During a televised interview, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati quoted a report stating that Christians now represent only 19.4 percent of Lebanon’s population.
Mikati’s remark renewed the debate on the Christian presence in the country.
This is a sensitive issue in Lebanon where sectarian origins often carry political and institutional implications.
Accused by some of presenting this estimate for political motives, Mikati refused to reveal the identity of the report's authors or provide further details. All the same, Mikati’s statement raised doubts about the number of Christians in Lebanon, which is usually estimated at around 34 percent.
The pertinent question is: how accurate is this estimate?
The Maronite Patriarchate was quick to deny that it was behind the report.
The Maronite Foundation in the World, an NGOaffiliated with Bkirki, was also quick to point out that some 34.42 percent of Lebanese voters are Christians.
Mikati's associates were also unaware of the source of the report.
When contacted on Feb. 24, Mikati’s spokesman, Fares Gemayel, said that the premier “does not wish to reveal the names of the report’s authors.”
Ali Darwish, a former Tripoli MP close to Mikati, also said that he cannot disclose who authored the study, adding that “some private statistics offices are trying to verify the estimate,” without further elaborating.
“In any case, Mikati is going to the Vatican next month where he will reiterate his support for the presence of Christians in Lebanon,” Darwish told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Are electoral lists a reference?
The last official population census was conducted in 1932 during the French mandate and most demographic statistics are based on electoral lists — the only approximate index of confessional distributions in Lebanon.
According to the Interior Ministry’s latest lists published in 2022, 33.9 percent of voters are Christians over the age of 21 (all denominations).both residents or expatriates.
Some 30 percent of constituencies are Sunni, 30 percent Shiite and 5.6 percent Druze. Of those registered as living in Lebanon, 33 percent are Christian, 61 percent are Muslim (Sunni and Shiite) and six percent are Druze. Of the expatriates registered to vote, 53.2 percent are Christian, 20 percent Sunni, 20 percent Shiite, and 6.4 percent Druze.
These figures however, are not completely reliable for many reasons, including the fact that many Lebanese who have emigrated in recent years are still registered as residents of Lebanon.
There are also many errors in the voter lists, with the names of many deceased voters still figuring on the lists, while names of some living electors are missing or registered in several areas at the same time.
These errors are due to the fact that the data on personal status in Lebanon has not yet been digitized. Recording procedures are still done manually.
Director of Statistics Lebanon, Rabih Haber told L’Orient-Le Jour, "the electoral roll’s figures are unreliable because many Lebanese of voting age left the country long ago and cut off all contact with their origins.”
“In any case, the assertion that Christians constitute 19.4 percent of Lebanon's population is inaccurate,” Haber said.
A study carried out by Statistics Lebanon in October 2022 revealed that out of a total of 4,877,000 Lebanese people, 31.7 percent were Christians, whereas 68.3 percent were Muslims.
“Shiites now outnumber Sunnis by 2 percent,” Haber said.
Nevertheless, these statistics do not account for non-Lebanese residents and the country is officially home to approximately 1.3 million Syrian refugees and about 250,000 Palestinians.
19.4 percent, an erroneous estimate?
Information International (Al-Doualiya lil Maaloumat), another statistics company, explained in a Feb. 23 press release that “in the absence of official statistics, we cannot give a correct estimate,” for the number of Christians in the country.
Information International also denied being the source of the report presented by Mikati.
“If we refer to the official statistics on the number of voters , there are 3,967,508 voters, with 65.4 percent being Muslims, 34.49 percent Christians, and 0.11 percent Jewish,” the statement read.
“If we include the number of Christians under the age of 21, it can be concluded that this community does not represent only 19.4 percent of the population. It is likely close to the 34.49 percent estimation mentioned on the electoral roll,” the statement added.
, The Central Administration of Statistics (ACS), a research center affiliated with the prime minister’s office, told L’Orient-Le Jour that it does not have data on the population’s sectarian distribution.
“We are not allowed to do this kind of counting. It is the responsibility of the Interior Ministry,” said an official at the center on condition of anonymity.
On the ACS website, statistics on Lebanon’s demographics offer data based on geographical distribution and age groups.
The 2022 statistics indicate that 80 percent of Lebanese residents held Lebanese passports, while 20 percent were foreigners.
According to ACS, some 30.6 percent of Lebanese are under 20 years old and 42.2 percent of those aged between 25 to 44 wish to emigrate.
No census since 1932
Professor of History Alexandre Abi Younes, authored multiple studies on demographic shifts in Lebanon and believes that the estimate presented by Mikati is far from being an accurate representation of the actual situation.
According to his own research, Abi Younes asserts that "the Christian population in Lebanon presently constitutes around 35 percent, of which Maronites make up about 20 percent.”
“The decrease in the number of Christians can be attributed in part to the decline in Lebanon’s birth rate over the past five years,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Regarding the issue of emigration, Abi Younes stated, “Contrary to popular belief, Muslim voters have outnumbered Christian voters since 1994,” after the end of the Lebanese 1975-90 Civil War. However, he did not provide any figures to support this trend.
When asked about the lack of an official census since 1932, i.e., 91 years ago, Abi Younes believes that “the authorities do not conduct it due to political and social reasons.”
“The 1932 census was carried out when a Muslim, Sheikh Mohammad al-Jisr, desired to run for the presidency,” the researcher explained.
“The French mandate conducted this census to determine which community was the most numerous and to whom the presidency should be awarded,” Abi Younes added.
At that time, the Maronites were the largest community and hence emerged victorious.
He also disclosed that unofficial censuses were conducted in 1943 and 1951. According to Abi Younes’ findings, the 1943 statistics indicate that there were 322,555 Maronites, compared to 230,609 Sunnis and 209,101 Shiites. As for the 1951 statistics, they showed 377,844 Maronites, 271,734 Sunnis, and 237,107 Shiites.
Abi Younes assured that this data was used during the mandates of presidents Camille Chamoun and Fouad Chehab “for reasons related to the development of rural communities and state institutions,” and not for political reasons.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.
During a televised interview, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati quoted a report stating that Christians now represent only 19.4 percent of Lebanon’s population.Mikati’s remark renewed the debate on the Christian presence in the country.This is a sensitive issue in Lebanon where sectarian origins often carry political and institutional implications.Accused by some of presenting this...