A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 20, 2009

Backgrounder: Reflections on the Diversity of Christian Minorities in the Middle East

While browsing around for blogging subjects I came across this account of the installation of the new Syrian Catholic Patriarch in Beirut earlier this week, and it started me reflecting, first, on just how varied and complex the Christian churches in the Middle East are, and, secondly, how little known they are to Westerners, even those who spend a lot of time deploring the fate of Christians in some Middle Eastern countries. I'm pretty sure that most Catholics in the West aren't even aware there is a Syrian Catholic Church, let alone who the Patriarch is (though this one is the former Syrian Catholic Archbishop of North America). (And as a footnote, the Church's name in English is now officially the Syriac Catholic Church, though this Lebanese report uses the earlier form, which was common till just the past few years. I think the church wanted to play down the equation of "Syrian" with the modern state of that name, though they only changed the English, not the Arabic or Syriac names.)

Christianity, of course, is not a Western faith by origin, but a Middle Eastern one. Palestinian Christians often joke about being asked by well-meaning Western Christians, "which missionary group converted your people?" (to which the answer is, of course, Jesus and the 12 Apostles). Middle Eastern Christian populations are in decline, as I think is well known; the hardships of the West Bank and the hostility of political Islamists have led many Palestinian Christians to emigrate; towns like Bethlehem, which had been Christian since, rather literally, the beginning are now majority Muslim. Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in Iraq have also been fleeing in the face of violence. But while there are certainly pressures coming from radical Islamist movements in some countries, the sheer diversity of the Christian communities in the Middle East, and the real if not always visible role Christians play in a number of countries is often unappreciated by Westerners.

I'm reminded of a story that a former chief Arabic translator for the US Department of State liked to tell back in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a Syrian Assyrian -- a Syrian national by origin and a member of the Assyrian Church of the East from the Dayr al-Zor area -- and since he traveled with the Secretary of State when going to the region, he was well known to reporters traveling along. When Western news media were trying to get up to speed on the factions in Lebanon and the Sunni-Shi'a split during the Iranian Revolution and after, they would ask, "are you Sunni or Shi'a?" and he'd say, "neither, I'm a Christian," The Lebanese war being in high gear at the time the reporters would often follow with, "so you're a Maronite?", and when informed that no, he was an Assyrian, the teaching moment would arrive . . .

As an example of this diversity: Wikipedia says that there are currently five churches whose heads use the title Patriarch of Antioch. (Three are based in Damascus, one in Beirut and one in Bkerke, Lebanon: in other words, none of them in ancient Antioch, current Antakya in Turkey.) The Patriarchs of Antioch represent the Eastern (Antiochene) Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox (sometimes called "Jacobite"), Maronite, Melkite, and Syriac Catholic Churches. The last three are all in union with Rome, the Antiochenes are "Eastern Orthodox" in communion with Constantinople, and the Syriac Orthodox are Oriental Orthodox in loose communion with the Copts and Armenians. There are at least three Patriarchs of Alexandria (Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic). Nor do these exhaust all the Christian communities of the Middle East: Iraq has the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholics; Lebanon, Palestine and other areas with an Armenian diaspora have the Armenian Apostolic Church (two main branches) and the Armenian Catholics, and there are significant indigenous Protestant communities in Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere. The leading historian of modern Lebanon, Kamal Salibi, is a Presbyterian.

For all the problems that Christian minorities face, ironically one reason for this diversity is that Islam not only tolerated Christianity but did not tolerate the internal Christian feuding which elsewhere tended to eliminate dissident sects: as Rome and Constantinople consolidated their religious authority, Catholicism and Orthodoxy became uniform in the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and their successor states, but in the Islamic world the old "heresies" (in the eyes of Rome and Constantinople) endured. The Copts, Armenians, Syriac Orthodox and Ethiopian/Eritrean churches are the heirs of what the Western world called "Monophysite" churches (though they reject that term themselves), and are often referred to today as "Oriental Orthodox" in distinction from "Eastern Orthodox," those in communion with Constantinople; the Church of the East and the Malankara Church of India are those once dismissed in the West as "Nestorians," another term rejected by those to whom it is applied by others, the Church of the old Persian Empire that once evangelized as far afield as India and China. Some offshoots of many of these churches have split and given their allegiance to Rome, though they retain their Eastern Orthodox or "Oriental Orthodox" liturgies and married priesthoods; they are the Eastern Catholics, or the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church. (The Maronites of Lebanon are the one Eastern Catholic rite that has no Orthodox or Oriental analogue.) There are Eastern Orthodox churches in communion with Constantinople (the city may be Istanbul but the Ecumenical Patriarch is still "of Constantinople") in most Middle Eastern countries as well.

Some of the Christian minorities of the Middle East are waning fast, due to the conflicts in Palestine and Iraq, but the Maronites remain a major force in Lebanon (the President and Army Commander must both be Maronites, and I've already noted the political clout of the Patriarch). The Copts are a significant population in Egypt, though the exact percentage is itself a matter of controversy, and have produced some well-known figures, Boutros Boutros-Ghali most prominent among them.

In the more nationalist/secularist states and movements, Christians have been prominent, often seeing Arab nationalism as a way to find a role for Christians in a majority-Islamic polity. For years one of the highest-ranking Christians in the Middle East was Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a Chaldean by upbringing though not, I somehow suspect, a devout churchgoer. One of the co-founders of the Ba'ath Party, Michel Aflaq, was Greek Orthodox, as were such other radical nationalist leaders as Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) founder Antoun Saada and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leaders George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh. (Saada certainly and Aflaq arguably were virtual fascists and Habash and Hawatmeh Marxists, so the common ground is secular radicalism, not ideology.)

Sometimes prominent Middle Eastern Christians deliberately conceal their origins to succeed in a Muslim environment. Tariq Aziz was born Mikhail Yuhanna. The actor Omar Sharif was born Michel Chalhoub of Maronite parents from Egypt's then-prominent Lebanese community (though he did convert to Islam when he married). For many years I was a friend -- I thought a pretty good friend -- of the late Hamdi Fuad, Washington Bureau Chief for Egypt's Al-Ahram for a great many years. Yet it was not until his obituary appeared that I learned his real name was Ramses something, born a Copt; his funeral was in the same Washington church in which I was married. None of these men chose an unambiguously Muslim name like Muhammad Ahmad; they were not so much hiding their Christian roots as obscuring them a bit for professional reasons. I know of one or two other cases like this, but they involve people still working and I see no reason to "out" them: their friends know their backgrounds anyway.

Often we only hear of Middle Eastern Christians when there are clashes with their Muslim neighbors or when some outrage occurs; I thought it worth noting the diversity and antiquity of these ancient churches because they are in fact a real presence in the region. And there is more interaction than one might think: in some localities local Muslims come out for certain Christian saints' days and Christians may occasionally venerate the tomb of a Sufi sheikh; at the level of popular practice there is often less division than at the level of official ideology.


Anonymous said...

Thank for that, very interesting. I really like the mix of current affairs comment and informed musings. Please keep posting :-)

Adamgv said...
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