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Religion

Islam is the predominant religion in the Middle East. More than 90 percent of the area’s population are Muslims. Christians form the next largest group, with about 4 percent of the population, and Jews make up about 2 percent of the population. Muslims explicitly recognize that Judaism and Christianity preceded their faith, and therefore regard Christians and Jews as “peoples of the book”—that is, groups with written scriptures that should be free to practice their religion.

Islam is divided into two major groups, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. The Sunni Muslims are by far the most numerous, both in the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general. The Sunnis and Shias separated over the issue of supreme authority after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. The majority of Muslims, the Sunnis, believe the first four caliphs, all of whom belonged to Muhammad’s tribe, were the prophet’s rightful successors. A minority, the Shias, believe that Muhammad’s nearest male heir, his cousin and son-in-law Ali, was intended to succeed Muhammad. Shias accept only Ali’s descendants (imams) as legitimate rulers. The Shias themselves are divided into several sects, which differ over how many of Ali’s male descendants should be recognized as leaders of the Islamic community. Of Middle Eastern Shia Muslims, who form about 28 percent of the population of the region, the majority are Jafaris. Because they accept 12 imams, Jafaris are also called “Twelvers.” This group is especially prominent in Iran. They believe that the 12th imam will return in the future to establish perfect justice, supplanting the rule of any other leader. This belief has undermined government authority since the establishment of Twelver Shiism as the state religion in 1501. Twelvers also reside in Iraq and Lebanon. Another Shia sect, the Zaydis of Yemen, recognize five imams. A third group, called Ismailis (“Seveners”), recognize seven imams; a few hundred thousand Ismailis reside in Syria.

More than half of the Christians in the Middle East live in Egypt. Most Egyptian Christians belong to the Coptic church. The remaining Middle Eastern Christians are divided between Orthodox groups (Armenian, Greek, and Syrian) and Catholic groups (Armenian, Greek, Maronite, and Syrian) in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. The formal division between Orthodox and Catholic sects dates back to the Great Schism of 1054 between the Eastern and Roman churches. Apart from the Maronites, however, most Middle Eastern Catholics are descendants of converts from various Orthodox churches in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Almost all Middle Eastern Jews live in Israel. Orthodox Jews, who strictly follow traditional Judaic beliefs and practices, hold the most influence over religious affairs in Israel. Reform Jews, who seek to modify Jewish tradition to meet contemporary circumstances, and Conservative Jews, who maintain a middle position between the two, constitute important minorities. Reform and Conservative groups continually struggle for a limited role in Israeli religious affairs.

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