10 More groups which highlight the ethno-cultural and religious diversity across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region)

In a previous blog, I wrote about the ethno-cultural diversity across the MENA region – the Middle East and North Africa. However, I learnt from feedback and my own experiences, that there is even more diversity out there!

And so, here is part two: ten more groups with highlight the ethno-cultural and religious diversity of the region.

Take a look!

1. Mandaeans: Mesopotamia’s disappearing minority

Image credit: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0.

The Mandeans are an ethnoreligious group from Southern Iraq and Iran who follow the religious practice of Mandaeism – a gnostic, monotheistic ethnic religion. Also known as the Sabians, they are one of the world’s smallest and oldest religious groups. The liturgical language is Mandaic.

Having lived in the Middle East for over 1,000 years, there are now around 60,000 to 100,000 Mandeans globally, including in diaspora communities in Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK, Australia and Syria.

In Iran, following the Iranian Revolution, reports circulated of the groups’ persecution, however the community survived. Due to the Iran-Iraq war, the community was later separated.

After 2003, violence further affected Iraqi Mandeans with 90% of Iraqi Mandeans leaving Iraq between 2003 and 2019. Following the fall of ISIS, very few Mandeans have returned to Iraq. The community in Iraq now fears being obsolete.

In Iranian Mandeans sadly also continue to face ongoing discrimination, including being denied access to further education if openly identifying as Mandean.

2. Lurs: a pre-Iranian population

A Lurish man and woman in traditional costume, Iran (Image credit: Shadegan, CC BY-SA 4.0).

Iran is rich in ethnic diversity and the Lurs (Lor) are a great example!

The Lurs are the fourth largest ethnic group in Iran – making up around 6% of the population. It’s estimated that around two million Lurs live in Iran, with the community based in southern and south-western Iran. 

Tradition states that they were originally Kurdish but separated off as a community about 1,000 years ago. Other sources state that they are of Persian and Arab descent.

Mainly pastoral nomads, the Lurs have been living in the land for around 40,000 years and speak Luri (very close to Persian) and Laki (closer to Kurdish).

In terms, the community identity mainly as mainly Shia Muslims with a minority of Sunni Muslims and some following Yarsanisma syncretic religion dating back to 14th century Iran.

As an ethnic minority in Iran, the Lurs “pose a particular security problem for Iran”. Ethnic minorities in Iran for example are not allowed to run schools or give testimony in court in their native languages.

3. Coptic Christians: Egypt’s largest religious minority

Coptic priest holding a cross, Egypt (Image credit: Michal Huniewicz, CC BY 2.0).

Egyptian’s Coptic Christian population – who largely do not identify as Arab – are the largest ethno-religious minority in Egypt, making up around 10% of the country’s population of 101.48 million people.

Following an Eastern Orthodox tradition, they also larger than Christian populations in the Middle East, with populations also in Sudan and Libya. A significant diaspora population also live in North America, Australia and Europe, with groups also across the Middle East. Overall, there are around one million Copts globally, with over 100 churches.

The church in Alexandria (Egypt) is considered to be the main Coptic centre of worship. However, in Egypt the community has sadly been subjected to violent attacks and ongoing State-based discrimination in Egypt.

During the 2011 revolution, the Egyptian military in fact killed around 28 Coptic protestors, injuring many more in what is known as the Maspero Massacre.

However, the revolution and Egyptian society has also shown repeated acts of solidarity amongst Muslims and Copts in Egypt.

During the “Day of Departure” protest in Tahrir Square (Cairo), as Muslims performed noon prayers, their Coptic siblings formed a human chain around them to protect them.

Likewise, following a terrorist attack on a Coptic church on New Year’s Day which killed 21 people, Muslims came to a local Coptic church in Alexandria to protect their Coptic neighbours as they celebrated Christmas

4. Assyrians: Survival of Syriac Christians

Assyrian children sitting next to the fence surrounding a statue of the Virgin Mary, having fled with their families from ISIS held Mosul, Iraq. Image credit: Christiaan Triebert, CC BY-NC 2.0).

Assyrians are an ethnic minority native to Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran – the region known as Assyria. The community date back to 2500BC in ancient Mesopotamia. They speak Syriac – an Aramaic dialect.

There are over five million Assyrians globally today, with more Assyrians living in the diaspora than their homeland.

The community have faced ongoing persecution including/during:

  • The Assyrian genocide in which at least 250,000 Assyrians were killed by the Ottomans during WWI
  • The Iranian Revolution – since which the Assyrian churches have been raided, closed down, with leaders being imprisoned and, in some cases, sentenced to death.
  • Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, with attacks on Assyrian churches an estimated 60% of Iraqi Assyrians fleeing Iraq since the start of the war
  • The takeover of Syria by ISIS, in which ISIS attacked Assyrian villages, killing and imprisoning Assyrians, with to tens of thousands of Assyrians facing exile or death for not paying jizya (minority tax)

Diaspora communities are now based in a range of countries including the USA, Sweden, Jordan, Germany, Lebanon and Australia.

5. Arameans: An ancient people

An Aramean lady wearing religious jewellery.

Whilst some Assyrians identity as Aramean, Aramean identity is also maintained as a separate identity by a number of people in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, with Israel also recognising Arameans as a distinct minority group .

A Christian minority, most Arameans are members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, but also the Maronite Catholic Church and Syriac Catholic Church.

The community traces their roots back to the Ancient Arameans of 1st millennium BC. Arameans today speak Neo-Aramaic and the languages of their resident country, such as Arabic and Hebrew.

The community have a history of persecution, for example by the Ottomans and ISIS, and struggled during the economic hardships of the Kurdish-Turkish war in the 80s and 90s.

Today there is a large diaspora community in Western Europe, mainly Germany and Sweden.

6. Azeris: Iran’s largest minority

An Azeri woman.

The Azeri people – Iranian Azerbaijanis or “Persian/Iranian Turks” – are a Turkic-speaking people of Iranian origin.

As Iran’s largest minority group, there are around 12 million Azeri in Iran, with other estimates totalling up to 20 million people – almost a quarter of Iran’s population.

Native to the Iranian Azerbaijani region in the north-west of Iran, Azeris also live in smaller numbers in regions/areas including Kurdistan, Tehran and Karaj in northern Iran. Members of the diaspora also live in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Canada and the United States.

Mostly adherents of Shia Islam, they are supposedly “afforded more freedoms” than non-Shiite ethnic minorities in Iran. However, the group do face political and cultural discrimination, with reports of Azeri children being prohibited from speaking Azeri in schools, Azeri activists being harassed and Azeri town names being changed.

7. Maronites: Lebanon’s leading minority

A Maronite Priest during a Sunday Maronite Rite Mass. Image credit: Catholic Church England and Wales, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A Christian ethnoreligious group native to the Levant, Maronites today make up around 21% of Lebanon’s population.

The Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic Church – dating back to the 4th century – in unison with the Pope and the wider Catholic Church. The name Maronite derives from a third century Syriac saint named Maron.

Originally Aramaic speakers, Maronites use Syriac as their liturgical language and speak Arabic/the local country language.

Globally, there are around 8 million Maronites living outside Lebanon, with communities in Syria, Cyprus, Israel and an additional diaspora community, most notably in Brazil.

Historically, the group has faced persecution under the Ottoman Empire, during the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon (1915-18) and the Damour Massacre by the PLO (1976) during the Lebanese Civil War.

Today, politically within Lebanon itself, the head of State Michael Aoun is however a Maronite. This makes Lebanon the only country in the Middle East with a Christian head of State.

8. Samaritans: Surviving in the Holy Land

A group of Samaritans marking Passover on Mount Gerizim, West Bank. Image credit: Edkaprov (Edward Kaprov), CC BY-SA 3.0).

A tiny community of under 900 people, the Samaritans are believed to be descendants of the ancient Israelites (as are the Jewish community) before the Assyrian exile of 722 BCE. 

An ethnoreligious group, they practice Samaritanism – an Abrahamic faith. They believe to hold the original unchanged Torah (holy book of the Jewish community), known as the Samaritan Pentateuch written in Samaritan script, alongside additional books belonging to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

The group has faced historic persecution, including during the Roman Empire and under Byzantian rule and has survived, having narrowly avoiding being obsolete due to ongoing persecution and assimilation.

Today, the Samaritan community is based in Israel and the West Bank (by Mount Gerizim – their holy site near Nablus), with the community speaking Hebrew and Arabic. For liturgical purposes, the community use Samaritan Hebrew and Aramaic. A recognised religious minority in Israel, Israel’s rabbinate considers the Samaritans a Jewish sect.

They are the only community in Israel-Palestine to hold both Israeli and Palestinian identity cards and have been mostly unaffected by the conflict. Some Samaritan youth however have reported difficulty in navigating their lives amongst the division of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

9. Armenians: From genocide to new beginnings

At an Armenian Orthodox Christmas mass in Bethlehem, the West Bank (Ridvan Yumlu-Schiessl, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Although, there is no exact number due a lack of records, it’s estimated that around half a million Armenians live in the Middle East, in Syria, Iran, Lebanon and to a lesser extent in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE and Iraq. This is compared to a population of three million in Armenia itself.

Armenians traditionally belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, with smaller Protestant and Catholic minorities. The Armenian Church is one of the three primary custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the community in known for having “a long history as one of the most ancient and successful communities in the Middle East.”

During WWI and following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, almost the entire Armenian population was displaced from rural Anatolia (Turkey). The Armenian Genocide (the first genocide of the 20th century) at the hands of the Ottomans (Turks) resulted in the mass displacement and murder of the Armenian population.

In 1915, more than 2 million Armenians lived within the Ottoman Empire. However, from Spring 1915 to Autumn 2016, 1.5 million Armenians died during the genocide. They died either directly in massacres and individual killings or as a result of “systemic” ill-treatment, exposure and starvation.

What’s more, tens of thousands of Armenian children were forcibly removed from their families and “converted” to Islam. Thousands of Armenians fled to countries such as Lebanon and Syria.

Post-WWII, many Armenians stayed in Lebanon, whilst others immigrated to Soviet Armenia. Syria for example – before the recent war – had a thriving Armenian population, with Aleppo as the centre.

With the community however thought to have been in support of President Bashar Al Assad, a lot of the area of Jdaideh – a historic area outside the walls of Aleppo – was later destroyed during the civil war.

On a whole, the Armenian community in the Middle East has both witnessed and been forced to participate in a host of conflicts, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Lebanese Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War (under Saddam Hussein) and the first Gulf War. 

Outside of the Middle East and Armenia, sizeable communities also exist in Russia and the USA. Today around 60,00 also live in Turkey.

10. The Bahá’í: A persecuted religious minority

Members of the Bahá’í National Council in Iran (“National Spiritual Assembly”) who were later kidnapped in August 1980, and are presumed killed (Bahá’í International Community, CC BY 4.0).

The Bahá’í community is not an ethno-cultural minority but a religious minority originating from Iran which is now spread worldwide. However, due to their size the persecution faced by the community, it’s important to know more about them.

Belonging to the second largest religion in Iran (after Islam), this community have been consistently and increasingly persecuted since the Iranian Revolution.

Although very similar to Islam as a faith (most Iranian Bahai are in fact of Muslim heritage), the faith emerged in the mid-19th century with now five million followers worldwide. Continuously, the Iranian government sees the community as “apostates” and a threat to their Islamist regime:

“Although followers of the Bahai faith accept the legitimacy of Islam—including the Twelver Shia branch, Iran’s official religion—regime clerics have viewed them as potential challengers from the very beginning of the Islamic Republic.” (Mehdi Khalaji, 2022

As identifying Bahai, members of the community face ongoing repression, such as:

As a result, many Bahai have sought refuge outside of Iran (and other countries such as Kuwait) in countries such as the USA, Canada and the UK.

With such diversity and unfortunate persecution of these minority groups, it’s critical that we raise awareness of their rich histories, cultures and traditions – and of the struggles they face.

Share this blog and keep their stories alive!

Feature image: A Coptic monk at the Monastery of Saint Bishoy, Egypt’s most famous Coptic monastery (Mark Fischer, CC BY-SA 2.0).

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