Eastern Christian communities
Indigenous Christian communities in the Near East have significantly influenced political, economic, cultural, and ideological developments in the region throughout history, but have also endured persecution, displacement, and destruction for the last two centuries and today are on the verge of extinction in certain areas.
Christianity spread rapidly from Jerusalem to places like Antioch, Rome, and Alexandria. For the first three centuries, Christians were a persecuted minority. But with the conversion of Constantine in 313, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and by the seventh century, the majority of the population of the Near East was Christian. After the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, however, Christianity slowly declined due primarly to persecution and conversion to Islam. In the twentieth century, Christians composed approximately 20% of the Near East. And today, after undergoing a combination of mass emigration, persecution, genocide and more, Christians now make up only 3-4% of the region, mainly concentrated in Egypt, the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Territories), and Iraq.
Eastern Christian communities are not a monolith and are considerably diverse depending on their culture, theology and historical roots. Here is a list of the ten biggest churches in the Near East:
1. Roman Catholic: Roman or Latin Catholics make up nearly 3 million in number throughout the Near East, and are one of the largest Catholic groups of the Christian faith there.
2. Maronite Catholic Church: The church is the largest of the Eastern Catholic faith in the region. It has a membership of more than 3 million and has a strong presence in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Israel.
3. Melkite Catholic Church: The church is second only to the Maronite church for the Eastern Catholic faithful in the Near East. Its membership is spread throughout the region but the majority live in Lebanon.
4. Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch: The church is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the Near East with a membership of more than 1 million people. The faithful are based in Syria, Lebanon, the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, and Iran.
5. The Coptic Orthodox Church is based in Egypt and is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox churches with a membership of more than 6 million. It is mainly an Egyptian church, but has branches in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula.
6. The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch: The church is based in Syria with adherents in Lebanon and other Near East countries. The membership of the church is just nearly 2 million people.
7. The Armenian Apostolic Church-Catholicosate of Cilica: The church is based in Lebanon with churches in Syria, the Gulf States, and Iran. The current membership of the church is estimated to be 650,000.
8. The Chaldean Catholic Church of Babylon: The church has a membership of more than 350,000 and is based in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.
9. The Evangelical Synod of the Nile: The church is based in Egypt and is one of the largest Evangelical Christian movements in the Near East with a membership of more than 250,000 people.
10. The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem: Based in the Palestinian Territories, the church has a combined membership of more than 400,000. The church is also strong in Jordan and Israel.
Eastern Christians played an important political and cultural role in the Near East throughout history, serving as prominent leaders in the late nineteenth-century Arab Renaissance (Al-Nahda), supporting democratic and liberal ideas, and inspiring intellectual debate. Although a minority today, Eastern Christian communities continue to make significant contributions to their respective ancestral homelands, and their continuing presence in the region promotes a culture of pluralism.
But anti-Christian persecution, declining birthrates, widespread regional instability and conflict, and mass emigration of Christians across the Near East has had a significant impact on their overall presence in the region. Since the middle of the twentieth century, approximately three million Near Eastern Christians have emigrated to Europe, the Americas, and Australia. In certain areas, such as in Iraq, indigenous Christian communities are now facing the threat of extinction due not only to emigration but also due to genocide at the hands of ISIS.
Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, is a Near Eastern religion and Eastern Christian communities have had a continual presence in the region for nearly 2,000 years. Being indigenous to the land, many modern Eastern Christians today can easily trace their roots to some of the most ancient Christian communities.
Many Western Christians easily forget the Near Eastern roots of their faith. But Western Christians owe a great deal to our brethren in the Near East, who paved the way for the spread of Jesus’ teachings and ideas; much of what laid the foundation for the Judeo-Christian principles that significantly influenced Western civilization.
The current threat to Eastern Christian communities is an attack on the most fundamental principle of human civilization: that people of different convictions can peacefully build a society together. That’s why the fate of persecuted Eastern Christian communities is an urgent issue for us all.
The Philos Project supports a number of innovative projects that aim at advancing justice on the ground for local communities, including Eastern Christians. Philos affirms the right of all Christians to live and flourish as indigenous citizens of the Near East. Given the long history of discrimination and persecution, Near Eastern Christians deserve unique protections – even affirmative action – in order to preserve their language, culture, and religious practices. All Near Eastern states should embrace Christians as equal members of society, not second-class citizens. Furthermore, Western states and non-state actors should steward their resources and influence in a way that advances the best interests of Eastern Christians in their ancient homelands.
Further Resources on Eastern Christian Communities
Habib Malik discusses the threat of Islamism on local Christian populations in the Near East in his piece entitled: “The Future of Christians in the Near East.”
In Samuel Tardos’ “The Near Eastern Christian Dilemma,” he outlines a brief history of Christians in the Near East, details their falling numbers, and presents options for their survival in the region.
In They Say We Are Infidels, journalist Mindy Belz writes of her encounters with Near East Christians in war-torn Iraq and Syria and brings to light their testimonies of horror and faith.
In Philip Jenkins’ book, The Lost History of Christianity, he retells a concise history of Christianity in the Near East.
- The Humanitarian Crisis and Genocide in the Middle East Clarion Project
- Egypt’s Persecuted Christians Matthew Schmitz | First Things
- Middle Eastern Christians; Second Class Citizens Samuel Tadros | Hoover Institution
- Eastern Christian Communities Near Extinction Walter Russell Mead | Wall Street Journal
- As Christians Disappear from Middle East, So Does Pluralism Emma Green | The Atlantic
- Turkey’s Genocide of Its Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi | Wall Street Journal
- Democracy Won’t End Christian Persecution in Middle East Maged Atiya | Providence Magazine
- Authoritarianism Won’t End Christian Persecution in the Middle East Shadi Hamid | Providence Magazine
- Iraqi Christians Nineveh Plain The Atlantic | Emma Green
- Islamism and the Future of Christians in the Middle East Habib Malik | Hoover Institution
- The Destruction of the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians of Asia Minor Middle East Studies
- Christianity in Persia West Meets East
- The School of Nisibis Catholic Under the Hood
- The Arab Christian Kenneth Cragg
- Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East Habib C. Malik
- The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-and How It Died Philip Jenkins
- They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East Mindy Belz
- The Orthodox Church Timothy Ware
- The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs Martin Mosebach
- The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924 Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi
Joanna Plucinska, Maayan Lubell | Reuters