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.
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- What’s Happening to Christians in the Middle East? The Philos Project
- The Humanitarian Crisis and Genocide in the Middle EastClarion Project
- Migration of Palestinian Christians PSR and The Philos Project
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Joanna Plucinska, Maayan Lubell | Reuters