A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 17, 2012

As Both Christmases Approach: Why Do Western Christians Forget The Eastern Churches Exist?

In a year in which both the Coptic Pope and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch (misspoke as Alexandria earlier, but posted on it earlier and correctly here)  have died, it may be useful to repeat a story I know I've told before. I once had a friend, a devout Palestinian Christian, who back in the day would encounter, in various American Christian communities in which he moved, well-meaning ladies and gentlemen who, on learning he was a Christian Arab, would naively ask, "which missionary group converted your people?" He would respond (knowing his sense of timing, I presume after waiting a couple of beats):  "Perhaps you've heard of them: Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles."

Over the next week or so most US news organizations will have at least one clip from a city in the West Bank known as Bethlehem. They will show the Church of the Nativity, interview a few olive-wood souvenir sellers about the decline in the tourist trade due to the stalled peace process, and, because it is almost impossible to show pictures of Bethlehem without it, show how the Israeli Separation Wall cuts along the side of town. It will be the only report from Bethlehem you see until next December. There are fairly good odds it will also be the only picture of the Separation Wall you see until next December.

If it had not been for the election of the Coptic Pope, which got some limited coverage, it might be the only Western media coverage all year of Christianity in the region where the faith began.

The Real Saint Nick was Known to slap Heretics: Ho, ho, ho!
If the Gospels are to be believed, the central figure of the Christian faith was born in Bethlehem, spent some time in infancy in Egypt whither his parents had fled (for three years in the Coptic tradition, which provides a detailed if apocryphal itinerary), was raised in Nazareth in Galilee, now northern Israel, and ventured no further afield than across the Jordan, north to Tyre and Sidon, and into what are now the Golan Heights. Saul of Tarsus became Paul after a vision on the road to Damascus. Christian apostles and early missionaries spread the faith further, and Christ's followers were first called "Christians" in Antioch (Antakya, Turkey), while Alexandria, Edessa (Sanliurfa, Turkey) and other cities of the east were citadels of the early faith. The first ruler to become a Christian may have been in Edessa but the first major Kingdom to officially become Christian was Armenia, which preceded Rome. Within a few centuries the Roman Empire had converted, but so had Ethiopia, and Christian missionaries had reached Xian, the capital of the Chinese Empire, and left an inscription there in Syriac. (But they were "Nestorians," and so forgotten by Western Christians.) Of the five ancient patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Antoch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem), only one was in the West.

Saint Nicholas of Myra (shown above) reportedly gave secret gifts to needy Christians, including dowries. He is also said to have slapped Arius, leader of the Arian heresy, at the Council lf Nicaea. (Coal in Arius' stocking? [Rephrased from earlier reference to whipping pagans, That may be untrue, Not taking any chances so close to Christmas.] It's a fair bet he never heard of a reindeer. But he lived in what is now Turkey.

In 400 AD Christianity was not only the dominant faith in the Roman Empire (including southern Europe, North Africa, and the whole Middle East), as well as Armenia and Ethiopia, but had many adherents in the Persian Empire, Central Asia, coastal India and China. There were almost certainly more Christians in Arabia than in England. [Sorry, I meant Britain. No Angles there yet.]

All that changed with the rise of Islam, but Islam was mostly (with massive and tragic exceptional interludes) tolerant of Christianity as a fellow "people of the book." Though tolerated in most of the Islamic world, Christianity was not permitted in Arabia proper, but survived and sometimes flourished elsewhere. (Its disappearance in North Africa while thriving in Islamic Spain and Sicily is a subject for a much longer discussion at a later time.)

Yet many Western Christians still mentally divide the Christian world into Catholic and Protestant. There may be a general understanding that the Eastern Orthodox exist (at least the Greeks and Russians anyway, who are in Europe); some Latin Catholics (but by no means all) may know the Eastern Catholic churches with their different rites and married priests at least exist, but Oriental Orthodox churches like the Copts or Armenians or the separate traditions of the Assyrian Church of the East remain largely unknown. Readers who've read me through previous Christmas seasons will be aware that I try to illuminate the traditions of the Christians who live in the region where Christmas began. I'll be doing so again, through both Western and Eastern holidays.


David Mack said...

I love the St. Nicholas poster. Have shared this blog with a number of friends from the National Presbyterian Church.

Ivan said...

It’s the Antiochian Patriarch who died (and was recently replaced), not the Alexandrian.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Quite right, Ivan, and fixed: just a brain burp I guess. I'd correctly blogged on it earlier.here: http://mideasti.blogspot.com/2012/12/ignatius-iv-greek-orthodox-patriarch-of.html