A two-week conference of bishops is underway in the Vatican to discuss the future of the dwindling Middle East's Muslim-threatened Christian communities.

Pope Benedict XVI has convened Catholic bishops from all over the Middle East to discuss and debate how to save the minority Christian communities in the area. Issues under discussion include strife in Iraq, the Israeli-Arab conflict, radical Islam, the divisions among the region’s many Christian churches, and the economic situation.

While Christian demographics in the Middle East vary from country to country, the overall trend is the same: down. Christians currently account for some 5 percent of the region’s population, compared with some 20 percent 100 years ago. In Turkey, for instance, where the Christian minority numbered 20 percent a century ago, it today is one-hundredth of that, or 0.2 percent of the total population.

“If this phenomenon continues, Christianity in the Middle East will disappear,” Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, a Beirut-based Egyptian Jesuit taking an active role in the conference, told Reuters.

A Voice of America report on the synod focused on the difficulties Christians face living in Moslem societies, specifically Egypt and Lebanon. It quoted Ziyad Hajjar, a young Christian man living in Beirut's largely Muslim Hamra district, who said that being a Christian in the predominantly Muslim Middle East is not an enviable position.  He said that Muslims “have the power here in the Middle East, and we cannot say anything.  We cannot talk about our religion because here it is dangerous.  Here, [Muslims] can easily make problems for you if they find out you are Christian."

Similarly, a Christian refugee from Sudan now in Cairo, says that Christians are persecuted both in Egypt and in his homeland. He said it is difficult for a Christian to find work because many fields are closed to them, and that Christians often face the choice of converting to Islam or dying of starvation.

In Iraq, though Christians number less than 5 percent of the total population, they make up 40 percent of the refugees now living in nearby countries.

Recent anti-Christian incidents include the following:

  • Algeria: Looting and burning to the ground of a Pentecostal church, January 2009
  • Sudan: It is estimated that over 1.5 million Christians have been killed by the Janjaweed, the Arab Muslim militia, and suspected Islamists in northern Sudan since 1984.
  • Pakistan: In August 2009, six Christians - four women, a child and a man – were burnt alive by Muslims and a church was set ablaze after the alleged desecration of a copy of the Koran.
  • Egypt:  Seven Christians leaving church services were killed and ten were injured by three Muslim shooters, January 2010

For a historian's report on Christian suffering in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, click here.