The violence lately has taken an ominous turn. In November, the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq announced that Coptic churches in Egypt would be targeted until two priests' wives who were allegedly locked up in Coptic monasteries after converting to Islam are freed. Al Qaeda militants in Iraq have also referred to the women in justifying attacks on once-vibrant Christian communities in Baghdad and around Mosul.
Most Middle Eastern countries outside the Arabian Peninsula have sizable Christian communities, including the Maronites in Lebanon, Armenians in Iran and the Orthodox in Syria. But their numbers have shrunk over the last century, experts say. Christians now account for less than 5% of the Middle East's population, down from 20%.