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Briefing: Why Christians are declining in Mideast

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With a lower birth rate than Muslims, the Christian population would decline even without emigration as Muslim births outpace Christian births. And religious discrimination is also a factor. In Egypt, Coptic Christians say they are subject to systemic government discrimination. And in the Palestinian territories, Christians cite intimidation and land theft.

Is there more tension with Muslims now?

The level of sectarian strife in Iraq is certainly elevated. In Israel, relations between Muslims and Christians are generally stable, says Dr. Una McGahern, who recently completed her doctoral thesis on Palestinian Christians in Israel. "While there are elements within both communities who would view the other in more hostile terms, there is a broader consensus of unity and acceptance that exists and that builds on historic patterns of coexistence in the region," she says. In some cases, she adds, the two communities are brought together by perceived Israeli attempts to sow dissension.

Sectarian tensions have simmered in Egypt for decades, with periodic eruptions. Earlier this month, Muslims killed six worshipers leaving mass and a security guard – allegedly in revenge for a Christian's rape of a Muslim girl.

Hilal Khashan, professor of political studies at the American University in Beirut, says that tension has not increased, but that extra attention is given to violence against Christians, both in Egypt and Iraq. "Acts of violence that are driven by personal issues are frequent, but they only make the news when they involve Muslims against Copts," he says.

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