Christianity: Christianity in the Middle East

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The origins of the Christian communities in the Middle East are rooted in the birth and first development of Christianity in the old cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Damascus. Several million Christians continue to live in the Middle East at the beginning of the twenty-first century; most are scattered in Egypt (3.5 million), Jordan (150,000), Israel (105,000), the Palestinian territories (76,000), Syria (950,000), Lebanon (1.35 million), Iraq (615,000), Turkey (115,000), and Iran (150,000). Although their numbers have declined considerably in modern times, these communities represent an autochthonous Christian presence whose origins date further back than the birth and spread of Islam in the Middle East. Most Middle Eastern Christians are Arabs or, to a lesser extent, belong to such long-established groups as the Assyrians or the Armenians.

A Plural Presence

Middle Eastern Christianity is characterized by a plurality of churches, bearing witness to the rich cultural and religious life and the historical evolution of the Christian communities of the early centuries. The division into independent churches was the result of doctrinal disputes linked to the Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries as well as to relations with the Latin Catholic Church. Beginning in the fifteenth century the latter tried to reunite with the Eastern churches by forming new Catholic churches that would maintain their own hierarchy and oriental liturgy but remain in dogmatic communion with the Church of Rome, recognizing the jurisdictional primacy of the pope (the so-called Uniat churches). In the nineteenth century, due in part to the increasing political and economic presence of the European states in the Middle East, many more Protestant and Latin missionaries arrived. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was restored in 1847, and at the same time Eastern Protestant communities were formed. After twenty centuries of historical evolution, the Eastern churches have been divided into four great families.

The Oriental Orthodox family

The Oriental Orthodox family is the most important in terms of the number of faithful living in the Middle East. It includes the Coptic Orthodox Church (at least 3,200,000 members), the Syrian Orthodox Church (177,000), and the Apostolic Armenian Church (540,000 in the Middle East). These churches separated from other churches of the Roman Empire in the fifth century (the beginning of the sixth century for the Armenian Church) when they refused to accept the diophysite Christological doctrine. This doctrine, as expressed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, recognized in Christ two natures coexisting in one divine person. The three Oriental Orthodox churches instead remained faithful to the definition given by Cyril of Alexandria (c. 378444), who spoke of "the one incarnate nature of the Word of God."

The Assyrian Church or Church of the East (120,000 members in the Middle East) also forms part of the Oriental Orthodox family. It separated from the other churches at the time of the Council of Ephesus (431 ce), rejecting the condemnation of the position of Nestorius, who held that in Christ there were two natures closely linked through a moral, not an ontological, bond.

The Oriental Orthodox churches are completely independent of each other and do not have juridical or disciplinary links with either the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox communion represented by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The Orthodox (Chalcedonian) family

The Orthodox (Chalcedonian) family is represented in the Middle East by four autocephalous churches comprising approximately one million members. These four churches are all members of the Eastern Orthodox communion. They have been divided from the Catholic Church since 1054, the date of the mutual excommunication of the Church of Rome and the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Orthodox Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria were set up in the fifth century by Christians and clergy who accepted the ruling of the Council of Chalcedon. The Middle Eastern Orthodox family also includes the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Turkey.

The Catholic family

The Catholic family comprises seven churches: Maronite (550,000 members), Chaldean (417,000), Melkite (450,000), Coptic Catholic (150,000), Armenian Catholic (60,000), Syrian Catholic (100,000), and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (86,500). These seven churches are fully united with the Church of Rome and recognize the jurisdictional primacy of the pope. In the late 1980s the Council of the Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East was established to provide a forum for addressing the common problems of the Catholic communities in the region.

The Reformed family

The Reformed family, in existence since the nineteenth century, comprises thirteen different Protestant denominations, all of them modest in size. This family includes Lutheran, Evangelical, and Presbyterian communities as well as the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches of the Middle East for a total of about 81,000 members, mainly in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria.

Council of the Churches of the Middle East

The various churches have their own institutions, including eparchies, community councils, various kinds of pastoral structures, ecclesiastical courts, and schools (in countries where confessional schools are allowed). One church's institutions often extend into the geographical regions of the other churches. The desires of individual churches to maintain their own identities and liturgical traditions has not prevented ecumenical activities, which led to the formation of the Council of the Churches of the Middle East (CCME) in 1974. All Middle Eastern Christian churches participate in the CCME, which helps to promote a more unified approach to the problems and issues facing Middle Eastern Christians. The prospect of ecumenism, even if it is sometimes difficult to achieve in concrete terms, is one of the few remaining sources of renewed energy for the Arab and Eastern churches in the long term.

The Historical Status of Non-Muslims in Muslim Countries

By the end of the seventh century Arab Muslims had conquered every part of the Middle East, and a new period began for the region's Christian communities. From the start Islam had to face the problem of its relations with members of other religions because there were Jews and Christians living in cities where Muslims first organized their own political and social structures. In addition Muslims had taken control of predominantly Christian areas that were previously under Byzantine control as well as Zoroastrian regions that had been part of the Sassanian Empire.

Dhimma system

To accommodate non-Muslims, Islam adopted a system that was already in place in the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires, according to which different groups of people were accepted into society under a special status. Called dhimma, which means "protection" in Arabic, this system mandated that Muslims were obliged to protect groups on whom dhimma status had been conferred. In turn the dhimmī (protected) people had to submit absolutely to Muslim rule, recognizing Islam as the supreme power.

Islamic rulers conferred the status of dhimmī on members of the religions of the book, that is, those religions that had a sacred book as the basis of their doctrine, which included Judaism and Christianity as well as Sabaism and Mazdaism. In concrete terms the dhimma system aimed to enable Muslims and non-Muslims to live alongside one another within the Muslim state, yet it guaranteed the absolute supremacy of Islam and reduced non-Muslims to a lower legal and social status. Although the dhimmī were free to practice their own religion, they were forbidden any role in politics, government, or the military, which were reserved exclusively for Muslims. Furthermore the dhimmī were subjected to heavier taxes than those levied on Muslims, including the jizya, a special per capita tax, as well as taxes on land and business activities.

To guarantee the supremacy of Islam, non-Muslims were not allowed to engage in any kind of missionary activity, and Muslims were prohibited by law from converting to another religion. Under Islamic law both the missionary and the convert could be punished by death. The imposition of a death penalty for conversion (add al-riddah ) guaranteed the integrity and growth of the Islamic community and prevented the expansion of other religious communities within Muslim regions. Islamic law on mixed marriages had a similar function, and the Muslim partner in such a marriage was clearly privileged. The law provided for the conversion to Islam of a non-Muslim man who wanted to marry a Muslim woman; the children were obliged to be Muslim. A non-Muslim woman married to a Muslim man was forbidden to teach her own religion to her children, who had no choice but to follow the creed of their Muslim father.

The provisions governing the dhimmī were made even stricter by conditions outlined in a document attributed to Caliph Omar (d. 644). These conditions were probably elaborated in subsequent decades and were eventually absorbed into traditional Islamic law. According to these rules Christians and Jews were forbidden to profess their faith in a manner that was considered excessively public. In addition they were prohibited from wearing crosses or other overtly religious symbols and from openly practicing certain rites, such as processions or the ringing of bells. Churches and synagogues were also expected to be simple in appearance and smaller than nearby Muslim buildings to correspond to the legally and socially inferior status of the religious communities to which they belonged and to express their submission to the dominance of Islam. Tight restrictions were imposed on the construction of new churches and the restoration of old ones.

Such legal provisions, through which Islam regulated the coexistence of Muslims and non-Muslims within the Muslim state, reveal Islam's tolerance toward other religious communities. It is clear, however, that although the dhimma system allowed peoples of different faiths to live side by side in the past, such a system could not but clash with modern sensibilities, for the dhimma sanctioned a model of legal inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims in which only the former enjoyed full rights, whereas the latter had to accept an inferior status that prohibited them from entering politics or gaining full legal rights.

Millet system

The millet (nation) system remained in force throughout the Middle East until the end of the nineteenth century, although an important change in the status of Christians took place with the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the fourteenth century. No radical changes were made to laws governing Christians, but the status of Christians changed as religious communities became increasingly institutionalized within the millet system, in which the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire were grouped on the basis of religion.

Along with the Muslim and Jewish millet, two Christian millet were recognized: the Greek Orthodox and the Gregorian Armenian. Within each millet, the representative authority was made up of members of the religious hierarchy, who had jurisdiction over their community for all matters regarding religion, cult, and family law. Thus the millet system identified the religious communities as intermediary bodies between the individual and the state. The millet system also allowed religious communities broader financial autonomy, as well as more control over the organization of community life and the management of the community's assets. The millet system thus gave greater organizational freedom to Christians and Jews while preserving the political and social dominance of Islam and the Muslim millet. Only with the Ottoman tanzimats (reforms) of 1839 and 1876 did the supreme political and religious Muslim power, the sultan caliph, decree for the first time in Muslim history the legal equality of all the subjects of the Empire.

Social and Political Dynamics of Christians in the Modern Middle East

The situation of Christian communities in the modern Middle East is highly complex. Christians came to exercise an important political and cultural role in the Arab states that were established after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. Christians were among the leading supporters of the naha, a cultural and political renaissance that arose in the Arab world at the end of the nineteenth century. The naha promoted the concept of "Arabianness," the common historical identity of both Arab Muslims and Christians. The cultural development that Middle Eastern Christians had enjoyed in the preceding decades, due to their relations with Western societies and their openness to democratic and liberal ideas, allowed them to exercise an indisputable influence within the various movements for national independence. It was a renaissance that involved many fields: economics, politics, philosophy, culture, and art. Modern ideas proliferated throughout Middle Eastern societies largely because Christian Arabs, who founded newspapers and magazines, initiated a new intellectual debate. In politics the majority of the opposition parties were established by or initiated with the help of the Christian Arabs.

The aim of this cultural and political movement was to create modern states in which one's right to full citizenship would depend on nationality, not on religion. Arab Christian elites emphasized their national Arab identity, which they felt united them culturally with all Arabs, regardless of their religious beliefs. This new political culture, which was supported by many Muslim intellectuals and politicians who were open to modernity, was especially favorable to Christians because it enabled them to overcome the traditional sociopolitical arrangement of the Muslim state, in which non-Muslims were treated as second-class citizens and denied a political role.

Starting in the 1930s and especially after World War II, a number of new Arab national states, which were potentially secular, were set up and obtained independence. But the young democratic systems in these states were not stable, and several nations evolved in the direction of nationalistic, authoritarian forms of government. This occurred in Syria and Iraq and to some extent in Egypt. Furthermore the dialectic of conflict grew between supporters of reform and modernization and those who advocated a return to traditional Islamic state institutions and Islamic law (sharī ʿah ), a movement represented by such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood founded in 1928 and the radical Islamic groups of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century.

These complex political and cultural dynamics have led to a change in the relations between Middle Eastern Christian communities and the states to which they belong. A typology of four main sociopolitical situations reveals the status of Christian communities in the various states of the Middle East, showing how these communities evolved during the twentieth century and where they stand at the beginning of the twenty-first.

The first type is a well-established "national" church. Egypt, for example, is home to the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and the Egyptian Coptic Church, which has existed for much of the country's history, has the appearance of a national church. For this reason the Copts, despite being a minority, identify strongly with the Egyptian state, even though their actual participation in social and political life is restricted.

The second type is a state with a majority Christian population. In Lebanon, for example, which was established with French support as an independent country in 1943, Maronite Christians, along with other Christians, made up the majority. Thus their role in Lebanese politics was dominant for decades. During the 1990s, however, Lebanese Christians lost their demographic majority to Muslims, and the country's 1975 to 1990 civil war weakened the Maronite community. The political power of Lebanese Christians was further weakened by Syrian military intervention in Lebanon in 1989 and by the consequent Syrian political influence on the country.

The third type is characteristic of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq as well as, to some degree, the Palestinian and Israeli area, where there is no single dominant Christian church but rather a mosaic of Christian communities, all of which are in the minority. These churches are closely dependent on the government and the group that holds political power, and the attitudes assumed vary according to the context. In Jordan the Christian community is strongly attached to the monarchy. In Palestine, Christians have joined Muslims in the struggle for national liberation. Syrian Christians, together with other minorities, exercise a modest share of power. It is worth noting that in Syria, as in Iraq until April 2003, the government was ruled by the Baath Party, which holds a secular ideology in which people are involved in politics on the basis of nationalism, not religion. Many Christians are members of the Baath Party, which they consider a bulwark against Islamization.

A fourth type reflects the situation of Middle Eastern Christian communities that were subjected to political and military action by governments aimed at eliminating them. The most striking case is that of Armenian Christians in Turkey, up to one million of whom were massacred or deported on the order of the government of the Young Turks in 1915. When the war between Greece and Turkey ended in 1923, the Turkish government took part in a population exchange in which some 1.344 million Orthodox Christians in Turkey were sent to Greece, whereas 464,000 Muslims entered Turkey from Greece. The Christians who remained in Turkey were further oppressed by the Turkish state during the 1940s and the 1950s. The result was the emigration of almost all of Turkey's remaining Christians. Although in 1915 there were approximately 2.5 million Christians in Turkey, by 2000 there were only about 100,000.

A similar fate lay in store for Assyrian Christians in Iraq, who were massacred in 1933 by Iraqi troops and irregular bands supported by the government. These Assyrian Christians had been allied with the British, who had promised them their own independent state and then failed to support them.

The Crisis at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century

Declining birthrates, widespread instability and conflict, and the threat of Muslim fundamentalism are the primary causes behind the crisis in the Christian communities of the modern Middle East. In 1915 Christians made up an estimated 20 percent of the population of the area that includes present-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt. By 2000 the most optimistic estimates calculated the number of Christians at 10 percent, whereas the more pessimistic estimates calculated that Christians made up no more than 6 or 7 percent of the population in these regions.

There are many reasons behind this decline. Some of them are sociodemographic, with Christians and Muslims displaying different birth and mortality patterns. The lower demographic growth among the region's Christians, along with the aging of the population, has been a major reason for the decrease in their numbers relative to the Muslim population.

However, the decrease in the number of Christians in the Middle East has been influenced by another important factor closely linked to the region's contemporary political and cultural context: emigration. The scale of Christian emigration from the countries of the Middle East is massive. It has been calculated that, since the middle of the twentieth century, approximately three million Middle Eastern Christians have emigrated to Europe, the Americas, and Australia. That figure accounts for one-quarter to one-third of the total Christian population of the area. The causal factors behind this tide of emigration have mainly been the difficult sociopolitical conditions within many Middle Eastern countries, the authoritarianism of their governments, and the general instability of the area, characterized since the 1950s by a continuous series of conflicts, including the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict, the war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, and the Gulf War from 1990 to 1991, which led to an embargo and ultimately to the difficult postwar situation in Iraq in 2003.

To these factors must be added the long-standing influence of Muslim political and legal tradition and the emergence of new Islamist movements, which have made it difficult for Christians to enjoy full citizenship rights in most Middle Eastern countries. The reemergence of Islam as a political and social solution leading to the formation of Islamic states cannot but increase the fears of Christians, who in this kind of political structure would be reduced to the status of a protected minority, without political freedom and subject to discrimination. The formation of such a state was the reason for the massive emigration of Christians from Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979.

The impact of the region's wars on Middle Eastern Christians is even more serious and long-lasting. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been responsible for a large-scale emigration of Palestinians, a high percentage of whom are Christian. The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 led to the exodus of approximately 726,000 Palestinians, of whom about 60,000 were Christians. Between 1967 and 2003 more than 20 percent of the total number of Christians living on the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip chose to emigrate.

Just as decisive in causing the emigration of large numbers of Christians was the Lebanese conflict, which began in 1975 and lasted for more than fifteen years. This conflict evolved into a real civil war in which fighting occurred not just between different religious groups but also between different factions within religious groups. Lebanon became the theater of a conflict that was influenced by the various political dynamics of the bordering countries, especially the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which caused the emigration to Lebanon of large numbers of Muslim Palestinians. The presence of these immigrants helped destabilize a society and a state that was based on a delicate balance between religious confessions and that was already feeling the pressure of changing social and demographic circumstances.

The long civil war in Lebanon also caused a major wave of emigration from the country. It has been estimated that between 1975 and 1990 approximately one million Lebanese emigrated, among whom were at least 300,000 Maronite Christians. Even the Armenians, who were a flourishing community in Lebanon, emigrated in large numbers. Although the emigration involved the broader Lebanese population and not just Christians, the percentage of Christians who left the country, especially during the first ten years of the war, was higher than that of Lebanese Muslims. Although the emigration of Lebanese Christians has decreased substantially since the beginning of the peace process, the demographic loss has been significant and will have an impact on future developments with repercussions for the political, social, and economic role of Christians in Lebanon.

The experience of Lebanese Christians is particularly serious because not only does it concern life in Lebanon itself, it also has negative symbolic value for all Christians in the Middle East. Lebanon has been the only Middle Eastern nation in which Christians played a determinant political role. This role is evidenced by the fact, unique in the Arab world, that the president of the Lebanese Republic is, according to the constitution, a Maronite Christian (with a Muslim holding the position of prime minister), whereas all other Arab countries require the head of state to be a Muslim. Lebanon was therefore a concrete symbol of freedom from a political system in which Muslims subordinated Christians. Moreover the Lebanese system, despite its limitations, has so far been the only Arab country to guarantee a democratic government.

The long war between Iran and Iraq and the international conflict involving Iraq since 1990 have played a significant role in speeding up the emigration of Iraqi Christians. Statistics confirm that, whereas in 2000 Christians made up only 3.2 percent of the total Iraqi population, over 30 percent of Iraqi emigrants that year were Christian.

The greater propensity of Middle Eastern Christians to emigratein comparison with Muslimsis also influenced by the higher educational level of the Christian population, which makes Christians less inclined to bear difficult economic situations and facilitates their integration into Western societies. Their emigration is also encouraged by the existence in many countries of well-organized diaspora communities of Eastern Christians. This emigration of Middle Eastern Christians, which generally involves younger generations, is also a factor in aging and the decrease in the fertility rate among the remaining Christians in the region. In addition emigration of young, well-educated Christians may lead to the impoverishment of the Middle Eastern Christian community's professional and intellectual resources. Such a "brain drain" may have a negative effect on the community's social and political influence.

The future of the Christian communities in the Middle East is linked to the various conflicts in the region and the consequent economic problems as well as the dynamics within Islam in its encounter with modernity. The success of the peace processes in the Middle East and the movement toward democratic and egalitarian forms of government are factors of fundamental importance to the future stability of a meaningful Christian presence in the Middle East.


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Andrea Pacini (2005)

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Christianity: Christianity in the Middle East

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Christianity: Christianity in the Middle East