In a year  in which both the Coptic Pope and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch 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!|
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.