Christians in the Middle East

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originally a jewish offshoot, christianity has been present in the middle east since the first century c.e.

Christianity is based on the spiritual and ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and preached in Judea during the first century c.e. and was crucified by the Roman authorities; adherents of the faith believe he rose from the dead. To Christians, Jesus was the awaited Messiah of the Jewish people (christos, "the anointed one," is a Greek translation of "Messiah"). His teachings were compiled in the Gospels, which, together with the teachings of his earliest followers, the Apostles, form the corpus of the New Testament. These twenty-seven books, along with the Jewish Bible and the books of the Apocrypha, make up the Christian Bible.

History of Christians in the Middle East

Although the earliest Christians were all Jews, some time around 45 c.e. some of the Apostlesespecially Paul and Barnabasbegan to preach to the Gentiles throughout the Near East. Antioch, Edessa, and Alexandria emerged as early centers of Christianity. By the fourth century the spread and influence of Christianity were such that it had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, whose capital had been moved by the emperor Constantine from Rome to Constantinople. At that time, too, the religion underwent a series of theological disputes centered primarily on the relationship of the divine and human nature of Christ. At the Council of Chalcedon (451), those that stressed the unitary nature of Christ (the Monophysites) were deemed heretical. (They constituted the Oriental Orthodox family of churches.) The Eastern Orthodox (Greek) Church, centered at Constantinople, remained the official imperial church of the Byzantine Empire. With the expansion of the Latin-based, Western-rite church centered at Rome and looking west to Europe, the theologies, languages, and rituals of the two centers of ChristianityConstantinople and Romedeveloped in their distinctive fashions, leading ultimately to the formal split of 1054. Throughout the formative period of Christianity, the Middle Eastern churchesCoptic, Armenian, Chaldean (centered in Iraq), Assyrian, and Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite)drew their followers from the indigenous population, most of whom eventually converted to Islam after the invasions of the seventh century. The Western, Roman Catholic Church became interested in the region once again after the period of the Crusades (eleventh to fourteenth centuries). The churches of the Protestant Reformation (sixteenth century) were not yet in existence.

European economic and political penetration of the Ottoman Empire began in the sixteenth century with the issuance of capitulations to France; missionary work was initiated, as were attempts to reconcile the Eastern churches with Rome. The Catholic and Uniate churches in the Middle East (Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, and Greek Catholic churches) that looked to Rome for authority date from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, except for the Maronite Church, whose union with Rome was initiated in the twelfth century. The Uniate churches, Eastern-rite churches that acknowledged the pope's authority, retained only a minority of Christianity's adherents. Protestantism came into the region through the efforts of, primarily, U.S. and British missionaries in the nineteenth century.

European strategic interests and the "Eastern Question" dovetailed with renewed religious interest in the Holy Land. Protection of Christian minorities by the European powers and the installation of Anglican and Roman Catholic institutions in Jerusalem were part of a growing European agenda to represent the interests of the various Christian minorities. Altercations over Christian holy sites led to the outbreak of the Crimean War. The fact that there are only four historical patriarchates and many contenders for their leadership has led to intercommunal acrimony. For example, Monophysite Copts, Catholic Copts, and Greek Orthodox Copts claimed the patriarchate of Alexandria; and Maronite, Greek, and Syrian Catholics, as well as the Greek Orthodox and the Jacobites, claimed the patriarchate of Antioch.

Christian communities were a part of the Millet system of the Ottoman Empire, which in turn was an elaboration of the dhimmi status given to Christians and Jews in early Islamic times. This system provided a measure of toleration, freedom of worship, and self-governance for the Christian communities, but always under the Islamic umbrella. Under this system Christians were barred from certain public offices and suffered certain legal disabilities vis-à-vis their Muslim neighbors. Proselytism was prohibited, as was conversion to Christianity from Islam.

Secular Nationalism and Christianity

It is therefore not surprising that Christians were among the more enthusiastic advocates of secular nationalist ideas at the turn of the twentieth century. They were also influenced by foreign mission schools, where such ideas were taught and discussed. Christians thus became prominent among the secular Palestinian and Lebanese leadership, and a Christian, Michel Aflaq, was one of the theorists of the Baʿth movement that provided the ideology for modern Iraq and Syria. An important exception to this tendency has been a sector of Lebanon's Maronite population, which has favored the creation in Lebanon of a Christian enclave.

The challenge posed to secular nationalism by Islamist movements has led some Christians to reexamine their advocacy of secularism, but it remains the most attractive option for the majority of Christians in the region. Census figures for Middle Eastern countries, particularly as they reflect religious affiliation, are notoriously unreliable or, in some instances, nonexistent. An educated estimate, however, would put the number of Christians in the region at 8 to 12 million. Emigration, however, has been a growing trend in recent decades. The Christian population of Jerusalem, for example, has shrunk from 26,000 in 1948 to an estimated 6,000. The number of Syrian Orthodox people in southeast Turkey dwindled from about 30,000 in 1980 to 7,500 in 1992. There are no reliable figures for Christian emigration from Lebanon, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the proportion of Christians there has dropped from roughly 50 percent to 30 or 35 percent during the course of Lebanon's sixteen-year civil war. In 2001, out of a total population of 3,500,000 Lebanese, the number of Christians hovered between 1,300,000 and 1,500,000. There are a large number of Lebanese Christians who live in the diaspora. Reasons frequently cited for emigration are war, including the Gulf War (1991), poor economic prospects, and anxieties about the future. Despite the deteriorating situation of Christians in the Middle Eastor perhaps in response to itChristian churches in the region have reached a historically unparalleled degree of unity in recent years. In 1974 the Middle East Council of Churches, based in Beirut, brought together the two Orthodox families and the Protestants for common witness and service. In 1987 the Catholic family joined this council.

The Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church

The Eastern Orthodox Church in the Middle East developed around the four patriarchates of the early church: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. During the Ottoman period the Eastern Orthodox millet (community) was represented

before the sultan by the patriarch of Constantinople, the ecumenical patriarch, who was considered primus inter pares among the patriarchs. Of the other patriarchates, which serve predominantly Arab parishioners, only onethat of Antiochhas an Arab serving as patriarch. The patriarchs of Alexandria and Jerusalem are Greeks who preside over Greek hierarchies. Particularly in the see of Jerusalem, this has created a gulf between Palestinian and Jordanian parishioners and their leadership. Of the four patriarchates the largest, both geographically and numerically (about 760,000), is Antioch. This patriarchate includes Syria, Israel, Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait, with a few parishes in southern Turkey. The smallest is Constantinoplethe Greek Orthodox population in Turkey has dwindled to about 3,000. The ecumenical patriarchate, however, continues to exercise leadership for the Greek Orthodox diaspora outside the Middle East.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches

The Oriental Orthodox family in the Middle East includes three other churches: Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite). The largest of the threeindeed, the largest denomination in the Middle Eastis the Coptic Orthodox, numbering perhaps 5.5 to 6 million. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church includes four jurisdictions in the Middle East: the patriarchates of Jerusalem and Constantinople and the catholicates of Cilicia (based in Beirut) and Etch-miadzin, Armenia. The Syrian Orthodox Churchwhose patriarch presides from Damascus, just a few buildings away from the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Antiochhad its heartland in what is now southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and northern Syria. In recent years disturbances in Turkey (related both to the Kurdish question and to the Gulf War) have contributed to the emigration of many

members of this community to Syria and Lebanon or to Europe and North America. The Syrian Orthodox people, locally called Suryanis, continue to speak their ancient Syriac dialect and use it in their liturgy.

Eastern Rite and Latin Catholics

The Eastern-rite Catholic churches owe their origins to Roman Catholic missionary activity in the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. These churches follow in general the rites of the orthodox churches from which their membership was drawn, but they acknowledge the primacy of the pope.

The Greek Catholic (or Melkite) church drew from Greek Orthodox membership. The patriarch of this churchthe largest of the Middle East eastern-rite Catholic churches, at about 450,000 memberspresides in Damascus. The largest concentrations of Greek Catholics are found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the West Bank, and Jordan.

The Coptic Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Syrian Catholic churches are related historically to the three corresponding Oriental Orthodox churches. The largest is the Coptic Catholic, with about 100,000 members. The patriarch of this church resides in Cairo. The Syrian Catholic Church was reorganized by the Ottoman authorities in the nineteenth century. The Syrian Catholics, unlike their Orthodox brethren, use the Latin liturgy instead of the Syriac. Today, Syrian Catholics number about 80,000. The patriarchal sees of both the Syrian and Armenian Catholic churches are located in Beirut.

The Chaldaean Catholic Church, whose head is the patriarch of Babylon, historically drew its membership primarily from the Assyrian church of the East. Chaldaean Catholics constitute roughly 75 percent (250,000) of the Iraqi Christian population. In 2003 Patriarch Bidawid passed away in the midst of the U.S.-led war against the Iraqi regime.

The two other Middle Eastern Catholic churches are the Maronite and Latin Catholic churches. The early history of the Maronites is clouded in legend, but it is generally agreed that their origin had to do with the fifth-century dispute over the human and divine natures of Christ. The forerunners of the Maronites, seeking to find a compromise between the contending parties, proposed a "monothelite," or "one will," position. By the thirteenth century the Maronites, who four centuries earlier had sought refuge in the mountains of Lebanon, had concluded an agreement with the Church of Rome, whereby the primacy of the Pope was acknowledged. Like the Eastern Orthodox patriarch in Antioch and the Greek Catholic and Syrian Catholic primates, the Maronite patriarch bears the title Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. The Maronites remain the largest of Lebanon's recognized Christian sects. Given the vacuum in political leadership, the Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir has in recent years become both the spiritual and political leader of his community.

The Latin Catholic patriarchate was first established in Jerusalem in 1099 and subsequently moved to Acre. Effectively terminated in the latter part of the thirteenth century, it was reestablished in Jerusalem in 1847. The Latin Catholics in the Middle East are, for the most part, expatriates from Europe and North Americawith the important exceptions of those in Israel and the occupied territories and Jordan, where the approximately 50,000 Latin Catholics are predominantly Palestinian. The election of Michel Sabbah, a Palestinian from Nazareth, as Latin patriarch in 1987 represented the first such election of an indigenous Middle Easterner. Since his election Patriarch Sabbah played a prominent role in supporting the Palestinians' right to self-determination as well as the Israeli people's need for security, reflecting the pope's often-stated policies regarding the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. During the two Palestinian intifadas Sabbah issued statements that were thought to be controversial by other Christian groups and by the Israeli government.


Protestants make up a tiny minority within the overall Christian minority in the Middle East. Their influence has been substantial, however, both in the fostering of the ecumenical movement in the region and in the areas of education (secondary schools, colleges, and seminaries), medicine, and publishing.

see also aflaq, michel; constantinople; copts; eastern orthodox church; maronites; millet system; missionary schools; protestantism and protestant missions; roman catholicism and roman catholic missions; sfeir, nasrallah.


Betts, Robert B. Christians in the Arab East. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1978.

Cragg, Kenneth. The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991.

Haddad, Robert. Syrian Christians in Muslim Society. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Horner, Norman. A Guide to Christian Churches in the Middle East. Elkhart, IN: Mission Focus, 1989.

Dale L. Bishop

Updated by George E. Irani

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Christians in the Middle East

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Christians in the Middle East