July 2015 Print

Catholics in the Middle East

by Fr. Christopher Danel

The Catholics of the Middle East profess the same Catholic faith and participate in the same sacraments as all other Catholics, according to the liturgy of their ancient Rites. There are twelve Rites in the Catholic Church, organized into three liturgical families. The most widely known are the Roman Rite and the Byzantine Rite, but that leaves ten more, and the Catholics of the Middle East belong to at least seven of these.

The three liturgical families are those based on the ancient Patriarchates of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem was the liturgical ancestor of all of these, but did not retain a Rite of its own. Rome is the ultimate source of the three extant Western Rites: Roman, Ambrosian, and Mozarabic. From Alexandria come the Coptic and Ethiopian Rites used in Egypt and Abyssinia. From Antioch come the Armenian, Syriac, Maronite, and Chaldean Rites used in the Middle East, as well as the Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar Rites of India. Constantinople (formerly Byzantium) developed the liturgy of Antioch into the form now known as the Byzantine Rite, which is thus included in the Antiochene family. Constantinople was elevated to the status of Patriarchate in 381 and since then its Rite has spread widely, with a prominent Middle Eastern Catholic community adhering to this Rite. Each of the current Catholic Patriarchs descending from these ancient Sees governs the faithful of his Rite within his Patriarchal territory in submission to the Primacy of the Apostolic See of Rome.

In addition to the Catholics of the Middle East, there are also sizeable communities of Orthodox adhering to the same liturgical traditions, and this has a significant impact on Catholic life in the region. The Christological controversies of the fifth century form the background of that history. At that time, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, advanced the teaching that there are two Persons in Christ, not just one. On the other hand, the proper doctrine of Christ was defended by St. Cyril of Alexandria, who taught clearly that Christ is both God and man in one Person, which means that Our Lady is the Theotokos, the Mother of God. At the Council of Ephesus (431), the Alexandrine theology of St. Cyril was upheld, while Nestorianism was condemned. Subsequent efforts to define the relationship of the human and the divine in Christ led to the heresy of Monophysitism (“one nature”), which taught that Christ’s human nature was completely absorbed by His divine nature, such that only the divine nature remained. This teaching was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon (451), because Christ indeed has two complete natures, human and divine, in one divine Person. After Ephesus and Chalcedon, large portions of the East rejected the Church’s dogmatic Tradition and went into schism. While many persist in heresy and schism, many others have returned to the Catholic Church, and it is of their descendants living in the Middle East that we treat.

The Chaldean Catholics

Catholics of the Chaldean Rite are descended from the ancient people of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates, and are largely based in modern Iraq, principally in Baghdad and Mosul. They received the Faith due to a miracle. Christ instructed St. Thomas to send two disciples to cure the King of Edessa, so the Apostle sent the disciples Addai and Mari with a cloth bearing a miraculous image of Christ. They cured the king with it, and he embraced the Faith for his kingdom. Edessa became an important theological and monastic center, producing St. Ephrem. In the early fourth century, the governance of the church was established near Baghdad. By 424, the church had repudiated its ties to Rome, and in 486 adopted the heresy of Nestorius, contra Ephesus. Missionary efforts of the Dominicans and Franciscans led to the return of the first Chaldeans in 1445, and after a long period of contention, the Patriarch of Babylon was recognized by Rome in 1830, as he and his followers rejected Nestorianism and purged all references to him and his heresy from their liturgical books. There are about 420,000 Chaldean Catholics in the Middle East and beyond, with 240,000 of them living in Iraq.

The Syriac Catholics

Catholics who belong to the Syriac Rite come from the Patriarchate of Antioch, the first See held by St. Peter. After Chalcedon, their Greek-speaking urbanites accepted the council’s decrees, while the rural population followed a certain priest named Fr. Jacob Baradai, who was supported by the Empress Theodora and consolidated the Monophysite faction into what would be called the Jacobite Church (Syriac Orthodox) after its founder. Contacts with the Crusaders began some movement toward reunion with the Church, and in the seventeenth century Capuchin and Jesuit missionaries converted many. In 1782, when the bishop of Aleppo was elected as Patriarch, he declared himself a Catholic and took refuge at the monastery of Our Lady of Sharfeh in Lebanon. His successors, based in Beirut and recognized by Rome, have continued the Catholic lineage and have shepherded the Syriac Catholics ever since. There are about 132,000 adherents in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and abroad.

The Maronite Catholics

The Maronite Rite uses Syriac as its official language, which is very close to Aramaic, Our Lord’s own language. In the late fourth century, St. Maron and his disciples founded an important monastery located between Antioch and Aleppo. They vigorously supported the Catholic doctrine of Chalcedon, and did not break communion with Rome. In consequence, Monophysites killed 350 monks at Beit Maron soon after, and the Emperor Justinian rebuilt the monastery for them. The Maronites moved to the mountains of Lebanon three hundred years later, and have been headed ever since by their own Patriarch, who resides at Bkerke, near Beirut. The Maronites enjoyed a peaceful seclusion until the nineteenth century, when fanatics of an Islamic sect massacred thousands of them. Afterwards, the French took measures to protect them, and ever since Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, the national constitution has required that the president be a Maronite Catholic. About one third of the population of Lebanon is Maronite. There are 3.3 million Maronites, including 1.7 million in the Middle East, and thriving communities in America and Australia.

The Melkite Catholics

After the Maronites, this is the most prosperous and influential community. The term Melkite comes from the Syrian word malok, or king. After the submission of the Byzantine Emperor to the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon, the Monophysites began to refer to the Catholics who defended his orthodoxy as Melkites. After the seventh century Arab invasion, these Catholics in Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem all came under the influence of Constantinople, and by the thirteenth century had adopted its Rite. In the succeeding centuries, contact with Rome was sporadic, and some of the Melkite prelates lapsed into schism, while others were faithful, as evidenced by periodic contacts and professions of fidelity to the Holy See by some of the Patriarchs of Antioch. When a dispute about the Patriarchal election erupted in 1724 between pro-Catholic and pro-Orthodox factions, the Pope officially recognized the legitimate Patriarch of Antioch, whose successors have governed the Catholic faithful of that Rite throughout the Middle East ever since. There are 1.3 million Melkites in the Middle East and abroad.

The Armenian Catholics

The Catholic Faith was first taken to Armenia by the Apostles St. Bartholomew and St. Jude Thaddeus. The Faith definitively took hold in A.D. 301 when St. Gregory the Illuminator baptized the Armenian king, who declared Armenia as the first Catholic nation. In the sixth century, however, the Armenians broke with both Rome and Constantinople and adopted Monophysitism. Later contacts with Crusaders helped to nurture union with the Church, and in 1742 the Pope confirmed the Patriarchate of Cilicia of the Armenians, which has led the Armenian Catholics since that time, with the Patriarch currently residing in Lebanon. The Armenian Christians suffered an enormous genocide at the hands of the Islamic Turks during and after the First World War. By 1923 as many as 1.5 million were slaughtered, including thousands of bishops, priests, and religious. There are as many as 400,000 Catholics in the historic homeland, with a few thousand more throughout the Middle East and in other regions of the world.

The Coptic Catholics

These are the Egyptians who received the Faith from St. Mark the Evangelist, who was then martyred in Alexandria in A.D. 67. Their liturgy uses the ancient Coptic (Egyptian) language. They developed a renowned system of monastic life, and from them came many saints, including St. Athanasius. Alexandria became one of the most important Patriarchates of the Church, but after Chalcedon, it unfortunately became the stronghold of Monophysitism. The conversion of many Copts back to Catholicism is the result of the Capuchin Friars and Jesuits who established missions in Cairo in the 1600’s and there preached the Faith tirelessly. In 1829, the Holy See erected the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria, which remains the center of Coptic Catholicity, which numbers 162,000 members. The Coptic Orthodox Church (Monophysite) is much larger, numbering approximately 8 million members.

The Ethiopian Catholics

The adherents of the Ethiopian Rite are the Semitic peoples of Abyssinia. Their rite uses the ancient Ge’ez language for its ritual. The conversion of the court treasurer of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, is told in the Acts of the Apostles, and the Ethiopians furthermore received the faith from two Christian youths of Tyre, Sts. Frumentius and Aedesius, who served in the royal court; the former was later consecrated a bishop by St. Athanasius himself. After Chalcedon, the Ethiopians adopted Monophysitism, leading to prolonged isolation. Islamic attacks in 1531 compelled the Ethiopian Emperor to turn to the Portuguese for assistance, and with them came the Jesuit priests who laid the groundwork for the reconciliation of the Ethiopians to the Church. In 1623, Rome erected a Patriarchate there, but it lasted only a decade and has not been revived since. The Italian occupation in the 1930’s brought additional missionary efforts, and only thirty years later Addis Ababa was erected as an Archdiocese. In early 2015, the Eritreans were given a separate jurisdiction and Asmara was elevated to the same status. The 140,000 Catholic Ethiopians and Eritreans have emigrated to other parts of North Africa and the Middle East, such as Libya.

Roman Catholics in the Middle East

In addition to those of the Eastern Rites described, there is a large community of native Roman Catholic Arabs, or “Latins,” in the region and particularly in Palestine, where they number fully one half of the Catholic population. They depend on the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem with the longstanding vigilance of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Additionally there are significant numbers of Catholic workers from Southern India who belong to the Roman, Malabar, or Malankara rites. There are possibly up to 1.6 million Roman Catholic Filipinos working in the region, especially in and around Dubai.

The Catholic communities in the Middle East are particularly fragile. Massive emigration brings the threat of demographic collapse. Persecution is a fact of life. But a bigger issue now overshadows all: martyrdom. How many of these souls will be required to give their blood and their lives for Christ? Behold how they are numbered among the children of God, and their lot is among the saints (Wis. 5: 5).