About 15 million Christians, among the native and immigrant faithful, are estimated to live in the Middle East today. In some countries, they are in sharp decline (Iraq and Syria), if not on the verge of disappearing – in others they face growing difficulties, while they are increasing in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, mainly due to the arrival of Asian and European workers.
The origins of the division
A characteristic element of the Christian presence in the region is undoubtedly its extreme fragmentation. In late antiquity, the Near East – at the time part of the Roman Empire – represented the center of the Christian world: next to Rome, the Sees of Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (now Antakya in the Hatay Province in Turkey) and Constantinople (Istanbul, founded in 330 AD) stood out for their importance. It is indeed in the East that the first two ecumenical councils were held, respectively in Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), clarifying the Trinitarian doctrine, as opposed to the Arian heresy, and formulating the Nicene-Constantinopolitan symbol, i.e. the Creed that is recited during Sunday Mass to this day.
The unity broke with the Christological controversies of the fifth century. The issue of the relationship between the divine and the human dimension in Jesus Christ was at the heart of the debate. How could the two be united? In perspective, this question stimulated a fruitful reflection that led to the emergence of the modern concept of person, unknown to the ancient world. However, at the time various dogmatic formulations, traceable to three “families”, started to compete against each other.
[Constantine and the Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea (325)]
Today, these formulations can be seen as subsequent approximations, not in contradiction with each other, though not identical nor perfectly superimposable. At the time though what prevailed were aversions and personal ambitions, and above all political calculations. On one hand, the Church of Latin and especially of Greek language was deeply affected by the imperial protection; on the other, and precisely for this reason, the Church of Persia was interested in marking its difference from Constantinople, so as to avoid being considered a fifth “Roman” column at the heart of the Persian Empire. Finally, many people in the Near East such as Copts, Armenians and Syriacs were recovering – precisely as an effect of Christianity – their identity after centuries of Hellenistic cultural and political dominance.
In many cases, the theological difference thus became a way to demand greater autonomy from Constantinople. The ongoing struggle was certainly one of the causes that, in the seventh century, favored the Arab conquests and the Eastern Roman Empire’s collapse.
1. The Eastern-Syriac (“Nestorian”) line
The crisis broke out suddenly in 428, when the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, refused to recognize the title of Theotókos (“God-bearer”) to Mary, stating that the Virgin could only be declared “mother of Christ”. In this way, Nestorius was drawing a sharp distinction between human and divine nature in Christ.
Following the initiative of Cyril of Alexandria, Patriarch of the Egyptian See, an ecumenical council was summoned in 431 in Ephesus, where the legitimacy of the title Theótokos was re-affirmed and Nestorius was condemned1. However, the council left behind a series of controversies due to its unilateral management by Cyril. The Syriac-speaking Church of Persia had adopted the theology of the school of Antioch, from which Nestorius also hailed, and for contingent reasons it could not participate to the Council of Ephesus. About fifty years later, during the 486 Seleucia synod, this Church officially adopted the Nestorian formula, albeit not without conflict and opposition down to the seventh century.
Organized around a catholicós, this “Nestorian” Church, experienced a great missionary spread in the Middle Ages, reaching as far as China. However, after the invasion of the Mongols of Timur (fourteenth century), it suffered severe persecution and retired in Upper Mesopotamia (Mosul in particular) and eastern Turkey, establishing a hereditary Patriarchate, from uncle to nephew. In 1553, a part of this Church entered into communion with Rome, but communication difficulties and persecutions did not allow such union to be preserved. It was only in the nineteenth century that a stable Chaldean Church2 united with Rome was established; its patriarch resided at first in Mosul and, from 1947, in Baghdad.
Today most Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Church. On its side, there exists a “sister” church, not united with Rome, which in 1964 split into two further realities: the Assyrian Church of the East, whose patriarch now resides in Chicago, and the Ancient Church of the East, with its headquarters in Baghdad. In 1994, John Paul II and Dinkha IV, Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, signed a joint declaration which put an end to the Christological controversy. In 2015, in the context of the genocide perpetrated by ISIS in northern Iraq, the Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako proposed to re-unify the three Churches of Eastern Syriac tradition into one single Church of the East, united with Rome. To add force to his proposal, he stated he would be ready to renounce his office for the sake of unity.
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, widespread in the state of Kerala, India, and united with Rome, also belongs to this Eastern-Syriac family.
2. The miaphysite (“Jacobite”) line
The Council of Ephesus in 431 did not solve the Christological question. While Nestorius had exceeded in distinguishing between human and divine nature, the balance was now turning the other way. In particular, the monk Eutyches, very influential at the court of Theodosius II, Emperor of the East, argued that in Christ the divine nature was annulling the human one, teaching monophysitism (“one single nature”). The doctrine was condemned by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Flavian, in a local synod in 448. However, the following year (449), the Patriarch of Alessandria Dioscorus, who supported Eutyches, managed to summon a council in Ephesus where monophysitism was imposed forcefully. Flavian could not read the letter that Pope Leo had sent to him, confirming the condemnation of monophysitism; he was deposed and died shortly after, from the blows he had received.
In response to this scandal, Pope Leo annulled the council, branding it as the “Robber Council (Latrocinium) of Ephesus”. Two years later (451) Leo, taking advantage of the death of Emperor Theodosius II and Marcian’s ascent to the throne, managed to convene a new council in Chalcedon (today Kadıköy, a suburb of Istanbul), though he could not attend personally since he was held in Italy by the threat of Attila’s Huns. On that occasion, and under the pressure of papal legates, Eutyches and Dioscorus were condemned, Flavian’s memory was restored, and the letter that Leo had addressed to Flavian was officially adopted by the Council, since “it is in harmony with the confession of the great Peter, and it is for us a common column”. Consequently, the Council taught to confess in the one Christ “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”. In the words of a great contemporary theologian, “God and man are now one, ‘undivided and unconfused’ [...]. It is biblical Christology, conceived in the terminology of Greek philosophy under the inspiration of a Roman pope”4.
The Chalcedonian formula, however, was not accepted in Egypt, where most of the local Church, mainly of monastic obedience, preferred to stick to Cyril’s expression, “one incarnate nature of God the Word”. This formula is called miaphysite (“one nature”) and should not be confused with the monophysite position taken by Euthyches and his followers, since the term “nature” in Cyril does not have the same meaning as it does in the expression used in Chalcedon. This fact, which was already noticed by some Church Fathers such as John of Damascus, led in 1973 to the signing of a joint declaration between Paul VI and Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Church.
The document, while acknowledging the existence of theological differences, recognizes the substantial compatibility of the two formulas5. Significantly, this text was mentioned again in the joint declaration issued on 28 April 2017, during the visit of Pope Francis to Egypt. In this new declaration, Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros, the successor of Shenouda III at the head of the Coptic Church, also state that they “will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other […] in obedience to the Holy Scriptures and the faith of the three Ecumenical Councils assembled in Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus” (n. 11)6.
In practice, however, things went differently and the spirit of division prevailed. In Egypt and shortly after in Syria, two parallel and competing hierarchies were established, one accepting the Council of Chalcedon and the other refusing it. In Syria, a decisive role was played in the sixth century by bishop Jacob Baradaeus (hence the title of “Jacobites” attributed to the miaphysite Church). Later on, also the Armenian Church, which had been unable to send its delegates to Chalcedon because of the Persian invasion, adopted the miaphysite position (sixth century).
The Churches that descend from the non-Chalcedonian line today are: the Coptic Orthodox Church7 (Patriarchate of Alexandria, now transferred to Cairo), which is the largest among the Middle Eastern Christian communities, the Syriac Orthodox Church (Patriarchate of Antioch, now transferred to Ma‘arrat Saydnaya, not far from Damascus) which is widespread mainly in Syria and northern Iraq as well as in the Tur ‘Abdin region in Turkey, and the Armenian Apostolic Church, which was then organized into two catholicói (the main one of Etchmiadzin in Armenia, and the other of Cilicia – now moved to Lebanon)8. Since ancient times, the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose Patriarch holds the title of Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, directed its missionary activity along the route of the Nile Valley, particularly in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where today two autocephalous (“independent”) Churches of Coptic tradition, and therefore miaphysite, are located. Since 1665, the Syriac Orthodox Church has developed close ties with Kerala (India), where the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church is in communion with the Patriarchate of Antioch9.
Altogether, these churches are called “Oriental Orthodox”, to distinguish them from the Orthodox Churches of Byzantine tradition (Greek, Russian, Georgian, Bulgarian, etc.). With the Catholic Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the Latin missionaries who were sent to the Middle East sought to unite with Rome each of these Churches. Such unifications, however, were only partial and gave birth to five Catholic Churches of Eastern rite: the Coptic Catholic Church (1895, but the core dates back to 1741, with its Patriarchal See in Cairo), the Syriac Catholic Church (1783, with its Patriarchal See in Beirut, Lebanon), the Armenian Catholic Church (1742, with its Patriarchal See in Bzommar, Lebanon), the Ethiopian Catholic Church (1961, but its start is to be dated in the nineteenth century)10, and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in India (1932). Each shares the liturgy with its Eastern Orthodox “sister”, but recognizes the authority of the Pope and the Ecumenical Councils.
3. The Chalcedonian (“Melkite”) line
The patriarchates of Constantinople and Rome joined unreservedly the Council of Chalcedon. Their followers were polemically called “Melkite”, i.e. king’s men, by their opponents, because they were adopting the emperor's official line, a line that at any rate experienced several fluctuations during the fifth and sixth centuries11.
As mentioned, not the whole church of Egypt and Syria had adopted the miaphysite position. This produced the first duplication of the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch into a Chalcedonian See, generally of the Greek language, and a miaphysite one, of Coptic or Syriac language. In addition, also a part of the Church of Antioch of Syriac language and monastic orientation embraced the Chalcedonian orthodoxy: here lies the origin of the Maronite Church, which is now centered in Lebanon and whose name is said to derive from Maron, a monk and ascetic who died around 410 in northern Syria.
From 626 onwards, Emperor Heraclius, who was trying to regain Syria and Egypt from the Persians, started to suggest a unifying formula, in an attempt to heal the division between “Jacobites” and “Melkites”. This formula stated the existence in Christ of two natures, but of only one energy or will: such is the doctrine of monothelitism. After the ambiguous stance taken by Pope Honorius (625-638) who, not understanding the problem at stake, underplayed the issue as a purely terminological one, monothelitism met with the decisive opposition of Maximus the Confessor (580-662). Paying with his own life for opposing the imperial diktat, Maximus “succeeded in tearing the whole organism of the Greek Christian tradition away from the destructive claws of political integralism”12. This dark period, when for decades the Roman See remained alone to defend the Chalcedonian orthodoxy, ended with the condemnation of monothelitism at the third Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (680-681).
The Maronite Church, loyal to the emperor and to Chalcedon, had adopted the monothelite position that under Heraclius appeared in the East as the orthodox line, but it could not participate in the subsequent debates as it was immediately isolated because of the Arab invasion in 634 and the endemic state of war between Arabs and Byzantines that lasted uninterrupted for more than a century. Only later did it find that monothelitism had been condemned13.
Again due to the Arab conquests, the “Melkite” Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria, all of Greek language, remained isolated from the Byzantine Empire and rapidly adopted Arabic as their liturgical language and for their theological production, while the other Churches under Islamic domain preserved their native language (Syriac or Coptic) for a few more centuries. This trait of Arabness is still noticeable nowadays in the “Melkite” Church.
In 1054, within a context of growing tension between Greek and Latin Christianity, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope excommunicated each other. This episode, known as “East-West Schism”, is at the origin of the division of the Chalcedon line into two great branches: the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. Despite some attempts of reconciliation, such as the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1439), the separation was not healed and the excommunication was lifted only in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.
The Crusades began shortly after the Great Schism. Among their many effects, they also strengthened the relationship between Latin Christianity and the Maronite Church, which in the meantime had moved its Patriarchate to Mount Lebanon. Later on, in 1580, a Synod took place in Qannūbīn, where the decisions of the Council of Trent were accepted. This fact, as well as the opening of the Maronite College in Rome, inaugurated a period of intense spiritual and cultural renewal, which paved the way for the Arab Renaissance (Al-Nahda) in the Levant14. For example, it was the Maronites and the Melkites who introduced the art of printing in the Arab world15. In the Maronite Synod of Rayfūn (1736), a further reform of the governance of the dioceses was implemented, and starting in 1823 the Patriarch has been based in Bkerke.
Still in the Levant, the “Melkite” Patriarchate of Antioch, which in the meanwhile had moved its actual See to Damascus, fluctuated between Rome and Constantinople. Within the scenario of the Catholic reform, European missionaries were working for a full union with Rome, which was about to be realized in 1724 with the election of Cyril VI Tanas as Patriarch of Antioch, but ultimately ended with a partial failure. The result was a further duplication of the “Melkite” Patriarchate of Antioch into two branches, commonly known as Greek-Catholic and Greek-orthodox, although the terms are completely inappropriate from a linguistic point of view, since both churches are actually Byzantine churches of Arabic language16.
As a result, the Patriarchate of Antioch is now divided in five churches: three Chalcedonians (Greek-Catholic, Greek-Orthodox, Maronite) and two originally non-Chalcedonians (Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox). This is a particularly painful division since it was this city in which “the disciples were called Christians first” (Acts 11,26)17.
Another effect of the Crusades was the establishment of a Latin presence in the East. Although figures such as the Dominican André de Longjumeau, Innocent IV’s legate in the East, had suggested not to duplicate the local hierarchy, the Crusaders instituted their dioceses with a Latin clergy. After the end of the Crusader kingdoms, this hierarchy was swept away, but the presence of Western Christianity was continued in a different style by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and other religious orders, especially Dominicans, Carmelites and later Jesuits.
In modern times, some Latin rite dioceses have been established in the Middle East, generally in the form of Apostolic vicariates (i.e. a “direct representatives of the Pope”), to avoid the overlap with local hierarchies. Today, the two most important Latin dioceses in the Middle East, in terms of the number of faithful, are undoubtedly the Apostolic vicariate of Northern and Southern Arabia; in the Holy Land the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was established in 1847: it extends its jurisdiction on Israel and Palestine, but also Jordan – where the majority of the faithful live – and Cyprus.
After the Protestant Reformation, also Anglicans and Lutherans instituted their own hierarchy in the Middle East18. In the nineteenth century, Protestant denominations started an intense missionary activity, having its cornerstone in the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut (now the American University of Beirut). Some Eastern intellectuals (especially Maronites) adhered to Protestantism; extremely important was the partnership between Cornelius Van Dyck (1818-1895) and Butrus al-Bustānī (1819-1883), which led to the first modern translation of the Bible into Arabic, an essential step for the creation of a contemporary literary language.
While mainline Protestant denominations have lost much of their dynamism by now, numerous evangelical communities are significantly growing in the Middle East and North Africa.
We can summarize this intricate story looking at the current situation of the Catholic Church in the Middle East (thus excluding Ethiopia and India). In this region of the world, Catholics are divided into seven rites, each organized around a Patriarch, who is appointed by the council of Bishops (synod) but is confirmed by the Pope. These rites – and their corresponding churches – are, following the order of presentation:
For historical reasons each of the rites, except the Maronite and Latin, has a “twin” Orthodox Church:
Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East;
Syriac Orthodox Church;
Coptic Orthodox Church;
Armenian Apostolic Church;
Greek Orthodox Church (articulated in the Middle East in four Patriarchates: Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria).
To these churches, we must add the communities born out of the reform: Lutherans, Anglicans and, lately, various Pentecostal denominations.
Lastly, it is important to point out that each of these historic churches, both Catholic and non-Catholic, has developed a large diaspora, particularly in Europe, the Americas and Australia, which has organized itself into dioceses. This is the case of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Milan, for instance.
At the apex of the Christological controversies, the three churches fought harshly each other, labeling the adversaries with insulting titles (Melkites, Nestorians, Jacobites)19. According to several researchers, including the great scholar Joseph Van Ess20, the very birth of Islam could be partly explained by the perception that Eastern Christianity, having divided into three churches, had found itself in a “dead end”.
Today, after almost a century of ecumenism, the Churches of the Middle East have reached a more shared memory of these events, the exact contents of which are beyond the understanding of most of the faithful. Certainly, from the scholar’s point of view, the ecclesial presence in the East is characterized by an extraordinary richness in terms of theology, liturgy and spirituality, as an expression of the inculturation of the Christian faith in the traditions of the various people of the ancient Near East. In its highest expressions, it embodies the ideal of unity within diversity, an ideal that has been able to survive hard times of persecution (one can just think of the massacres of the Maronites in 1860 in Lebanon and Syria, of the recurrent attacks on the Copts or the Armenian and Syriac genocide during the first World War).
And yet, it must be recognized that such wealth has now become a burden that threatens the very survival of these communities. “In the East, either we will be united Christians or we will not be” had written the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs in their first pastoral letter in 1991. In light of the developments of recent years, it is perhaps appropriate to ask whether the second tragic alternative has not gotten dangerously close. Yet, the latest persecutions led to a renewed experience of what Pope Francis has called on several occasions “ecumenism of blood”. It is permissible to hope that this development will lead to a re-reading of a history that, to be sure, is made of divisions, but also and foremost of the desire to remain faithful to the Gospel in an often-hostile context.
Martino Diez writes for Oasis, from which is article is adapted.
“The Cross and the Black Flag”, Oasis n. 22 (2015)
Samir Khalil Samir, Rôle culturel des chrétiens dans le monde arabe, CEDRAC, Beyrouth, 2003
Sidney Griffith, The Church on the shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2007
Alexander Treiger and Samuel Noble (ed.), The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources, Norther Illinois University Press, DeKalb (Illinois) 2014.
1 The Basilica of Saint Mary Major, in Rome, was built to celebrate the Council’s outcome.
2 The Chaldeans were in the Antiquity the inhabitants of Lower Mesopotamia. In 1445 this term was chosen to name the “Nestorian” faithful living in Cyprus who had accepted the union with Rome. This union, however, only lasted for few decades.
3 The Coast of Malabar is the Western Littoral of India stretching from Goa to Cape Comorin.
4 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, Communio Books, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2003, p. 46. In the text of Chalcedon, the Roman See is explicitly referred to as guarantor of orthodoxy.
5 A second declaration was signed by John Paul II and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas in 1984. Other declarations were signed with the Malankara Syriac Church (1990) and the Armenian Church (1996).
6 Full text available here. It is hoped that this declaration, which has stirred controversy in the most traditional sectors of the Coptic Orthodox Church, will hail the painful issue of “re-baptism”, a practice introduced under Shenouda and which is unheard of in the Church tradition.
7 “Copt” derives etymologically from the Greek term Aigyptios (“Egyptian”).
8 The Armenian Church also has a Patriarchate in Constantinople (founded in 1461) and one in Jerusalem (founded in 638) which have had great relevance at times in the past, but now only have a small number of faithful. The two patriarchates are autonomous, though they do recognize the role of Etchmiadzin on ecclesial matters of general interest.
9 There is also an autocephalous branch, known as the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The history of the “Christians of Saint Thomas” in India is particularly complex and falls outside of the present article.
10 In 2015, Pope Francis erected the Eritrean Catholic Church as a sui iuris Church, detaching it from the Ethiopian Catholic Church.
11 The history of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553, strongly backed by Justinian, and of the retroactive condemnation of the leading exponents of the Antiochene school of theology is particularly intricate. The condemnation did not have the effect, as Justinian hoped, to gather Chalcedonian and Miaphysites against a tailor-made “Nestorian” opponent, but rather it caused a further division in the Western Church. Milan and Aquileia, indeed, refused to accept Justinian’s decision, which instead was ratified with an ambiguous formula by Pope Vigilius. The result was a schism (called “schism of the Three Chapters”) that lasted in Italy until 698. Among its effects, the division of the Patriarchate of Aquileia into two branches (hence the patriarchal title given to Grado and then Venice) and the special bond between Como and Aquileia. It is still Justinian who imposed by law the pentarchy model, centered on five main patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. This model has structured the Orthodox Churches’ ecclesiology until today, while the Catholic Church has accepted it only partially, considering it a contingent historical expression, to be harmonized with the pre-eminence of the Roman seat, not only as in honorary terms.
12 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, p. 37.
13 Here is the origin of the intricate issue, that we cannot delve into now, of the “perennial orthodoxy” of the Maronite Church.
14 Cf. Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, Oxford University Press, Oxford 19832, ch. 3., in particular p. 55-64.
15 The Maronites introduced the first printing house in the Arab world at the monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in Northern Lebanon, but it used Syriac characters. The first printing house with Arab characters in the Ottoman Empire – thus without taking into account the works already printed in Europe, in particular in Rome and Leiden – opened in Aleppo in 1706, following the initiative of Melkite Patriarch Athanasius IV Dabbas.
16 There is a sort of asymmetry in the structure of the two Melkite churches. While the Melkite Catholic Patriarch unites in his office the three “Arab” sees – Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria –, the Orthodox Church maintained the division in the three historic Sees. Among them, Antioch has the greatest number of faithful and is the only one with an entirely Arab hierarchy, while Jerusalem and Alexandria have their patriarchs sent from Greece. In this moment, the Orthodox Patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch are divided on an issue of jurisdiction concerning the Orthodox community in Qatar.
17 About the other historic patriarchates: in Constantinople resides an Armenian Patriarch (with jurisdiction on his “nation”), besides the ecumenical Patriarch. In Jerusalem reside an Orthodox, an Armenian and a Latin Patriarch. In the seat of Alexandria reside an Orthodox, a Coptic Orthodox and a Coptic Catholic Patriarch.
18 By the way, the creation in 1841 of one episcopal See in Jerusalem, for Anglicans and Lutherans alike, caused Blessed John Newman to abandon his project of Anglican via media, centered on apostolic succession, and adhere to the Catholic Church.
19 Precisely for this reason, in this text we have always employed such terms in brackets, understanding them in historical and not theological terms.
20 Cf. the interview with Christian Meier, from the Goethe Institut, in November 2011 and published on Fikrun wa Fann.
[This article was translated from the original in Italian]