The Christian East Under Islam
For well over a millennium the Mohammedans have conquered, persecuted, and, at times, attempted to wipe out the Christians of the East. Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental (i.e., those who only accept the first three Ecumenical Councils) Christians have had their identities shaped under Islamic rule, typically with negative, if not disastrous, results. While the rise and cancerous spread of Islam in the Middle East and on across North Africa into Spain is often seen as the subject of history books, Muslim dominance in the region is hardly a thing of the past. With radical Islamists today carrying out terrorist strikes among the last remnants of Western Christendom while more organized and brutal efforts are underway to eliminate the last Christian populations in the Arab world, events which began in the seventh century under the auspices of a false prophet reverberate today, not just at the socio-political level, but the ecclesiastical as well. Roman Catholics, understandably disturbed by the seemingly daily reports of Muslim violence in their own backyards, may recall with understandable nostalgia the days of organized Latin resistance against the Islamic horde, whether at Lepanto or the gates of Vienna. But they would do well to remember the oftentimes tragic experience of their Eastern brethren and their heroic attempts to keep the Light of Christ shining in the lands where the Apostles themselves first began to spread the Gospel.
Although a full accounting of the emergence of Islam is far beyond the scope of this article, it is important to recognize that within a half-century of the death of Muhammad in 632, Muslim invaders had managed to seize control of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem—three ancient patriarchates of the then-unified Church—while threatening the crown jewel of Eastern Christendom, the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Byzantine victory over the Muslims, both in the seventh and eighth centuries, was attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, called Theotokos (God-bearer) in the East, leading to a special commemorating hymn known as the Akathist celebrated on the fifth Saturday of Lent in the Byzantine Rite to this day. While certain populations of Eastern Christians enjoyed periods of toleration following Muslim invasion, they often lived ghetto existences, cut off from the rest of the Church and prohibited from proselytizing. At other times, however, Christians under Islam suffered terribly with many enduring martyrdom and others finding it easier to convert than continue on as second-class human beings.
This unhappy reality held true following the fall of Constantinople eight centuries after the sons of Islam had first tried to take the city. Despite the break in communion between East and West occasioned by the Great Schism in 1054 and its cementation in 1439 when the Orthodox East repudiated the reunion proposal made by Rome at the Council of Florence, Pope Nicholas V dispatched troops to help defend the city from the armies of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Unfortunately, political strife and material shortfalls in the West prevented the Pope from offering the degree of assistance necessary to save the city. Concelebrations with Latin and Greek Christians took place in the great Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia beginning in December 1452, but on Tuesday, May 29, 1453, Constantinople fell and its emperor, Constantine XI, perished defending the city his saintly namesake had founded 1,123 years earlier. As John Julius Norwich observes at the close of his magisterial history of Byzantium, there is a reason why Tuesday is still considered the unluckiest day of the week.
With the Byzantine Empire lost, relations between East and West were finally strained to the breaking point. In order to help ensure that there would be no rescue of Constantinople by the Latins, Mehmed II placed George Scholarios (Gennadius II), a learned philosopher and theologian, but anti-Roman bigot, on the patriarchal throne, thus ensuring that the repudiation of Florence would stick among the city’s Greek Orthodox population. Up until the 20th century, Ottoman rulers openly interfered in the governance of the Greek Orthodox Church, at times offering the patriarchate to the highest bidder while, at others, murdering those who did not meet with their approval. The patriarchs of Constantinople themselves quickly took on a dual role, serving as both spiritual leader of the Greek Church and the political head of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian population. While Greek Christians sometimes enjoyed the same basic protections as Arab Christians whose territory had fallen under Muslim control, the grossly disparate treatment Orthodox Christians received as compared to their Muslim neighbors prompted many to abandon the apostolic faith.
The adverse effect Constantinople’s fall had on the Eastern Orthodox world cannot be understated. First, it was not long before the political situation of the Ottoman Empire’s Greek Orthodox population degenerated into the identification of Orthodoxy with nationality. To be Greek was to be Orthodox and vice versa, a mentality which still manifests itself today in spite of efforts by certain Greek Orthodox theologians and bishops to remind followers that the Gospel is universal. With respect to relations with the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek nationalist mentality has created numerous complications over the centuries, including the erroneous belief that Catholicism is merely a “brand” of Christianity for certain ethnic populations living in the West. Regrettably, the identification of nationality with Orthodoxy has spread beyond Greek borders, infecting large swathes of the Eastern Christian world.
Second, the loss of autonomy among the Eastern Orthodox also meant the loss, or at least the obscuring, of their authentic spiritual and theological patrimony. Desperate to elevate their learning beyond what the Ottomans would allow, some Greek clergy sought education in the West from Catholic institutions, an anomaly which has sadly been derided by modern Orthodox scholars as a period of “Latin captivity” in Eastern Christianity. Instead of serving as a bridge between East and West, the importation of Western Catholic thought into the East is now seen as a disease, mostly for chauvinistic reasons. While the reclamation of the Christian East’s authentic heritage deserves applause, the contempt toward the West which has frequently accompanied this recovery is hardly a cause for celebration.
Last, Muslim rule over the Patriarch of Constantinople, along with the ancient patriarchal sees in the Arab world, means that the Patriarch of Moscow has become the center of the Orthodox world. The Russian Orthodox Church, a Christian body that has produced members who died heroically in the name of Christ during periods of savage persecution by militant atheists, has been long beholden to secular authorities, largely since the reforms of Tsar Peter the Great and certainly today during the political dominance of Vladimir Putin. Instead of seeking unity with the Catholic Church, Russian Orthodoxy has violently opposed any and all efforts for those within its territorial sphere to rejoin Rome. For instance, the 1596 Union of Brest, which established the Ukrainian and Belarussian Greek Catholic Churches, remains a source of deep animosity among the Russian Orthodox—so deep that the Russian Church continues to use it as an excuse to pressure other particular Orthodox churches from making positive overtures toward Rome.
As already noted, other Eastern Christian confessions have undergone great trials following the rise of Islam. The year 2015 marks the centenary of the genocide carried out by the Turks against the Armenians—Oriental and Catholic—and few will forget the bloody death 21 Coptic Christians suffered at the hands of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in February on a beach in Libya. Sui iuris Catholic churches in the Middle East, such as the Maronites, Melkites, and Chaldeans, continue to be victimized by an increasingly radicalized Muslim population that wishes to drive Christianity from the region once and for all. With the contemporary, secular West seemingly indifferent to their plight, it is probable, perhaps even likely, that no ancient Christian community will remain in most of the Middle East by the close of this century.
Catholics, particularly Roman Catholics, who are apt to recall the glory days when their forebears bravely defended Christendom from the Muslims should not forget the great price paid for centuries to keep Eastern Christendom free, such as the great sacrifice paid by the Serbian Orthodox at the oft-forgotten Battle of Kosovo. For it was there, in 1389, that Tsar Lazar and thousands of his subjects met their end demonstrating bravery that would have made Don John of Austria and King Jan III Sobieski nod in admiration. And, as tradition holds, it was there that the tsar uttered this arresting curse:
Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth,
And of Serb blood and heritage,
And comes not to fight at Kosovo,
May he never have progeny born from love,
Neither son nor daughter!
May nothing grow that his hand sows,
Neither red wine nor white wheat!
And may he be dying in filth as long as his children are alive!
Separated though he was from full communion with Holy Mother Church, Tsar Lazar’s words may still perhaps serve as an unsettling but needful reminder that we cannot be complacent in the face of a dark force that would see all those who profess to follow Christ put to the sword. In this day and age where fortitude and true Christian strength are sorely lacking, there remains light emanating from the East to remind us what those virtues are and, just as importantly, what they are for.