "Do not imagine that the anointed king must perform miracles and signs and create new things in the world or resurrect the dead and so on. The matter is not so: For Rabbi Akiva was a great scholar of the sages of the Mishnah, and he was the assistant-warrior of the king Bar Kokhba, and claimed that he was the anointed king. He and all the Sages of his generation deemed him the anointed king, until he was killed by sins; only since he was killed, they knew that he was not. The Sages asked him neither a miracle nor a sign..." "And if a king shall arise from among the House of David, studying Torah and indulging in commandments like his father David, according to the written and oral Torah, and he will impel all of Israel to follow it and to strengthen breaches in its observance, and will fight Hashem's [God's] wars, this one is to be treated as if he were the anointed one. If he succeeded and built a Holy Temple in its proper place and gathered the disperesed ones of Israel together, this is indeed the anointed one for certain, and he will mend the entire world to worship the Lord together, as it is stated: "For then I shall turn for the nations a clear tongue, to call all in the Name of the Lord and to worship Him with one shoulder (Zephaniah 3:9)." "But if he did not succeed to this degree, or if he was killed, it becomes known that he is not this one of whom the Torah had promised us, and he is indeed like all proper and wholesome kings of the House of David who died. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, only set him up to try the public by him, thus: "Some of the wise men will stumble in clarifying these words, and in elucidating and interpreting when the time of the end will be, for it is not yet the designated time." (Daniel 11:35)."
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