THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION(S) OF THE MIDDLE EAST
A question of Belief
THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION(S) OF THE MIDDLE EAST
Rev. Dr. Miltiades B. Efthimiou, Protopresbyter
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
The recent bombings of Christian Churches in Iraq prompts us to ask,
is there a Christian religion or even a Christian minority in Iraq
and even in the Middle East? The following study is an overview of
these Christian religions in this troubled area following a trip to
this area along with members of the National Council of Churches
several years ago.
In my capacity as Ecumenical Officer for both the Greek Orthodox
Archdiocese of North and South America and the Standing Conference of
Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), it was apparent
that western peoples must begin to understand the religious
complexities of the Middle East at a time when religious
confrontation and extremism become increasingly a mark of our times.
Christian, Muslim and Jewish peoples are confronting one another at
an alarming rate.
The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of Christians,
Moslems and Jews, as well as an overview of the Christian Churches of
the Middle East. This is a tentative undertaking, since momentous
changes on a daily basis, further complicate a critical understanding
by most Americans of the Middle East and its religious orientation,
because of their unfamiliarity with religions and cultures that are
not western or Christian. For example, sectarian identities have
often been subjected to the manipulation of clerical as well as
political leaders, all in the name of power and/or a Supreme Being.
And these leaders, (Jewish, Moslem Shiite, Moslem Sunni or Kurdish,)
are subject to their national identities. For Moslems,
though, "national identities are not fixed", said professor S.
Kransner of Stanford University. Indeed, it is rightfully suggested
that Shia, Iraqi, Arab Muslims, choose identities depending on
circumstances and which will benefit them in the long run. Jews are
in this mix. The Christians of the Middle East, a distinct minority,
are in this mix. (See the second part of this article for a thorough
discussion of the Christian churches of the Middle East.)
To understand the complexities of this issue, one needs to understand
the three non-Jewish main ethnic groups:
SUNNI MUSLIMS: This sect is comprised of about 85% of the worldʼs
Muslims.37% are Iraqi. They believe that the first four Caliphs,
(highest religious rulers), were the rightful successors to the
prophet Mohammed. Saddam Hussein is Sunni.
SHIITE MUSLIMS; They represent about 60% of the Iraqi population,
and, therefore, are the dominant religious sect of this region. They
reject the authority of the first three caliphs and claim that the
true leaders of Islam descend from Ali, the fourth caliph, son-in-law
KURDS; a non-Arabic people, they are the largest ethnic group in the
world without their own homeland. Kurds are concentrated to the north
of Iraq and to the south of Turkey. Kurds are made up of Sunnis and
Would an alliance of all Moslems help in the peace process in the
Middle East? It would depend, as professor Krasner suggests, not so
much on a sense of nationalism, but the ability to work out a power-
sharing arrangement which would be beneficial to everyone, including
For all concerned, efforts to bring all groups together in a serious
way, could reduce the spread of Middle East nationalism and tensions.
Understanding the religions of the Middle East will help speed the
I am indebted to the Middle East Council of Churches and to Fr.
Ronald G. Robersonʼs work The Eastern Christian Churches — A Brief
Survey (1993 edition). I would also recommend Dialogue With People of
Other Christian Faiths, prepared by the Division of Overseas
Ministries of the National Council of Churches of Christ, U.S.A. I
would also recommend the book, God is One, by R. Marston Speight,
THE CHRISTIANS OF THE MIDDLE EAST*
The churches of the Middle East can be grouped into 5 families
representing about 15 million Christians (approximately 9 million
residing in the Middle East). The largest is the family of Oriental
Orthodox Churches — the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, the Armenian
Apostolic Church living in various Arab countries in addition to the
Armenians of the Republic of Armenia; and the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Each is fully self-governing, though they are in communion with one
The second family of churches is the Byzantine Orthodox Churches.
They are often referred to as Eastern or Greek Orthodox. They
constitute three sell-governing churches, linked by doctrine, liturgy
and canon law with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul (formerly
Byzantium or Constantinople), and belong, therefore, to that wider
family of Orthodox churches in Russia, eastern Europe and elsewhere.
The third family comprises the Catholic churches of the Middle East.
These churches all accept the supreme ecclesiastical authority of the
Pope and the doctrine of the Catholic Church. But only a small
percentage of them are Roman, or Latin-Catholic. Most of them can be
grouped together as the Eastern-rite Catholic Churches — the
word "rite" denoting their forms of liturgy and canon law which
differ from the western Latin rite of the Roman Catholics. The
largest of these churches is the Maronite Church in Lebanon.
The fourth family is in terms of independent history, one of the
oldest and most self-contained in the Middle Eastern churches: the
Assyrian Church of the East. Sometimes identified by its historical
tradition as the Church of the "East Syrians" or the Church of
Persia. It exists in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The fifth family comprises the Anglican, Lutheran and Protestant
Churches, like the Eastern-rite Catholic Churches (possibly excepting
the Maronite Church), these churches came into being as a result of
western missionary activity in the Middle East. Whereas the Eastern-
rite Catholic Churches mostly go back several centuries, this family
of churches dates in the Middle East from as recently as the 19th
The Apostles and their churches
In the earliest years of Christian history churches were founded in
various parts of the Middle East and the Mediterranean world where
the Apostles travelled as missionaries of the Gospel. In the West we
attribute the foundation of the Church of Rome to St. Peter and St.
Paul, and in the New Testament we read the letters of St. Paul to
several of the early Christian communities with which he was linked
in Greece and western Turkey. We also read of the Church in
Jerusalem, led by St. James the brother of John, and the Church in
Antioch, in the north-western corner of Syria where St. Peter and St.
Paul are said to have created a community of Christians which soon
became one of the flourishing centers of Christianity. St. Thomas is
also associated by tradition with Antioch, though his missionary
travels took him eastward through Central Asia and India. So also St.
Bartholomew who travelled northward through eastern Turkey and
Armenia. Another important Christian center was at Alexandria in
Egypt where St. Mark is said to have preached among his kinsmen, the
Copts, from whose name we derive the words "Egypt" and "Egyptian".
Further south in Africa, St. Matthew is believed to have founded the
Church in Ethiopia.
While it may be difficult to verify all these traditions by
historical criteria, they have been and remain fundamental to the
self-understanding of the eastern churches throughout the ages. It is
for this reason that they speak of themselves as being
These 15 million Christians represent only a tiny minority of the
total population of the Middle East (about 10%), the great majority
of whom are Muslim. The churches vary from one another, historically,
doctrinally, and culturally, and this produces sometimes different
views of the Arab Muslim world in which they live. But the quality of
their living traditions is not to be measured in terms of their
numbers, nor is their significance to be belittled because of their
differences. In our ecumenical age of deepening fellowship between
all parts of the Christian Church, and of growing dialogue with
Muslims, these churches demand to be understood in their own terms,
no longer under the prejudicial stereotypes of "ancient",
or "schismatic", or "younger" (i.e. recently converted), or foreign".
THE FIVE "CHURCH" FAMILIES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
The following survey of the churches of the Middle East, groups them
into five ʽfamiliesʼ: Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic
and Protestant churches, and the Assyrian Church of the East.
The Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox
The greatest number of Christians in the Middle East Belong to the
churches of the Oriental Orthodox family. The largest of these is the
Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. The others are: The Armenian
Apostolic Church. seated in the Lebanese coastal town of Antilias,
north of Beirut, and the Syrian Orthodox Church, seated in Damascus.
Ethnically and culturally these three churches are in many ways
different, each being identified with its own people or nation. The
Armenian Church traces its origins to the missionary Apostles
Thadaeus and Bartholomew. It has since remained the central
institution of Armenian nationhood and nationalism.
The Copts trace their descent from the Pharaonic Egyptians. Their
conversion to Christianity began with the North African preaching of
St. Mark whom they recognize as the first Patriarch of Alexandria.
But it took three centuries of persecution before the Coptic Church
established itself in Egypt. The desert monasticism, following the
rules of St. Antony and St. Pachomeus, attracted many other
Christians to visit Egypt. Their missionary activity in Africa led to
the Christianization of much of Nubia, the Sudan and Ethiopia.
Weakened by the withdrawal eastwards of the Assyrian Church, the
remaining "Western Syrians" felt themselves abused by the Council of
Chalcedon and raffled to the anti-Chalcedonian teaching of the 6th
century Jacob (Yaqub) alBaradaʼi after whom the Syrian Orthodox
Church is sometimes labeled "Jacobite".
Notwithstanding such differences, however, these three Oriental
Orthodox Churches have in the early centuries struggled to uphold
their nationsʼ interests against the imperial presence of the
Byzantine and the Persian Empires. With the rise of the Islamic
Empire in the 7th century A.D. they fell under a new form of religio-
political power which, for the next five centuries, largely improved
their situation. The Muslims treated the Christians as a single
group, irrespective of the doctrinal differences between Assyrian,
Oriental and Byzantine Orthodox Churches, and looked to them to
provide the cadre of the "civil service" in the Islamic Caliphate.
This situation was imperiled, however, by the intrusion of the
western Christian Crusaders from the 11th to the 13th centuries, and
led to periodic persecution and social marginalization of all the
eastern Christians as the Mongol dynasties seized control of the
Caliphate. From the 14th to the early 20th centuries, therefore, the
eastern churches lived as "closed communities", isolated within
Islamic society and cut off from the church in the West.
The breach between these churches and the Byzantine family of
churches occurred in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, and thus they
accept the authority of only the first three ecumenical councils.
For many centuries the non-Chalcedonian churches lived more or less
in isolation from the rest of Christendom and, for political and
geographical reasons, even from one another. However, for the first
time since the 6th century they held a conference of the Heads of the
Oriental Orthodox Churches in Addis Ababa in 1965. Since then they
have drawn closer together in fellowship and joint planning. They are
presently in official negotiation with the "Chalcedonian" Eastern
Orthodox family of churches on Christology and "Chalcedonian" unity
and are active members of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the
Middle East Council of Churches (MECC).
The Armenian Apostolic Church
Catholicosate of Cilicia
The Armenian Apostolic Church, known also as Armenian Orthodox, has a
distinctive ethnical, cultural and historical background from the
churches referred to in this issue.
Diaspora has been a permanent aspect of Armenian history. Since the
dawn of their history, the Armenians, for one reason or another, have
emigrated. However, forced and massive emigration only began in the
10th century, with the successive occupation of Armenia by
Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Persians, Ottomans and Russians.
Deportation and migration continued in succeeding centuries. But none
of the mass deportations of earlier years equaled those that took
place in the period 1915-1922. Over one and a half million Armenians
were massacred in Turkey and the rest deported to the Syrian deserts.
At present they are about two million and can be found almost
anywhere on the globe, mostly in Middle Eastern countries, the USA
and Canada, South America, southern and western Europe and Australia.
The church in diaspora has three centers: 1. The Catholicosate of
Cilicia, reestablished and reorganized in Antelias, Lebanon in 1930.
With its diocesan administrative organization, theological seminary
and world-wide ecumenical relations, it is the de facto spiritual
centers of the Armenian diaspora. It also plays a significant role in
the cultural, social and political life of the nation. Its
jurisdiction now covers Lebanon, Syria (Aleppo, Qamishli), Cyprus,
Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Greece and half of the
Armenian communities in North America. 2. The Patriarchate of
Constantinople; and 3. the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, both of them
related to the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin, in the former Soviet
Republic of Armenia.
The Armenian Apostolic Church in Lebanon is a strong community of
150,000 members who are now fully integrated into the Lebanese
society. The school of theology at Bikfaya, founded in 1930, provides
new clergy and also furnishes priests to serve the diaspora
communities falling under its jurisdiction.
The Armenian Orthodox are the third largest Christian community in
Syria, after the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches. They
The Armenian Apostolic Church is the largest Christian community in
Iran. Armenians were established in Iran mainly in 1605 when Shah
Abbas forced hundreds of thousands of Armenians to leave their
homeland and migrate to Iran. Presently the church has three dioceses
with a total of 170,000 membersThe Armenian Church has 3,500 members
in Cyprus. Armenians have lived on the island since the 11th century.
The Armenian Apostolic Church in Kuwait and the Emirate has about
12,000 members. Large communities of Armenians live in Europe (in
France there are 350,000 members), in
the USA and Canada 600,000.
The Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin
Located in Armenia, the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin is the spiritual
center for the Armenians living there. It also has jurisdiction on
communities in the Middle East (Iraq and Egypt), France, USA, South
America and Australia.
The existence of two Catholicosates with the Armenian Church: the
Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin (Catholicosate of All Armenians in
former Soviet Armenia) and the Catholicosate of Cilicia, Antelias,
Lebanon is due to historical circumstances. The diocese of Baghdad,
Iraq, is related to the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin and counts
15,000 members. The diocese of Egypt is related also the
Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin and has 20,000 members.
The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople
The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople with its See at Istanbul,
Turkey, is dependent on the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin. The
faithful (80,000) are concentrated in Istanbul, where 35 of the
Patriarchateʼs parishes are located. The Patriarchate was recognized
in 1461 by the Ottoman authorities as the sole legal representative
of all Armenians in the Empire, including those within the
jurisdiction of the Silesian Catholic sate.
The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem
This church is the largest among the four oriental Orthodox churches
in Palestine: Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian. Armenian churches
existed in Jerusalem since the 5th century. Spiritually the
Patriarchate depends on the Catholic sate of Etchmiadzin. A very good
relationship exists with the Catholic sate of Cilicia. The
Patriarchate occupies the entire summit of Mt. Zion. It has 1,500
members. Between 1950 and 1973 almost 90% of the members emigrated.
The related church in Amman, Jordan, has 1,500 members.
The Coptic Orthodox Church
The Coptic Church is the largest Christian community in the Middle
East. It counts about 6,000,000 believers. It has some 45 dioceses in
Egypt, Africa, Middle East, Europe and the USA. 40 of these dioceses
are functioning in Egypt. There are Coptic churches in Kuwait,
Jordan, Jerusalem, Lebanon and Iraq. Jerusalem has an archdiocese
(established in the 9th century) with two congregations in Jaffa and
Nazareth. The churches in the other countries are related directly to
the Patriarchate. The diocese of the USA and Canada was founded in
the 1960ʼs. Twenty-four congregations in the USA and three in Canada
are formed mainly from Egyptian immigrants. Five parishes are found
in London, Paris, Vienna, Geneva and Frankfurt.
The Syrian Orthodox Church
This Church has its center in the Patriarchate of Antioch (at present
in Damascus, Syria) and counts about 160,000 believers. It is a
church which has contributed much to the blossoming of early
Christian literature and to the treasure of theological thinking,
spreading Christianity from the Byzantine Empire to the regions of
the Far East. An outstanding bishop was St. Jacob Baradaʼi (500-578)
(after whom the Syrian Orthodox were called "Jacobites"). He revived
the ritual life of the church in Syria, Egypt and Persia.
During the Mongol invasions of the 14th century, the church suffered
greatly. At the end of the 18th century its strength was further
reduced due to the establishment of a separate Uniate Syrian
Patriarchate (Syrian Catholics). At the turn of the present century
(1915-1920) the church was affected by Turko-Kurdish persecutions and
in the 1970ʼs by mass emigrations. The Seat of the Patriarchate,
after many moves over the centuries, was finally established in
Damascus, Syria, in 1954.
The Syrian Orthodox Catholic sate of the East was reestablished in
1964, after being vacant for centuries. Twelve dioceses are under its
jurisdiction. In the 1970ʼs a jurisdiction division occurred in the
church. One branch continues to recognize the spiritual supremacy of
the Patriarch of Antioch in Damascus and another branch installed its
independent Catholicose in Malabar.
There are now twelve dioceses related directly to the Patriarchate:
four in Syria, two in Iraq, two in Turkey, two in Lebanon, and one in
Jordan. Syrian Orthodox dioceses are found today in Europe (Holland
and Sweden), the USA and Canada, and two patriarchal vicariates in
Brazil and Argentina.
The Eastern (Byzantine) Orthodox Churches
The Eastern Orthodox Patriarchates of Constantinople (now Istanbul),
Alexandria, Antioch (now centered in Damascus) and Jerusalem belong
to the Byzantine tradition of Orthodoxy which also includes eleven
other autocephalous or self-governing churches: Russia, Romania,
Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Poland,
Albania and Sinai.
To distinguish them from the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Eastern
Orthodox are also called Byzantine Orthodox, by reference to their
use of the Byzantine-rite liturgy of St. John Chrysostom; or
Chalcedonian Orthodox, be reference to the Ecumenical Council of
Chalcedon in 451 which condemned ʽmonophysitism".
Others sometimes still describe them as Melkite-Orthodox, a reference
to their political allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor ("melik" -
king) until the fall of Constantinople to Muslim conquest in 1453,
and their subordination to the authority of the Patriarch in
Constantinople during the Ottoman period. Another term, Greek
Orthodox, tends to be rather misleading as it wrongly suggests them
to be part of the Church of Greece, and draws attention away from the
fact that, in the Middle East, the great majority are Arab or
Eastern Orthodox Churches in the Middle East, as elsewhere, are
different from the Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox in two
important respects. First of all, the Eastern Orthodox recognize the
authority of seven ecumenical councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople
(381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553),
Constantinople III (680), and Nicea II (787). The term ecumenical in
its root meaning is "the inhabited world". As used with reference to
those councils, it means the Christian world of the fourth to the
eighth centuries. Secondly, Eastern Orthodox Churches recognize the
Patriarch of Constantinople as Ecumenical Patriarch. This is largely
an honorary primacy of "first among equals" and quite different from
the Roman Catholic concept of papal authority, because each of the
churches in this group is entirely self-governing (autocephalous).
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
The history of Constantinople as a Patriarchate begins in 300, when
the Emperor Constantine I decided to move the seat of government from
Italy to the eastern region of his empire and chose this small town
of Byzantium along the Bosporus.
The Ecumenical Councils of Constantinople (381) conferred upon the
bishop of the city the second rank after the bishop of Rome. The
Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) gave a definite shape to the
organization of the Church of Constantinople. From 520 onwards the
head of the church became known as the ecumenical patriarch.
The patriarchate holds jurisdiction over the faithful in Europe
(Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Belgium,
Switzerland, the autonomous Church of Finland, and the Russian
Exarchy of Western Europe) and the Archbishoprics of Australia and
New Zealand. The Archbishop of the Americas (New York) governs the
Greek Orthodox Church of North and South America, also under the
jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch.
The ecumenical patriarchate was among the first to participate in the
formation and development of modern ecumenical movement and has been
involved in the WCC from its beginning. It has had a permanent
representative at the headquarters of the WCC in Geneva since 1955.
The patriarchate is currently involved in preparation for the Holy
and Great Synod of the Orthodox churches.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa
The Patriarchate counts about 10,000 believers of Greek and Syro-
Lebanese extraction divided into 4 dioceses in Egypt (Alexandria,
Tanta, Cairo and Port Said), one in Sudan (Nubia), one in Ethiopia
(Axum) and one for cities in North Africa (including Libya-Tunisia,
Algeria and Morocco). The Patriarchate has received new impetus from
the establishment of new congregations in East and Central Africa,
which was principally brought about by the influx of black African
bishops of East Africa. Important dioceses (called
also "Archbishopric of the Mission of the Patriarchate") have been
organized in Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa with 40,000
members. Harare, Zimbabwe 10,000 members, Kinshasa, Zaire 20,000
members, Nairobi, Kenya 40,000 members.
The second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (381) ranked the
Patriarchate of Alexandria immediately after that of Constantinople.
After the Council of Chalcedon (451) there was a division, and part
of the church joined the "Cop-tic Orthodox". The Church is governed
by the Patriarch in conjunction with the Synod. It recognized the
right of its members to worship in their own language, so liturgy is
celebrated in Greek in Greek churches and in Arabic in Egyptian
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem
The 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) granted this church the
status of "independent church" and ranked it fourth after
Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. It became known as the
Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It has jurisdiction over Palestine and
Jordan and counts some 250,000 Arab believers. Church services are
held in Arabic and partly in Greek.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and
All the East
The Patriarchate saw its birth in the town in which the believers
were called, for the first time, "Christians". At the end of the 6th
century, Antioch witnessed wars and political changes which continued
til 638 A.D. when it was conquered and the See of Constantinople
administered the church until the 15th century. In the 16th century,
the See was transferred to Damascus. The church was affected by
divisions occurring in the 18th century, when the Greek Catholic-
Melkite Church was founded in Mount Lebanon, In the late 19th century
and beginning of our century, reforms were introduced in the church
and with the successive patriarchs the renaissance of the church has
continued to our days.
For liturgy and prayers, the Antiochian church uses the language of
the land: Arabic. It counts the largest number of believers rooted in
the Arabic population of the region. While it does not fully overlap
with the Arab nation in its entirety, the Orthodox Church of this
Patriarchate nevertheless is markedly Arab.
Today it counts about 1,300,000 Orthodox in the Middle East. Syria
has six organized dioceses (Damascus, Aleppo, Horns, Hama, Latakia,
Houran) with a total of 800,000 faithful. Lebanon also has six
dioceses (Beirut, Tripoli and Koura, Akkar, Zahle and Baalbeck, Tyre
and Sidon) with a total of about 400,000 members. The dioceses of
Iraq and Kuwait number 30,000 members. The Patriarchate extends to
the Arab-speaking Orthodox who live in the USA, Canada, Latin America
(Mexico, Chile, Brazil and Argentina), Australia and New Zealand with
about 1,000,000 members.
The Church of Cyprus
"Those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over
Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch" (Acts
11:19). That was in 37 A.D. In 45 A.D., Paul and Barnabas, bringing
Mark with them, landed at Salamis and crossed the island of Paphos
where they con-vetted the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus. Barnabas
later became the first Bishop of Cyprus.
The church grew rapidly, and Bishops from Salamis, Paphos and
Tremithus were present at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325). The Church
of Cyprus received autocephalous (sell-governing) status at the
Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) along with the Orthodox Patriarchates
of Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Jerusalem.
During the Byzantine era, the Church suffered occasionally as a
result of Arab raids. Then, during the period of the crusades, while
the island was under Frankish rulers, and later, under the Venetians,
the Orthodox archbishops were replaced by Latin clergy. In 1571,
Turkish rule began on the island and in 1572 the Turks expelled the
Latin hierarchy and reinstalled the Orthodox leadership in
recognition of their help in the war against Venice.
Approximately 80% or more of the Cypriot minority is Byzantine
Orthodox, and there is virtually no aspect of the islandʼs history
and society that have not been touched by the Church of Cyprus. For
centuries, it acted as a kind of department for social welfare,
ministry of justice and ministry of education.
Following the 1974 invasion of Cyprus by Turkey, nearly 200,000 Greek
Cypriots were forced to leave their homes in the occupied areas and
became refugees. Their fate constitutes a primary concern of the
church. Two of the bishoprics, Kyrenia and Morphou, as well as
Nicosia, seat of the Archbishop, are partially or wholly within the
The Church of Mount Sinai
The Emperor Justinian built the fortified monastery of St. Catherine
and the splendid basilica in 527. For the defense of the monks the
emperor sent two hundred Christian families from Romania and Egypt.
With the revival of Islam, they all converted to the new religion and
remained as vassals in the monastery compound coming to be known as
The monastery is famous with its library with more than 3,000
incunabula, 300 manuscripts in Greek and in other oriental languages,
Bibles, Gospels, sacred books and the picture gallery containing
precious icons of the 6th century.
(The conclusion in the Next (November) issue: The Catholic,
Evangelical and Apostolic Churches in the Middle East)
THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION(S) OF THE MIDDLE EAST (Continued from the
Rev. Dr. Miltiades B. Efthimiou, Protopresbyter
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
THE CATHOLIC CHURCHES
The Catholic Church of the semitic Orient is divided into seven
branches of different ethnic and cultural origins. About one half of
the believers of this Church live in the Middle East and the rest in
Most Westerners use the term "Catholics" and "Roman Catholics" as
synonymous, the first being no more than a quicker form of the
second. But this is an incorrect usage, and from the point of view of
Catholics in the Middle East it is misleading. "Catholic" is a
comprehensive term for all Christians who accept the spiritual
primacy of the Pope as the head of the Church. "Roman Catholic"
refers to those members of the Catholic Church who follow the "rite" —
that is, the form of liturgy and canon law — of the Patriarchal
Church of Rome. This is known as the Latin rite.
But the Latin rite is not the only rite of the Catholic Church, which
includes the Byzantine (or Melkite) rite, the Armenian rite, the
Syriac rite, and the Coptic rite. These are the eastern-Catholic
rites of that family ʽof Middle Eastern
churches which recognizes the sovereignty of the Pope and accept
The oldest and largest of the Catholic groups is the Maronite
Patriarchate which claims to have preserved its union with Rome since
the age of the ancient, undivided Church. Certainly there is no
Orthodox counterpart of the Maronites whereas the other five Eastern
Catholic Churches all broke away from the Assyrian or the Oriental
and Byzantine Orthodox Churches under the influence of Roman Catholic
missions of the Middle Ages. The earliest were the Chaldean Catholics
who broke away from the Assyrian Patriarchate in 1522, to establish
their own Catholic Patriarchate of Babylon in Baghdad. In 1622. the
Syrian Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch emerged, with its center
originally in Turkey, now in Beirut. Then, in 1724, a similiar break-
away took place within the Byzantine Orthodox Patriarchates of
Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria, resulting in the creation of the
Greek (or Melkite) Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East,
Alexandria and Jerusalem. Later in that century, in 1773, The
Armenian Catholic Patriarchate was created, with its center also in
Lebanon. Lastly came the creation of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate
in Alexandria in 1824. These churches are in communion with the
Church of Rome and are related to the Vatican through the Sacred
Congregation for the Oriental Churches. This is why sometimes they
are called uniate churches.
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate of Babylon
The Chaldeans have the distinction of being the first uniate church
established under its own patriarchate in 1552. In that year, part of
the Assyrian community refused to accept the election of Simeon VIII
Denha as Patriarch of the Church of the East. They sent a monk named
Youhannan Soulaka to Rome where he was consecrated Patriarch of
Today the Chaldeans number 242,000 mainly living in Iraq, where they
form the largest Christian community. They are organized in 10
dioceses in Iraq, Iran (15,000 members), Syria (7,000 members), and
smaller communities in Egypt and the Lebanon.
The Armenian Catholic Patriarchate of Cilicia
The Armenian Catholic Patriarchate was established officially in
1840. A substantial number of Armenians had been converted to the
Latin-rite church at the beginning of the 14th century through the
efforts of Armenian Dominican fathers known as Fratres Unitores.
During the Turkish massacres at the turn of our century, the church
suffered severe losses. The church was reorganized in 1928 through a
synod held in Rome. The seat of the Patriarchate (originally in
Constantinople) was placed in Beirut, Lebanon. It bears the name
Armenian Catholic Patriarchate of Cilicia and has 35,000 members in
the Middle East. The Patriarchs take the name of Peter. The recent
Patriarch is John-Peter XVIII Kasparian.
The Maronite Patriarchate of Antioch
Maronite history began at the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th
century. In 685 they elected a Patriarch of Antioch and by the
twelfth century united with Rome. Maronites are Eastern-rite
Catholics but not uniates in the same sense as the Melkite Chaldean,
Armenian and Syrian Catholic Churches whose reunion with Rome came
after centuries of alienation.
In the 9th century the Maronites sought refuge in the mountains of
Lebanon. The patriarchate moved to Bkerke in 1790 from the mountains
of Qannubin. Maronites living in Lebanon number today 1,200,000.
Those who have emigrated from the Middle East number as many as
6,500,000. There are 10 archdioceses and dioceses in the Middle East:
The Maronite liturgy is in Syriac and Arabic.
The Greek (Melkite) Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch
The word Melkite means "Kingʼs men". It was used from the latter part
of the 5th century onward to designate all Christians who have
accepted the theological definitions of the Council of Chalcedon
which had also become the official position of the rulers in both the
Roman and Byzantine empires.
It is now used primarily with reference to this one Eastern-rite
Catholic Church which separated from the Eastern Orthodox
Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem and was
established in union with Rome under its own patriarch in 1724. The
members are Arabic speaking and the liturgy is celebrated in Arabic.
The membership of the Greek Catholic Church is concentrated in the
Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.
The Syrian Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch
A part of the ancient Syrian Orthodox Church was reconstituted as an
Eastern-rite (uniate) Catholic church in 1662 through the influence
of Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries who had settled around Aleppo. In
1773, the presiding bishop of this faction was given the title of
Syrian Catholic Patriarch of Antioch. The Patriarchal See, located
for more than a century at Mardin, Turkey, was transferred to Beirut
in 1899. The Syrian Catholics have four dioceses in Syria and two in
Iraq. Patriarchal vicariates are in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and
Turkey. There is a widely scattered diaspora in the Americas and
Liturgy is celebrated in the Syriac (Aramaic) language with
increasing use of Arabic in certain parts of the service. Syriac is
still a spoken language, particularly in some solidly Christian
villages and towns of eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
The Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandra
There have been Catholic Copts since the 17th century but no
patriarchate was established for them until 1824. This Church now has
some 100,000 members, by far the largest Catholic community in
present-day Egypt and the only one which is growing significantly in
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem
A Latin Patriarchate was first created in Jerusalem at the end of the
11th century and re-established there in 1847 by the Apostolic
Letter "Nulla Celebrior" of Pope Pius IX. Numerous Roman Catholic
missionary orders have worked throughout the area, beginning with the
Franciscans in the 13th century. One response to this impact was the
emergence of Eastern-rite (Uniate) Churches. Even earlier than that,
however, was the establishment of Latin-rite dioceses which continue
into the present amidst the eastern churches.
The Assyrian Church of the East
A separate mention needs to be made concerning the Assyrian Church of
the East which remains outside all the other families of churches on
the alleged ground that it followed the teachings of the
The Assyrian Church is one of the oldest churches of the East. It has
been a missionary church as early as the first generation of
Christianity in Mesopotamia.
Its message went as far as India, China, Tibet and Mongolia. Its
presence linked the Mediterranean Sea to the West and India to the
East and due to its location East of the Roman Empire, it was
called "Eastern Church", besides having been known by many other
surnames, among which the Church of Fares (Persia).
The Assyrian Eastern Church was one of the first churches to be
established. It has given many a martyr of faith, as it gave many
thinkers and scientists who greatly contributed to Arab culture. The
more regrettable it is that the fate of these people today is one of
It was designated by the Arabs as the Nestorian Church, because it
was thought by some that the Assyrian Church was established by
Nestorius, who was the Patriarch of Constantinople in the 5th
century. In reality its See was in Salio, Katisphon (Al-Madaeʼn) or
Babel, at that time the Patriarch of this See being Mardad Yashu.
Thence, this church knew nothing about the theological argument that
was debated in the western part of the Roman Empire.
Already by the middle of the second century it was beginning to get
its independence from the Antiochian church. This independence
allowed its bishops the full power to consecrate patriarchs without
reference to Antioch.
The Eastern Church goes by the "Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed"
agreed upon in the First and Second Ecumenical Councils, calling for
one Church, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
The Eastern Church believes in the one God, the Holy Trinity, Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit and in Jesus Christ, totally God, and totally
Man, two natures and two hypostases in one person, and in the Virgin
birth of Christ, in one Baptism and in the Holy Spirit proceeding
from the Father.
Persecutions and Sufferings
Since its very inception, the Assyrian Church has never been able to
settle in one specific country. Because of persecution and massacres,
its believers were forced to emigrate every hundred years.
The Evangelical and Episcopal Churches in the Middle East
The complexity of the Middle East church history often seems beyond
comprehension to western Christians, and has often been beyond their
patience to understand. The summary given here is simplistic at many
points, but we hope it may serve to give a generally accurate
orientation, and that therefore it will shed some light upon the
enormity of the challenge of inter-church relations facing Christians
in both the Middle East and the West.
The largest Protestant group comprises the Evangelical Reformed
Churches which grew up amongst the Armenians, Copts and Syrians, and
organized themselves in national synods. Most of the Baptist Churches
are linked to the Southern Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. The
Anglicans come under the Episcopal Archdiocese of Jerusalem and the
Middle East. The main Lutheran Church is in Jordan. These churches
have retained neither patriarchal structure nor affiliation.
Today, the Evangelical and Episcopal Churches are a small minority
(some 2.5% of the Christian minority in the Middle East),
characterized more by their diversity than unity, which goes back to
their varying cultural backgrounds and differing concepts of history
of salvation. Their missionary origin has not endowed them with any
significantly corresponding unity. At the very outset, missionaries
did not strive to foster unity and rather tended to value
The National Evangelical Union of Lebanon
The National Evangelical Church came into being in 1847, when a small
group of Lebanese Evangelicals decided to found a national Evangelica
Church in Beirut by presenting a petition to this effect to the
missionaries working in Beirut at the time. For quite some time, the
pastors of this church were Arabic-speaking missionaries until 1890,
when Yusul Bard, a Lebanese Presbyterian minister was installed as
the first Lebanese pastor of the Church. In 1870 a church was built
on a compound that was used by both the Lebanese and American
The membership of the Church comes to about 6,500 persons, spread in
and around Beirut. In the mid-sixties the National Evangelical Church
of Beirut joined hands with about eight other congregations in the
suburbs and mountains around Beirut and formed the National
Evangelical Union of Lebanon.
The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon
Beginning in 1819, a number of missionary representatives came to
various parts of the Middle East. Those who responded to the Bible
message came to be known as "injiliyyeh", a term based on the Arabic
word for Gospel. The Protestant faith was given official recognition
in Lebanon in 1848. In 1851, a church was organized in Hasbaya on the
slopes of Mt. Hermon, and the following year a church was founded in
Aleppo, Syria. In the next few years churches were established in the
Syrian city of Horns, in South Lebanon at Sidon, and in two Lebanese
mountain villages. In 1870, these churches reported a total of 243
adult communicant members. The present membership is about 10,00The
Evangelical Church - Synod of the Nile
The Evangelical Church in Egypt started in 1854. It became
independent from the Presbyterian Church, USA in 1926. The moderator
is elected every year.
Since 1860 the church has been active establishing schools. In 1865
it founded the Assiut American College. The agricultural department
of this college, established in 1928, contributed to the improvement
of dairy farming in the country.
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Iran
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Iran developed out of the work
of the American Presbyterian and congregational missionaries, the
first of whom came to Iran in 1934. The work was begun among the
Nestorian Assyrian Christians of the Urmia (Rezaieh) district in
north-western Iran. In 1855, several Protestant congregations came
into existence in and around Rezaieh. The first presbytery was
organized in 1862, and other presbyteries later.
The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East
The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East was officially
inaugurated in January 1976. It succeeded the old Jerusalem
archbishopric and was established in accordance with principles set
at the Anglican Consultative Council in Dublin in 1973. It consists
of four dioceses: Jerusalem, Egypt, Iran, Cyprus and the Gulf. The
President is elected by the Synod from among the diocesan bishops.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan
Protestant mission work in the Holy Land started in the middle of the
19th century by missionary societies from England and Germany. They
founded congregations and schools in Beit Jala, Bethlehem, Beit
Sahour, Jerusalem. Later, congregations were established in Ramallah
Union of The Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East
Beginning in the second decade of the 19th century as an indigenous
reform movement with the Armenian Orthodox Church, it developed into
an independent community in 1846 in Istanbul, and in subsequent
decades registered a membership of 60,000 throughout the Ottoman
Empire. After the First World War, when the Armenian population was
decimated and the remnants deported from its historical homeland in
what is now called Turkey, the Union was reorganized in Syria and the
Lebanon. The Union is composed of 24 autonomous congregations (about
10,000 faithful). It provides also a ministry for a number of
Assyrian Protestant congregations.
Evangelical Church in Sudan
The Evangelical Church in Sudan was founded by missionaries of the
United Presbyterian Church, popularly known "American Mission". In
1965, the mission decided to transfer responsibility for Evangelical
work in the Sudan to the Sudanese themselves. Thus the Council of the
Evangelical Church in the Sudan was created and took charge of the
management of the schools and institutions belonging to the American
Episcopal Church in Sudan
The first successful attempt by Protestants to establish a church in
Khartoum is to be credited to the Anglican Bishop Llewellyn Gwynne.
In 1899, he started to work in Qmdurman. The year 1904 saw the laying
of the foundation stone of the first Anglican Church in Khartoum.
This church was considered as a diocese of the Jerusalem
Archbishopric until 1974, when it reverted to the sole jurisdiction
of the Archbishop of Canterbury as an extra-provincial diocese while
awaiting the setting up of the new province of Sudan.
Presbyterian Church in the Sudan
The Presbyterian Church in the Sudan is the fruit of missionary
activity in Sudan by Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in the USA.
It achieved autonomy in 1956 . This Church is the third largest
church in the country after the Roman Catholic Church and the
Episcopal Church. It maintains close relations with the United
Presbyterian Church of East Africa.
Denominational and non-Denominational
The following churches do not take part in the ecumenical movement,
nor are they member churches of the Middle East Council of Churches.
Baptist Churches in the Middle East
These churches have a small but growing membership with a wide
variety of missionary origins. Those related to the Southern Baptist
Convention, USA, are located primarily in Lebanon and Jordan, with
smaller groups in Egypt, Palestine and elsewhere.
Armenian Evangelical Spiritual Brotherhood
The Church was established in Beirut in the early 1920ʼs. It is
related to the Armenian Evangelical Brotherhood Churches in the
world, which have three main branches: South America, North America,
Europe & Middle East.
The Evangelical Assemblies of God
The Evangelical Assemblies of God in Lebanon is related to the
Assemblies of God in the USA. It was granted the right of
establishing churches, schools, orphanages, etc. by a presidential
decree in 1956 in Lebanon.
Seventh Day Adventists - Middle East Division
The church has existed in Beirut since 1904. Adventist congregations
are found in Jordan, Turkey, Cyprus, Iraq and Iran..
The Church of Nazarene
This church has a total of some twenty small congregations and three
schools in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
The Church of Christ
This church began missionary activity in Lebanon in 1961 and now has
three organized congregations along with a Bible training school in
The Church in the Gulf
Today many churches in the Middle East have congregations or dioceses
in the Gulf. The Orthodox Church of Antioch has the diocese of
Baghdad and the Gulf. The Armenian Church has the Prelature of Kuwait
and the Gulf, the Coptic Orthodox Church has a diocese based in
The Anglican Church has developed from a variety of sources. The
British Forces were served by chaplains who also encourage the
formation of congregations for other expatriates. The Gull
Archdeaconry was formed in 1970 and this led to the establishment of
the Anglican Diocese in Cyprus and the Gulf in 1976.
The Roman Catholic Churches in the Gulf came mainly from India and
East Africa. Capuchin Fathers, centered on Aden, began church
buildings alter the end of World War II in Bahrain and elsewhere. In
Kuwait there is a Roman Catholic church and a cathedral. Today there
is another cathedral at Abu Dhabi, the center of the Diocese of
In the last few years the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma
Church of India, the Church of South India and the Urdu-speaking
Church of Pakistan have established parishes or congregations in
several centers, usually sharing Evangelical or Anglican church
Co-Existence and Peace
The sad example of the division which religion can stir up is
exemplified by the term "Holy Land". The phrase today conjures up
several contrasting views. Some read it and picture soft brown hills,
dotted here and there with ancient olive groves and slowly shifting
herds of sheep. Others feel a stirring within as they imagine the
ancient prophets who appeared in that region to change the destinies
of so many. Then too, there are those who follow the footsteps of
Jesus Christ in and around Galilee, Jerusalem, Capernaum, etc. Then
there are those who cannot help but shake their heads at the irony in
the phrase as they consider the war and destruction that strained the
history of that "Holy Land".
Although there is cause and Justification for despair, the three
great Monotheistic religions which developed successively there -
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - share much more than is generally
known or suspected. That sprang from the same basic geographical area
and, thus, are all semitically rooted. And due largely to their
common ancestor, Abraham, the teachings of each were originally
written and spoken in closely related languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and
Many of the teachings are similar and several of the same incidences
and characters are mentioned in the scriptural writings of all three
religions. The Jewish Torah is included in the Christian Bible, and
both, Jews and Christians are respected by Muslims as " People of the
With so many common strands, it is not surprising, then, that
historically Jews, Christians and Muslims have often lived side by
side in the same communities in the Middle East.
Perhaps this point is the key to peace for the conflicts, not
conflicts of religious beliefs; they pertain, rather, to questions of
economy, politics and rights of self-determination and, to a large
extent, have been exacerbated by influence and powers outside the
Perhaps the greatest hope for salvation is that because religion is
never far removed from society in that part of the world, it will
also help to bridge the differences and heal the wounds and build the
foundation of true peace and unity