May 2017 Print

Christians in the Middle East

by Gabriel S. Sanchez

The Middle East, the historic birthplace of Christianity, remains home to a diverse but dwindling Catholic population, along with several non-Catholic confessions. For 1,400 years, the children of the false prophet of Mohammed have subjected Mid-Eastern Christians to innumerable persecutions, often forcing those left living to survive as little more than second-class citizens. Even ostensibly secular states such as Turkey continue to actively discriminate against its native Christian populations. With the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), along with numerous uprisings falsely known as the “Arab Spring,” Christians have once again found the Muslim sword at their throats. Moreover, the destabilization of Iraq and Syria has emboldened numerous Islamic groups to wage war against each other while trampling over Christians and other religious minorities. The situation for Christianity in the region is dire, with some opining that this already modest population may be reduced to a mere remnant in the coming decades.

This article surveys briefly the situation of Mid-East Catholics with discussions of the region’s other Apostolic Christian communions. It is important to note that these churches can be broken into four distinct groups, none of which are in official communion with one another: (1) Catholics belonging to several sui iurius (autonomous) churches made up of distinct rites, along with several small Latin Catholic populations; (2) Eastern Orthodox churches following the Byzantine Rite in communion with one another, but which broke communion with Rome during the early centuries of the second millennium; (3) Oriental Orthodox churches in communion with one another, but which broken communion with the rest of Christendom over the interpretation of the Council of Chalcedon in 451; and (4) The Assyrian Church of the East, which became separated from the rest of Christendom in the early 5th century and is in communion with no other church. All of these non-Catholic Apostolic churches retain a valid hierarchy and Eucharist and, though they remain out of communion with Rome, face no less persecution by the Muslims than their estranged Catholic brethren.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians 

The largest extant Christian population in the Middle East are Copts, who reside primarily in Egypt, but also have small communities in Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, Tunisia, and Lebanon. Copts are also the largest Christian population in Sudan and Libya. Although estimates vary, there are approximately 15-20 million Copts in the Middle East and Coptic Christians make up 10% of Egypt’s overall population. Most of these Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, an Oriental Orthodox communion that broke ties with the Catholic Church in the 5th century over the interpretation of the Council of Chalcedon. While Muslim dominance in the region restricted ties between Catholics and Copts, several attempts were made over the centuries to bring the Coptic Orthodox Church into communion with Rome. In 1442, at the Council of Florence, a Coptic delegation signed the document of reunification, Cantate Domino, though the gesture had little practical effect in Egypt. In the following century, several Latin Catholic missionary groups, including the Franciscans, Capuchins, and Jesuits came to the region, leading to a brief reunification between Rome and Alexandria in the 18th century that failed to last. 

Under the direction of Pope Benedict XIV in 1781, a bishop was appointed for a small population of Copts who joined the Catholic Church. Then, in 1824, a short-lived and mainly titular patriarchate was created for the Coptic Catholic Church which was reestablished in 1895 by a decree from Pope Leo XIII. The first (new) Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria was Cyril II, whose reign was mired by controversy due in part to the introduction of Latin liturgical and disciplinary practices (e.g., mandatory clerical celibacy); he resigned in 1908 and a new patriarch was not elected until 1947. Today, the Coptic Catholic Church is overseen by Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, who was elected in 2013 and has 162,000 adherents. The Coptic Catholic Church follows a recension of the Alexandrian Rite and retains the use of Coptic (a language derived from ancient Egyptian) in its liturgy. 

Today, Coptic Christians face significant persecution and remain officially discriminated against by Egypt’s government. With the onset of the so-called “Arab Spring” which destabilized Egypt’s government, Copts have found themselves targeted by militant Muslims. In December 2016, for instance, an ISIS suicide bomber killed 29 Copts during a Sunday liturgical service. On Palm Sunday 2017, ISIS took responsibility for two church bombings—including the Coptic Orthodox cathedral of St. Mark’s—that left over 40 Christians dead and wounded 126 others. Given the tense political situation in Egypt today, coupled with the fact that ISIS continues to spread terror throughout the Middle East, it is unlikely that these barbaric attacks will end anytime soon.

The Assyrian Christians

The most confessionally diverse group of Middle Eastern Christians are the Assyrian (or Syriac) Christians, whose population of approximately 2-3 million persons is spread between the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church (an Oriental Orthodox church in communion with the Coptic Orthodox Church), and several small Protestant groups. Assyrian Christians are located primarily in Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran. Before the United States invasion in 2003, Iraq had approximately 1.2 Assyrian Christians; massive persecution, including a targeted extermination campaign by ISIS in the northern part of the country, has reduced Iraq’s Assyrian population to between 300,000 and 500,000 souls. 

While the largest Assyrian Christian confession is the Syriac Orthodox Church with around 4 million members worldwide, only a small portion are Assyrian; current estimates suggest that only around 250,000 ethnic Syriac Orthodox live in the Middle East today. The next largest Assyrian communion, the Chaldean Catholic Church, was historically a part of the Assyrian Church of the East, which broke communion with the Catholic Church in the early fifth century. Plagued by persecution, infighting, and jurisdictional disagreements, portions of the Assyrian Church of the East began to enter communion with the Catholic Church starting in the 16th century, though this process was disrupted and it would not be until 1830 that the Chaldean Church stabilized its relations with Rome. Unfortunately, this came at a time of renewed Muslim hostility toward the Assyrians as a whole. Numerous acts of gross violence were brought upon Assyrian Christians, including the Assyrian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire, which left 300,000 Assyrians of all confessions dead. 

Today, the Chaldean Catholic Church numbers approximately 650,000 souls worldwide, though exact numbers are difficult to come by due to the dispersion of Chaldeans brought about by Muslim persecution. Liturgically, the Chaldeans adhere to the East Syrian Rite and celebrate the Eucharist using a modified form of the ancient Liturgy of St. Addai and Mari. (The version used by the Assyrian Church of the East does not include the Words of Institution in its anaphora [canon].) ISIS-led violence in Iraq has ravaged the Chaldean Catholic Church and prompted concerns that this church may be all but extinguished in its ancient homeland in the coming years. 

The Maronites 

The next largest non-Arab Christian population in the Middle East are the Maronites, whose population of 1.2 million souls mainly reside in Lebanon, with small numbers living in Cyprus, Syria, and Israel. The Maronites of the Middle East belong primarily to the Syriac Maronite Catholic Church, which boasts 3.5 million members worldwide. The Maronite Church, along with the Italo-Albanian Greek Catholic Church, is unique among the 23 sui iuris Eastern Catholic churches in that it never broke communion with Rome despite centuries of relative isolation from the West. Founded originally in the fourth century by the great ascetic monastic St. Maron in Syria, the spread of Islam in the Middle East led to the Maronites immigrating to Lebanon, where they were largely unheard from for 400 years due to Muslim dominance in the region. As part of his campaign to liberate the Middle East during the First Crusade, Count Raymond of Tolhouse made contact with the Maronites who affirmed their allegiance to the Church of Rome by assisting in his efforts. In the 13th century, the Maronite Patriarch Jeremias II traveled to Rome to participate in the Lateran Council. While the Maronites adhere to the West Syrian Rite, they have adopted numerous Latin practices over the centuries, including some of the liturgical practices brought about following the Second Vatican Council. However, there remains a concentrated movement within the Maronite Church to restore their ancient liturgical norms.

Like other Christians in the region, Maronites have been on the receiving end of harsh treatment by their Muslim neighbors. Between 1915-18, a famine was forced on Lebanon’s Maronites by the Ottoman Empire, which confiscated the Maronite’s food in order to supply the Ottoman army and administration. The death toll is estimated at around 200,000. After the establishment of the Lebanese state by France in 1920, the Maronites found considerable social and political success until the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1989. Although Maronites still retain some key roles of power, such as the country’s presidency, and presidency of the Lebanese Central Bank, their influence over Lebanese national life has waned significantly over the past two decades. 

Arab Christians 

Another significant population of Mid-East Christians are of Arab descent, and are split between those that adhere to one of the patriarchates of the Eastern Orthodox Church such as Antioch, or Jerusalem, and those who are part of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Prior to the 18th century, the Melkites were part of the Patriarch of Antioch and had been out of communion with Rome for several centuries following the repudiation of the Council of Florence by most of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Even so, Latin missionaries working in Syria and other parts of the Middle East had established ties with the local Orthodox populations, leading to a blurring of confessional lines at points. This led to the formation of a “pro-Western” or “pro-Catholic” contingent within the Antiochian Patriarchate which elected a like-minded patriarch, Cyril VI, in 1724. Not wishing to see the Antiochians draw closer to Rome, the Patriarch of Constantinople ostensibly invalidated Cyril’s election and installed his own patriarch. After an appeal to Pope Benedict XIII, Cyril was recognized as the legitimate patriarch and his followers became part the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which has around 1.5 million members worldwide. Like the Eastern Orthodox, the Melkites use the Byzantine Rite and have been particularly virulent about upholding the integrity of their liturgical, spiritual, and theological patrimony, which has sometimes caused its leadership to clash with certain Latin Catholic trends. 

Like the Orthodox, Melkites have been subjected to frequent persecution and discrimination. With its headquarters in Damascus, Syria, the ongoing civil war in the country—along with the rise of ISIS—has brutalized Syria’s Christian population. Now with the United States looking to exacerbate the problem by attacking the Syrian army and looking to remove the country’s secular ruler, Bashar al-Assad, the future of Syria’s Christians, and Arab Christians in general, looks grim. 

A Closing Word on Other Christian Populations

In closing, it should be noted that other Christian populations also exist in the Middle East. Despite enduring a terrible genocide under the Ottoman Turks, Armenian Christians—some of whom belong to the Catholic Church—continue to live in the region, with the largest population of around 200,000 residing in Iran. Greeks, too, endured genocide and expulsion from Turkey after World War I; the largest concentration of Greek Christians, most of whom are Orthodox, can be found in Cyprus, the only Christian-majority country left in the Middle East. Additionally, small populations of Aramean, Georgian, Ossetian, and Russian Christians also reside in the Middle East and belong primarily to the Oriental or Eastern Orthodox communions. 

As stated at the outset of this article, Mid-East Christians, regardless of their respective confessional commitments, have been subjected to Muslim violence for over a millennium. While it is easy for Catholics living in the West to draw clear lines between these different communions, separating out Catholics from non-Catholics, their Islamic persecutors rarely care for such distinctions. A follower of Christ, by their demented lights, is an enemy of Allah, unworthy of just treatment if not life. Catholics suffer and die side-by-side with the Orthodox, and all because they refuse to submit to the false teachings of Islam.

Gabriel S. Sanchez is an attorney and Assistant Editor of Angelus Press who resides with his family in Grand Rapids, MI.