Christians in the Middle East — at a Critical Mass?

I have been asked to speak about Christians in the Middle East. First, it may be helpful to define the term “Middle East.” The Middle East is a subcontinent with no clear boundaries and it is often used as a synonym for Near East, in opposition to Far East. The term “Middle East” was popularized in the early 20th century in the context of the rivalry between the British and Russian empires over the region. Traditionally, it has been loosely defined as encompassing territories in southwestern Asia and parts of North Africa.

It has been my experience that there are two notions regarding this topic that are difficult for North Americans to grasp: the variety of Christians in the region and the possibility of the extinction of Christianity in the region.

North Americans are accustomed to church as a product of Western culture divided into Catholics and Protestants. For most, the Catholic Church is the Latin Church and any variety within it is presumed to be the result of ethnic origins: Catholics are different because they are Irish or German or Italian or Polish or Latino. A Byzantine or Maronite group is viewed with suspicion as somehow “not under the pope.” In reality, there are many Catholic churches, 22 to be precise; there is the Latin Church (by far the largest) and 21 Eastern Catholic churches, all “under the pope.” David and I are both members of different Eastern Catholic churches.

The plurality of the churches is no where more evident than in the Middle East, where Christians from almost all the churches have converged over the past two millennia. One finds many of these Eastern Catholic churches represented there as well as the Latin Church (which is really a 12th-century import) as well as many Orthodox and Protestant churches. The question that immediately comes to mind is, if Christ started the church, why are there so many churches, so many “flavors” of Christianity? The presumption is that the multiplicity of churches is a consequence of disputes and divisions. This is only partially true.

At the Ascension, Jesus instructed his apostles to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) As a result of apostolic missions to different parts of the world — from Jerusalem to modern-day Africa, Europe, the entire Middle East and even India — the Gospel message took root in each of these lands and came to be expressed, among others, in Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Mesopotamian and Indian culture. The church was one, but diverse in its culturally diverse expression of the faith.

However, disputes arose and divisions in the One Church of Christ were the consequence.

In the fourth century, political antagonism between the Roman and Persian empires provoked disputes in the church and resulted in the breakaway of the Assyrian Church of the East. Again, in the fifth century pressures inside the Roman Empire affected the church. Copts, Syrians and Armenians resented the treatment they received from the Greeks who controlled the urban centers, especially the imperial capital of Constantinople. The political, economic and social tensions also affected relations among the churches. Divisions arose and different understandings regarding the nature of Christ served as a veneer for these antagonisms. The churches that resulted from this division are known today at the Oriental Orthodox or Ancient Orthodox churches. The Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Syriac Orthodox churches all fall into this category.

In the 11th century, the drift between the Latin and Greek worlds solidified into a division we call the Great Schism. The resulting communities identified themselves as Catholic (Latin) and Orthodox (Greek). It is important to note that from the 11th to the 16th century, to be a Catholic meant — with very few exceptions — that one was a Latin Catholic. Observing various forms of the Byzantine tradition, the Orthodox Church includes the Church of Constantinople, the Church of Moscow and many others.

In the 16th century, still another division took place within the Latin Catholic Church. The Reformation resulted in the establishment of Protestant communities.

After many unsuccessful attempts to reunify the Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, the Catholic Reformation took a different approach, known — pejoratively today — as uniatism, that is, the conversion of portions of the Orthodox churches and the creation of parallel hierarchies. Most of the Eastern Catholic churches are a result of this initiative — the Maronites and the Italo-Albanians of southern Italy being the exception. The creation of parallel hierarchies creates the situation such as an Armenian Apostolic Church and an Armenian Catholic Church, communities that share the same traditions and liturgies, yet are divided jurisdictionally. Likewise, one finds the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch as well as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch. Usually, the Eastern Catholic churches (the exception being the Chaldean Church of Iraq) are smaller communities.

While these churches are often disparaged as contentious by Catholics and Orthodox, the ecumenical relations among them are surprisingly good. For example, during the 2001 visit of Pope John Paul II to Damascus, Syria, his hosts were the three patriarchs of Antioch: Syriac Orthodox patriarch (Mor Ignatius Zakka I), the Greek Orthodox patriarch (Ignace IV) and the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch (Gregory III) throughout the visit, all of whom accompanied the pontiff. This arrangement typifies church life in the Middle East. My own personal experience is that the faithful in the Middle East are much more ready to identify themselves simply as “Christian” than with any more specific title and are surprisingly flexible in their participation in the worship of various communities.

It is also difficult for North Americans to apprehend the possibility that the church or Christians more generally might be in real danger of extinction. While many decry secularism and the influx of Muslims in the West, it is difficult for us to consider these phenomena as threats to our existence. However, as we shall see, the Christians and churches of the Middle East find themselves in perilously close to extinction, threatened by faithful of other religions of much greater numbers or political entities of much greater power.

The term critical mass is defined as the size or amount of something required before an activity or event can take place. Has the Christian population in the Middle East been reduced to such a low level that Christianity can no longer “take place?” Let us take a brief look at some demographics. As we consider these statistics, it is useful to keep in mind that at a certain point of history, the entire region was predominantly Christian.

Northeastern Africa has the highest density of Christians:

  • 60.8% of the population of Ethiopia (82.5 million inhabitants) is Christian;
  • 49% of the population of Eritrea (pop. 5.5 million) is Christian;
  • 10% of the population of Egypt (pop. 81.7 million) is Christian.

In Israel and the Palestinian territories, the churches have been under siege since the middle of the 20th century. Enormous numbers of Christians left the region in 1948 and 1967. The result is that the land where Jesus carried out his earthly ministry is practically depopulated of Christians.

  • 2.1 % of the population of Israel (pop. 7 million) is Christian.
  • Approximately 2% of the population in the Palestinian Territories (pop. 3.8 million) is Christian.
  • 6% of Jordan (pop. 6.1 million) is Christian. This “high” number can be partly attributed to the large number of Iraqi Christian refugees.

In the rest of the Middle East,

  • 10% of the population of Syria (pop. 19.7 million) is Christian;
  • 39% of the population of Lebanon (pop. 3.9 million) is Christian (Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholics, Armenians of the Apostolic and Catholic churches, Syriac Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Latin Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Assyrians, Copts and Protestants are all found in this tiny country);
  • As a result of the war, Christians have fled Iraq and gone to Jordan, Syria and the “West.” Today, only 3% of the 28.2 million inhabitants are Christian;
  • Figures for Iran (with its population of 65.9 million) indicate that 2% of the population is “Other,” meaning Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and Baha’i.

The figures speak for themselves. With the exception of Ethiopia, a much ignored and neglected — and still Christian — country, Christians in the Middle East are a minority. Emigration from this region began at the turn of the 20th century, but was accelerated in the middle of that century with the creation of the state of Israel and consequent Arab-Israeli conflicts. This period has been marked by political and economic strife that has driven people from their homes and homelands. One small example: in 1900, the population of Bethlehem was more than 90% Christian. Today, Bethlehem is only one-third Christian and this proportion is steadily shrinking as the Christians depart for Europe, the Americas or Australia.

It is unlikely that — despite our best efforts — we shall reverse the demographic reality of Christian emigration from the Middle East. This does not mean we shall not continue to try. A return of Christians to the Holy Land in the near future is also unlikely. Aliyah or the right of return for Jews is a matter of Israeli public policy. The Palestinians, with their Muslim majority, want to return to their homeland. But we Christians are not promoting the “right of return” to the Middle East as a solution to the problem.

It is undeniable that a few hundred thousand Christians of different — at times antagonistic — communities cannot alter or influence fundamental change in the region. (One must also take into account that a significant number of these believers are unemployed and live below the poverty line.) On their own, Christians of the Middle East are politically powerless. Today, the real strength of these Christians lies beyond the boundaries of Middle East. People like you are concerned and want to help by sharing your resources and influencing political leaders in this important issue of justice and human rights.

The basis of all our actions is a spiritual one. There is no need of “critical mass” for Christianity, for the love of Christ, to work. After all, the movement started with a few frightened people huddled in an upper room. The Spirit of Christ impelled them to spread the Good News. As Catholics, our primary concern must be that the love of Christ continues to be manifested in this land where Christian communities have thrived for millennia.


1 The term “Middle East” may have originated in the middle of the nineteenth century in the British India Office; it became more widely known when American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan used the term. See Peter Beaumont, Gerald H. Blake, J. Malcolm Wagstaff, The Middle East: A Geographical Study (David Fulton Publishers, 1988) 16; and Clayton R. Koppes, “Captain Mahan, General Gordon and the Origins of the Term “Middle East.” Middle Eastern Studies 12:1 (1976) 95-98.

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