The myth of disappearing Lebanese Christians

A bombshell report shows that Christians are making a demographic comeback in Lebanon because of tumbling Muslim birth rates.
Michael Cook | 20 February 2013
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As the only Arab country where a substantial proportion of the population is Christian, Lebanon’s geo-political importance is out of proportion to its size – four million people in a country the size of Jamaica. It has a vital role to play in struggles between the West and the Muslim world and in dialogue between Christianity and Islam.

But a poll taken in January shows that two-thirds of Lebanese Christians feel that the very existence of their communities is under long-term threat in their country. They say that too many of their fellow Christians are emigrating, their share of the population is shrinking and their political leaders are consumed with factional infighting.

This is a glum picture – but it may be false, according to a bombshell report on Lebanese demography just released in English – and reported exclusively in MercatorNet. It has been extensively reported in the Lebanese media.

The report was produced for the Lebanese Information Centre (LIC), a Beirut think tank, and the figures were checked by Statistics Lebanon, one of the country’s most prominent polling and research firms.

According to this study, the clichés are wrong. The proportion of Christians in the country – which currently stands at about 34 percent -- is slowly increasing. By 2030, it will rise to 37 percent and by 2045 to more than 39 percent. And because hundreds of thousands of overseas Lebanese are eligible to vote, the increase in registered voters is even more impressive. By 2030, 40 percent of Lebanese on the electoral roll will be Christian, and by 2045, the figure will be 41 percent.

In the knife-edge politicking of Lebanon, this figure has momentous consequences, says Dr Wissam Raji, of the LIC, the lead author of the report. “Ever since the Syrian army left Lebanon in 2005,” he says, “the Christians have been gaining momentum. According to our constitution, Christians have 50 percent of the political power of the country. These figures eliminate the possibility of evenly dividing the political power into three as suggested for the last 10 years by the majority of the Shiites who want equal shares between themselves and the Sunnis and the Christians.”

The topic of population statistics in Lebanon is always potentially inflammatory. For more than 50 years, the government has refused to publish statistics about the size of religious groups. Lebanon is the only member of the United Nations which has not conducted a census since the end of World War II. In fact, while the United States takes a constitutionally-mandated census every ten years, Lebanon’s one and only census took place in 1932 when France was the ruling colonial power.

According to figures gathered at the time, Maronite Christians made up about 29 percent of the population, Sunni Muslims about 22 per cent and Shiite Muslims about 20 percent. A decade later, in 1943, Lebanon became independent. The population then was officially estimated to be about 30 percent Maronite, 21 percent Sunni and 19 percent Shiite.

The Maronites, Sunnis and Shiites are just the largest and most powerful of the 18 religious denominations recognised by Lebanon’s constitution. The Greek Orthodox are currently estimated to be about 8 percent, the Melkite Catholics about 5 percent and the Druze, a Muslim sect, about 5 percent.

However, political power in the government was parcelled out in the 1943 constitution among the three largest groups in proportion to the size of their population in the 1932 census. The president was always to be a Maronite, as it was the largest single denomination. The prime minister was a Sunni, and the speaker of the House a Shiite. Because Christians had constituted 54 percent of the population in the 1932 census, parliamentary seats and jobs in the public service were allocated on a 6:5 ratio.

But the Christian birth rate began to fall and Christian emigration began to rise. A civil war raged from 1975 to 1990. For everyone it brought misery, chaos and death, and between 600,000 and 900,000 Lebanese fled the country. From 1975 to 1984, 80 percent of those leaving were Christians. But as the resistance of the Christian militias stiffened and Muslim factions began fighting amongst themselves, the proportion was reversed. Between 1985 and 1990, 83 percent of the emigrants were Muslim.

In 1990 a peace accord was signed which brought an uneasy peace. Everyone knew that a new government ought to reflect the new political and demographic realities, but there were no figures to back up the sensation that the Christian presence was diminishing. So the warring factions agreed that the proportion of deputies in the parliament and public servants should be adjusted from a 6:5 ratio of Christians to Muslims to 1:1. And that is where it stands today.

However, demography never sleeps. And quietly the proportion of Christians began to rise again. The first reason was unequal shares of emigrants. According to the Lebanese Information Centre, about 60 percent of the 700,000 people who have left the country after 1992 were Muslim. And then Muslim birth rates began to fall. Fast.

Although the Western media keeps ringing alarm bells about high Arab birth rates, the reality is quite different. Youssef Courbage, a distinguished Lebanese demographer who works in France and Norway, says, “Of the three major monotheistic religions, all of which encourage fertility, Islam is the one that encourages procreation the least.”

In Lebanon the Muslim fertility rate was 5.44 children per woman in 1971, compared to the much lower Christian birth rate of 3.56. But by 2004, the Lebanese Information Centre estimates that it had dropped to 1.82, compared to the Christian fertility rate of 1.53.

Why are birth rates so low in a society where most people’s identity is built around their religion?

The response of the Lebanese Information Centre can be summed up in three words: instability, education and secularisation. The war caused a slump in fertility. And as more opportunities opened up for girls, they married later and had fewer children. The growing secularisation of Lebanese society meant that both Christians and Muslims were paying less attention to the exhortations of religious leaders to have big families.

“Huge numbers of our men emigrate,” Dr Raji told MercatorNet, “and the emigration of families is much lower than individual emigration. So over the last 30 years this has led to a huge number of single women in our society. With political stability I believe that our fertility rate will definitely increase in the coming years due to lower intensity of emigration.”

The upshot of all these trends is that a 40-year decline in the Christian population has been reversed. Unless another war breaks out, it is unlikely that Lebanon will lose its identity as the only place in the Arab world where Christians and Muslims share political power.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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