“The Declining Number of Christians in Aleppo, Syria,” by Ehsani

Fewer Christians Live in Aleppo than is Commonly Thought
By Ehsani for Syria Comment
February 18, 2012
– No more than 100,000 Christians live in Aleppo – 3.3% of the city’s population, not the 12% commonly stated.

The exact number of religious minorities in Syria is difficult to ascertain. It is often reported that Christians make up somewhere between 9% and 12% of the population. Nearly two years ago, I happened to be visiting the city of Aleppo when a young Syrian Priest argued that the actual number of Syrian Christians is lower than the above consensus estimate. The initial purpose of the meeting at the time was to discuss the plight of Syrian youth.

This note will attempt to discuss the plight of  the Christian population in Aleppo. The findings will point to the fact that this particular minority seems to have suffered from a precipitous drop in its numbers measured as a percentage of the population. Low fertility rate, abysmal economic growth, unfavorable laws, regional dynamics and frightening language from some extremists have combined to deal this minority a remarkable blow when it comes to their numbers at least within the ancient city of Aleppo.

The Data:

My initial foray into this topic started over two years ago during one of my visits to the city. During one of my meetings, a noted Christian Priest remarked how Christian youth were leaving in larger numbers than ever before. He proceeded to argue how the lack of job opportunities, low wages and exuberant housing prices had combined to drive the youth in his congregation to move abroad. His attempts to convince his young men to stay in Syria fell on deaf ears. The result has been a migration of alarming proportions. And this has been going on for years. Pressed to back up his assertions with data, the priest promised to provide me with hard statistics about the size of the Aleppine Christian community on my next trip.

Prior to visiting Syria in January 2012, I decided to call another Church leader who seemed to also have a wide following in the Aleppo Christian community. My goal was simple. I wanted him to use the next two months to find out how many Christians live in the city of Aleppo.

As it turns out, Christian priests and bishops keep tally of their parishioners by keeping track of the number of families under their respective churches. The Assyrian Orthodox Church for example has 1300 families. Approximately every 300 families are assigned to each Priest. This gives the church a reasonable ability to calculate the number of people under its roof. This is made easier by the fact that Christian births and marriages are meticulously recorded by the Church; the registration process allows the community to keep close track of the number of its parishioners.

There are elven Christian denominations in the city of Aleppo. Listed below are the approximate number of families that belong to each of the eleven churches:

Roman (Melkite) Catholic 2,500

Roman (Antiochian) Orthodox 1,000

Armenian Catholic 1,300

Armenian Orthodox 10,000

Syriac Catholic 1,300

Syrian Orthodox 1,300

Maronites 400

Chaldean 400

Latin 400

Arab Anglican 100

Armenian Anglican 300

The total number of Christian families in Aleppo is therefore 19,000.  If one assumes that the average family size is 5 (a generous assumption), the number of Christians in Aleppo is below 100,000. It is of course difficult to accurately define the total number of Aleppo’s population. It is often argued that the number is around 3 million people if you exclude the reef (rural area) and as high as 5 million people when one includes areas like Hayyan, Hreitan, Albab and Mumbej.

If accurate, the 19,000 Christian families of Aleppo means that Christians make up only 3.5% of its 3 million residents.

When I shared the data with most Christians in the city of Aleppo, the response was mixed. Some nodded their heads in agreement. Some seemed surprised and demanded that they look at the numbers in more detail. Not one was able to refute them outright.

Many readers of this note are likely to be surprised by these findings. I urge them to correct my numbers if they are false. I would be grateful for anyone who can find holes in the above percentage.

Aleppo and Damascus are supposed to make up half of the population of Syria. However, Aleppo has hardly any Christians in its reef or countryside. This is not the case in other parts of the country like Wadi Al Nasara (The Valley of Christians) around Homs for example. The Priests I spoke with did not have Christian population statistics for the country as a whole, but insisted that the total number of Christians in Syria probably does not surpass one million. These means that they probably make up between 4% to 5% of the total population rather than the 9% to 12% that is usually cited.

Back to Aleppo:

Wikipedia still states that “Aleppo is home to many eastern Christian congregations and that “more than 250,000 Christians live in the city representing about 12% of the total population.”

The results of my own findings are vastly different from such numbers.

The last known census took place in 1944. During that time, Christians were known to number 112,110. This meant that they represented near 38% of the city’s population of just over 300,000. This statistic was confirmed when the political representatives for the city council were assigned. Of the 12 members to the council, 5 were Christians. This was an official confirmation that they made up nearly 40% of the city’s residents.

This number dropped significantly over the ensuing 20 years culminating with the arrival of Abdul Nassar. Following WW II, many Armenians decided to migrate to Armenia. Soon afterwards and during the early 1950′s, a significant percentage of Christians belonging to mostly lower income groups left for Venezuela and other parts of Latin America. Those in the upper income groups were dealt a severe economic blow upon the arrival of Abdul Nasser. The misguided nationalization drive of the period sent many wealthy families packing. Lebanon, Canada and other Western nations were the likely destination.

By the early 1960′s, the Christian population of Aleppo had dropped to as low as 20%. A Church official present at the meeting suggested that by the time Hafez Assad took over power in 1970, Christians in Aleppo were merely 10% of the city’s population.

Over the next four decades, this number has dropped to as low 3.5%. Wikipedia’s number of 12% is widely off the mark.  It is expected that I will encounter significant challenges to the data I presented. I welcome the input of those who do.

While on topic, it is worth remembering that the Christian existence in this land predates Islam. Christianity was born in the Levant. It was the Roman Empire that transported Christianity from the Levant to the Western part of the Empire. Later on during the new roman empire (Byzantine empire), it was a Damascene Christian Monophysite bishop that informed Khalid Ibn al-Walid that it was possible to breach city walls by attacking a position only lightly defended at night by opposing Byzantine soldiers. The Byzantine-Sassanid wars of 602-628 had exhausted the local populace. The negative treatment of the western Byzantine Empire’s rulers turned the local largely Christian population against their rule. As the Arab conquests reached the gates of Damascus, Christian Syrians were hardly opposed to the new  invaders.

Economics:

Perhaps no single issue has done more harm to Syria than its economic performance over the recent decades. The failure of the country’s experiment with socialism has been painful. So has been the state’s allocation of its water resources under the banner of self-sufficiency. Another abject failure has come from the lack of supply of housing as attempts to regulate the process of “Tanzeem” have taken decades. An explosion in Illegal housing was the inevitable consequence as legal housing unit prices rose beyond the economic means of most Syrians. What started as a noble exercise to help the poor afford basic needs decades ago has morphed into one of the most debilitating liabilities for the treasury. Subsidies may have been affordable when Syria had 8 million people and double the oil output. But they have sucked the government’s coffers dry now that the population has tripled and that oil output has fallen by half.  Last but not least is a debilitated public sector that is terribly inefficient and has monopolized vast sectors of the economy, stifling private initiative and weighing on Syria’s potential growth like a stone.

To be sure, the word “Socialism” was finally dropped from the country’s new constitution. However, Article 13 continues to insist that:

“The national economy shall be based on the development of the public and private economic activities”. The same article also states that “ The state shall guarantee the protection of producers and consumers”. Finally, the constitution now dictates that “Taxes are imposed on an equitable and progressive bases which achieve the principles of equality and social justice”.

The combination of the above set of economic principals is a clear indication that the country’s transformation away from socialism will be slow and uneven.

Many of the readers of this forum are aware that I have been warning about the damaging effects of Syria’s anemic economy for years. It was my interest in the subject that triggered the initial meeting when I wanted to understand the plight of the youth and their preference to leave the country seeking better economic opportunities abroad. According to those present, economic issues were by far the most important factor behind the accelerated immigration trends. In one month alone, 400 Christian families migrated from Aleppo to Lebanon following the disastrous Nationalization policies of Abdul Nasser in the 1960′s.

The Syrian Personal Status Law:

Under Syrian law, a Christian can convert to Islam. It is illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity of course. Inter-religious marriages seem to have provided Church leaders and the Christian community in general with a major challenge.

Christian women who decide to marry a Muslim man have to make a critical decision due to the country’s inheritance and estate laws. If she stays Christian rather than convert, she will inherit zero from her husband following his death.  The only way she can inherit is if she converts to Islam. Civil weddings do not exist in Syria.

This is why many Syrian Christian families find it extremely hard to accept inter-religious marriages. It is also why they seem to prefer to live in Christian-only buildings where the chances of young adults interacting with those from a different sect are lower. Christians feel that the civil laws are unfavorable to them.

For the record, many Christians were hopeful that article 3 was going to be dropped from the new constitution. Such expectations were not met when they found out that “The President has to be part of the Muslim faith.”

The plight of Iraq’s Christians:

Syrian Christians have been badly affected by the recent experience of Iraqi Christians. Aleppo has been home to many Iraqis who reside in the city as they await their immigration visas. Most attempt to leave the region for good. Stories of Christian persecution in Iraq have had a profound effect on Syria’s Christians. Many Syrian Christians are convinced that their future in the region may be no brighter than that of their Iraqi coreligionists.

The Religious Satellite Channels:

Nothing seems to send greater chills down the spine of most Syrian Christians than watching extremist religious figures rally their listeners and supporters on satellite television. Adnan Ar’ur may well speak for millions of Syrians. His steady appearances, however, seem to convince Syrian Christians to pack up and leave.

Conclusion:

The percentage of Aleppo’s Christians has been in steady decline since the early 1900’s. That the number has dropped from over 40% as recently as the 1940′s to the current 3.5% of the population of this city is remarkable. This phenomenon is not new. Many have known about these trends and have written about them. The consensus however has been that Christians still make up 9%-12% of Syria’s population. This admittedly unscientific study challenges those assumptions. Instead, it argues that Syrian Christians may have dropped to as low as 4%-6% of the total population and as low as 3.5% in Aleppo. Readers can draw their own conclusions about what implications this has for the country going forward. It may suggest that authoritarian support for President Assad and for “secularism” is not as important as sometimes stated.

Syrian Christians in the Diaspora continue to have a profound and strong attachment to the land. The sentiment amongst the Christians inside the country is unmistakable. They seem resigned to the fact that their numbers are heading south. When I presented my 3.5% number to many of them, many simply nodded their heads. The vast majority of them may not know the exact number but many have indicated to me that it does “feel” to them like 3.5%. Aleppo’s overwhelmingly Sunni countryside has been suffering from a deep economic depression for decades. Many of Syria’s poorest towns are those surrounding Aleppo. During the day, men from these areas descend on the city, looking for work and better opportunity. The population of Aleppo has soared. Indeed, most Aleppines feel like they are living in a city of 5 million people.  Seen from this perspective, the 19,000 families of this ancient land feel that they only make up 1.9% of its larger populace.

The Wide Spread Effects of Economics on All Syrians:

While this note listed a number of factors behind the drop in the percentage of Christians that make up the population of this land, it is the opinion of this writer that poor economic policy lies at the heart of this issue. The negative impact of economic mismanagement has hit all religious communities of Syria. Presented with the chance, most Syrian youth chose to migrate out of the country. The lack of economic upward mobility has meant that most young Syrians have found it difficult to carve out a reasonable economic future for themselves. Yes, Syria, like the rest of the Arab world, could do with less corruption and more democracy and freedom. None of this is likely to matter much in the long run unless the country can design a vibrant industrial policy, find sufficient energy and renewable water resources, improve its outmoded education and health care systems and make legal housing affordable for the vast majority of the populace. Let us remember that this region needs to create nearly 80 million jobs over the next twenty years. Syria alone needs to create close to 300,000 jobs a year. On current trends, this is nearly impossible to accomplish and it is the reason why we are at the beginning of our black tunnel.

NEWS ROUNDS UP

Hundreds and hundreds of anti-government protesters braved scattered gunfire from Syrian soldiers to march through a middle-class neighborhood in Damascus on Saturday, the biggest demonstration witnessed close to the heart of the capital since the country’s uprising started 11 months ago.

Frustrated Protestors Fill Streets In Damascus

Seemingly undeterred by an international outcry, Moscow has worked frantically in recent weeks to preserve its relationship with the increasingly isolated government of Mr. Assad

For Syria, Reliant on Russia for Weapons and Food, Old Bonds Run Deep

A “good number” of unmanned US military and intelligence drones are operating in the skies over Syria, monitoring the Syrian military’s attacks against opposition forces and civilians, NBC News reported, citing unnamed US defense sources.

US drones monitoring events in Syria

 

Comments (216)


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201. Anton said:

Dear Mr. Dawoud

I believe that any radical view will not be appreciated in the future Syria unless radicals will govern Syria , which I believe 80% of all Syrians are refusing to accept and allowing it to happened.

I believe also that your view on the Syrian president and government is far from facts and one sided, in the actual crises there is no black and white instead there are a lot of gray areas.

I believe also unless you are living in Syria and engaged in a political party with known political program having enough people support and asked to represent them , you need to talk only on behalf of yourself and not of any other Syrian, otherwise you will be seen as another propagandist and losing your argument .

I believe also that Syrians Christianare are not afraid but mostly concerned about Syria’s future, in my opinion Syrians Christian are always and will be pro-Syria, from my point of view as long as president Assad or “any other president in his place today” trying to protect the interest of Syria and Syrian people regardless their back ground, will have full support from the majority of Syrians Christian.

Please do not take my above comment as personal, it’s just my opinion

Thanks

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February 20th, 2012, 1:04 pm

 

202. Badr said:

The Tolerant Dictator
Syria’s Christians Side with Assad Out of Fear
By Bastian Berbner

The president is exploiting their fears of Islamists for his own ends.
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The message they received from their head of state was short and simple: Either support me, or your churches will burn.
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http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,800450,00.html

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February 20th, 2012, 1:18 pm

 

203. mjabali said:

Mr. Revelon

In Arabic there is a saying: خير الامور اوسطها

Extremist ideas and conservative thinking do not fit with Syria, a country with multiple religions and sects.

As for the reliable media source: so far they are very few who could tell us what really takes place. You could tell later from the effects and reported death, but as a matter of fact there is no immediate reporting because there is no independent news sources. Most are biased. You have to be able to read between the lines. al-Assad media outlet and those of the revolution proved to be sensational and far from being neutral.

Anthony Shadid was good because he went to the location of events plus he knew what is the composition of the area. He is hard to replace. There are good reports here and there, but they are really few.

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February 20th, 2012, 1:26 pm

 

204. Anton said:

Dear John MUMU

Very appreciated, will be in touch

Thanks

Anton

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February 20th, 2012, 1:44 pm

 

205. majedkhaldoun said:

Mr. Dawoud
Ehsani is too smart to be pro Assad, my impression of Ehsani is that he is for freedom in economy and politic.

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February 20th, 2012, 2:01 pm

 

206. jna said:

Asharq Al-Awsat Interview: US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford

Read all: http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=3&id=28540

… In the end, it is up to the Syrian people themselves to put the details in place regarding how power is transferred. This is an issue that we, and other friends of Syria, have discussed with the Syrian opposition. The Arab League has provided the general framework, and it is up to the Syrians themselves to put the details in place.

… Our message is the same: violence will make finding a political solution more difficult, whilst there is no security solution [to the Syrian crisis]; for suppression is not a solution, neither is civil war. Therefore the opposition must know how to coordinate alliances, and convince the al-Assad regime that it must step down to allow the peaceful transition of power. This is in the interests of all Syrians, whether Alawites or Christians or Sunnis or Druze or businessmen or military…all segments of Syrian society have an interest in ensuring peaceful transition of power.

…However the unity of the Syrian army at the present time makes it difficult to think that it is within the capabilities of the FSA or any other armed opposition group – even if they are provided with more weapons – to overthrow the Syrian regime by force. In fact, this will only result in more violence. Instead of this, we must focus our efforts to push the Syrian government, via political, diplomatic and economic pressure, to stop its attacks on civilians. With concerted and intense efforts in this regard, we can make President al-Assad understand that he is not in a position to continue to rule, and that he cannot return to the embrace of the international community, and so it would be better for himself and his family to leave now and let others in the Syrian government negotiate over the transition of power.

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February 20th, 2012, 5:13 pm

 

207. irritated said:

#192 Anton

Mubarak was not qualified as dictator for 40 years then in a matter of two weeks the media unanimously decided he was.
For Bashar Al Assad, it took more time for the media to switch from ‘authoritarian’ to ‘dictator’.
When is the Emir of Bahrain be labelled dictator, what is the criteria?
When a label is set on someone, it is hard to get rid of it.

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February 20th, 2012, 5:28 pm

 

208. admir said:

@MAJEDKHALDOUN

the reason why alawis most likely make up 20% of syria is because bashar (jr.) has intentionally kept a majority of them in poverty in rural villages, whereas he urbanized and modernized many sunnis (sometimes much more than alawites i might add). poor people who live in rural areas tend to create larger families and this leads to increase in their community, whereas urbanized people moving into cities, slums and working class districts tend to have smaller families (in comparison to rural folks).
furthermore you might want to check the geography of syria through google mapd or another map-software, majority of the region in syria is desert (or close to desert), the only places where it is fertile for a large rural population is in the houran (where people of daraa and suweida are) and in the alawite region (i.e. lattakia, tartous, western homs and idlib). that is why desert countries like libya, saudi arabia, and qatar are highly urbanized whereas countries like iraq and syria are only partly so.
if you check a population density map of syria you would see that one of the most densely populated regions in syria is in the alawite regions (alongside aleppo which has a significant alawite population in countryside, and homs with western regions being majority alawite). If you add all these factors together you would get an estimation of the alawite population 3 times (maybe even 4 times) larger than what you have stated; in other words – the alawite population tends to be between 3.5-4 million (maybe even more), which woulld make them 16 to even 20 percent of the population

and when you add the druze and christian poopulation (assuming your and ehsani’s estimation) then sunnis are definitely less than 80%.

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February 20th, 2012, 9:07 pm

 

209. Leo Syriacus said:

I am appalled by the sectarian views that some people are posting on SC, it is no wonder the country is in such shambles.
When a post goes on forever on the discrimination that will face the members of minorities in the country after the regime demise I just shake my head in dismay:
Syria was ruled by a number of successive urban-Sunni dominated governments between 1946 and 1963 yet every Syrian had representation and one of Syria’s greatest politicians Fares El-Khouri was a Christian prime minister in a government of Muslim Brotherhood majority, I am interested in hearing about what disrimination minorities faced in that period if any!
Every single American president ( with the exception of Kennedy ) was Protestant, yet not a single Catholic American claims disrimination….The majority of German Chancelors ( Lutherans ), British prime ministers ( Anglicans ) and French presidents ( Catholics ) are from religious and ethnic majorities yet there is no discimination in any of these countries.
Democracy is both beautiful and powerful
This is why we need to establish national parties that reperesent all Syrians, equate all Syrians, and work for all Syrians

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February 21st, 2012, 5:52 pm

 

210. prem said:

I would like to volunteer creating a LIVE INTERACTIVE visual map of all the incidents in the last year. I think this is potentially very important to dramatically show the escalation and can be posted by anyone all over the web. Can anyone provide me a statistical table of some kind?

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February 22nd, 2012, 6:01 am

 

211. The Declining Number of Christians in Aleppo, Syria « Persecution News said:

[...] Syria (Syria Comment) – The exact number of religious minorities in Syria is difficult to ascertain. It is often [...]

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February 23rd, 2012, 1:55 am

 

212. The Declining Number of Christians in Aleppo, Syria | Believers Radio said:

[...] Syria (Syria Comment) – The exact number of religious minorities in Syria is difficult to ascertain. It is often [...]

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February 23rd, 2012, 2:57 am

 

213. admir said:

@ Leo Syriacus #209

‘I am interested in hearing about what disrimination minorities faced in that period if any!’

the identity/citizenship card of all syrians had their religions stated. No pluralist or civil country should have a indicator or section stating someone’s religion or beliefs – only a sectarian government/state does. You used the analogy of the US, well its citizenship/identity cards dont state someone’s religion.

Also the alawite minority faced severe discrimination which is a result of the ottoman and mameluke/arab rule starting in the 11th century. in the 50s and 60s they were the lowest category in the social strata, almost comparable to the untouchables of india – they worked as peasants and maids and sheperds, day labourers and garbage collectors, servants etc. most people (even christians and especially sunnis) would rarely communicate with them as equals let alone befriend them. Studies made from those times (and past records) indicate that there were few villages or towns/cities that were alawite-sunni mixed during colonial times and after independence. sunnis lived mostly in cities in western syria and owned land in the rural surroundings which were inhabited by alawites. I dont think it was much different in the ottoman times (if not much worse). only after the french colonized syria did they see their status change and improve (and even then they had to struggle to get hold on power).

apart from the discrimination of the alawites there was discrimination against druze (especially during the reign of Adib Shishakli in the 50s), not to mention the christians and jews who were regarded as ‘dhimmis’ or ‘protected status’ at best (they were barred from going in military and getting top government positions during ottoman times).

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February 24th, 2012, 1:07 pm

 

214. Leo Syriacus said:

Admir
Thank you for your comment, while I appreciate your comments you apparently did not read my comment accurately:

1-I am talking about post-independence Syria 1946-1963
* The Ottomans and Mamlukes with their persecution were gone
* The Dhimmies status in early Islamic states was gone too

2-Indeed ..no civil country states religion on official ID, in Syria this only matters in civil issues (marriage,inheritance.etc)

3- Syrian Jews in the army?
I hope you were joking, you know that the majority of that community members immigrated to Israel..other than Eli Cohen I do not know of other senior government officials from Syrian Jews so even there we did better than Ottomans!!
Christians have contributed well to successive Syrian governments and I applaud their dedication to Syria

4-The only two communities that lived together across Syria before the urbanization of the 20th century were the Sunnis and the Christians whether by economic or social design.
In post independence Syria, many Syrians from all sects moved from the countryside to the urban centres as the economy shifted from agriculture to services and industry, this shift was mainly problem free, however we would be naive to assume that a poor alawite peasant moving to Damascus to find a job is likely to resdie in Abu Rumaneh or Malki and associate with wealthy Damascenes..so it is the economic class issue not the sect

5-I am married to Adib Shishakli’s grand daughter and I read his memoires:
His violent response to the Druze uprising and the divisions that ensued made him resign from presdiency, live in exile,and get assassinated in Brazil…he was courageous enough to resign since Syrian blood was shed because of his govenment..compare this with Bashar who is responsible directly or indirectly for the death of 10,000 Syrians and clings to power

6-In all the democracies the head of the state (president or prime minister) is from the majority as he/she is more likely to be elected, in all of these democracies all citizens are equal and all are represented in the government.
The equality of all citizens is paramount..the religion of one man/woman in power is meaningless since his/her party is a national party with every citizen represented

My point is Syria between 1946 and 1963 had shown promise in creating a pluralistic,progressive,and prospering country only to be crushed by two dictatorships Nasser and the Assads

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February 25th, 2012, 10:46 am

 

215. HEP said:

THE HYPOCRISY IS GALLING: ASSAD IS MORE VICTIM THAN VILLAIN
Washington, Britain, France, Turkey, Israel, and rogue Arab League allies bear main responsibility. Assad responded to violence their killer gangs initiated……… See: NATO FORCES OPERATING COVERTLY IN SYRIA: WIKILEAKS —- http://tiny.cc/8g23aw

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March 13th, 2012, 10:17 am

 

216. Jose said:

Christian communities are disappearing fast in every country in the Middle East .
The only notable place where their number is increasing is in ISRAEL . Surprise no one in this forum care to point out.
Yes paria- much hated ISRAEL. Any one cares to ask why ?
Regards

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August 24th, 2012, 1:19 pm

 

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