For Western Christians, attempting to identify and make sense of the tapestry of Eastern Christianity can be an onerous undertaking. Yet, understanding Eastern Christianity is critical if we hope to understand our roots as Western Christians. Indeed, the Middle East served as the cradle of Christian civilization and rivaled the influence of the Western Church until Islamic conquests subjugated Eastern Christians. Though these communities have faced centuries of discrimination and persecution, and some have even faced the very real threat of extinction, they continue to live and work in the land where our Messiah walked.
In order to understand Eastern Christianity, it is important to map out the various denominations of the Christian faith. For the purpose of this article, Protestant denominations and Muslim Background Believers (converts from Islam) will be excluded as the intent is to map out the ancient Christian communities of the region that predate the arrival of Islam. Broadly speaking, there are four major denominations: 1) Assyrian Orthodox (Assyrian Church of the East), 2) Oriental Orthodox, 3) Eastern Orthodox, and 4) Catholic. Within some of these denominations are several “sub-denominations.”
- Assyrian Church of the East
The Assyrian Church of the East is likely the Church that Western Christians are the least familiar with. The Assyrian Church of the East split with the rest of Christendom following the schism of 431 A.D. at the Council of Ephesus. Members of this denomination are often referred to as “Nestorians” by Western Christians, though they consider the term pejorative. Even after the schism, the Assyrian Church of the East remained hugely influential throughout Mesopotamia and the Persian Empire. Its missionaries even reached as far as China and India. Sadly, beginning with the Islamic conquests of the 7th century, the Church began to wither under subjugation. The Assyrian Church of the East still exists today, though persecution at the hands of ISIS has rendered it almost extinct in the Middle East. The Assyrian Patriarch currently resides in Erbil, Iraq. (Website)
- Oriental Orthodox Churches
The Oriental Orthodox Churches separated from the rest of Christendom following the schism of 451 A.D. at the Council of Chalcedon. Oriental Orthodoxy is a denomination comprised of six independent sub-denominations. Of the six, the Coptic Orthodox Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, and Armenian Apostolic Church all have sizable communities in the Middle East.
Coptic Orthodox Christians constitute the largest Christian population in the Middle East and account for approximately ten percent of the Egyptian population. As the World Council of Churches notes, “the Copts are the native Christians of Egypt and the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians.” When Islamic armies later invaded and conquered Egypt, Copts became a minority in a majority Arab nation. Copts have managed to preserve their distinctive identity while also significantly assimilating into Arab culture. While the use of Coptic as a day-to-day language has ceased, it is still used for liturgical purposes (Website)
The Syriac Orthodox Church shares a story similar to that of the Copts. Syriac Christians once flourished in what is now the Levant and Mesopotamia. Over time, Syriacs were gradually attacked and subjugated by invading armies, including the Mongols, Turks, and Arabs. Today the Syriac Orthodox Church is based out of Damascus, Syria. Like the Copts, Syriacs face a tension between their historic ethnic identity and their newfound (and somewhat imposed) Arab identity. As a testament to the enduring spirit of Syriac identity, the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church is still Aramaic, which was the daily language of Christ. Interestingly, the Syriac Orthodox share a Syriac ethnic identity with the Assyrian Church of the East, though they obviously diverge on theological matters. Also, like their Assyrian brothers, the Syraic Orthodox suffered greatly under ISIS. (Website)
The Armenian Orthodox Church, while being historically rooted in the Caucasus, has always had a large presence and degree of influence in the Middle East. In 301 A.D. the Kingdom of Armenia (then encompassing parts of modern Turkey) became the first nation to declare Christianity as the state religion officially. Notably, the Armenian Orthodox Church is the only Christian denomination to control its own quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City to this day. The vast majority of ethnic Armenians were eventually subjugated by the Ottoman Empire, and During World War I, nearly 1.5 million of them were killed in a genocide. While the majority of Armenian Orthodox Christians now reside within the nation-state of Armenia, sizable communities remain in Turkey, Iran, and the Levant. (Website)
- Eastern Orthodox Churches
While most Eastern Orthodox Christians now live in Eastern Europe, they were once concentrated in Near Eastern cities like Constantinople (Istanbul), Antioch, and Alexandria. Following the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. the Patriarch of Rome (the Pope) and the four Eastern Patriarchs of the Pentarchy (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria) severed communion. To clarify, the Pentarchy constituted the five highest episcopal sees in the Roman Empire. The four Eastern Patriarchates were composed mostly of ethnic Greeks and would come to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Churches have assimilated with their Muslim conquerors to varying degrees, though they are historically referred to as Rum or Roum in reference to their East Roman identity. They can also be referred to as Greek Orthodox.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was established after Emperor Constantine I relocated the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium. Historically, it served as the second most important ecclesial jurisdiction in all of the Roman Empire, after Rome itself. Even after the Great Schism, the Ecumenical Patriarchate retained much of its prestige and remains the primus inter pares, or first among equals, among the Churches of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This prestige also outlived the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 A.D., and the community has managed to preserve its Greek identity. The Ecumenical Patriarchate remains based out of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), though decades of legal discrimination by Turkish authorities threaten its survival. (Website)
The Patriarchate of Antioch, while technically still Greek Orthodox, is decidedly Arab today. When Arab armies conquered Antioch from the Byzantine Empire, its inhabitants gradually assimilated into the Arab culture. Arabic, for example, has replaced Greek as the liturgical and daily language of the Church. In the 14th century, the seat of the Church was moved from Antioch to Damascus, Syria, where it remains to this day. Like so many others, the Antiochian Orthodox Christians suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS. (Website)
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem, like Antioch, has been made up of mostly Arab members ever since the Arab invasions. Unlike Antioch, however, the clergy are primarily still Greek. The flock of the Patriarchate is rather small, and so much of the Patriarch’s work involves safeguarding the Christian Holy Sites of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. (Website)
The Patriarchate of Alexandria, like the Coptic Orthodox Church, is based in Egypt. Unlike the Coptic Church, the Patriarchate of Alexandria was established by ethnic Greeks rather than Egypt’s indigenous Copts. Today the Patriarch of Alexandria has jurisdiction over all of Africa, though his flock is relatively small. (Website)
- Catholic Churches
The presence of the Catholic Church in the Middle East is especially unique because it includes several autonomous Eastern Rite Churches that split from the Eastern, Oriental, and Assyrian Orthodox traditions, and reestablished communion with Rome. Among these Churches are:
-The Chaldean Catholic Church (formerly Assyrian Orthodox) (Website)
-The Syriac Catholic Church (formerly Syriac Orthodox) (Website)
-The Coptic Catholic Church (formerly Coptic Orthodox) (Website)
-The Armenian Catholic Church (formerly Armenian Orthodox) (Website)
-The Greek Catholic Melkite Church (formerly Greek Orthodox) (Website)
The Maronite Catholic Church, like the six Churches listed above, is also an autonomous Eastern Rite Catholic Church. Unlike the above Churches, however, the Maronite Church has always been in communion with Rome. Unlike their ethnic Syriac brothers of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Maronites took the side of Rome in the schism of 451 A.D. and received papal recognition as a result. The Maronite Catholic Patriarch resides in Lebanon along with the vast majority of the Maronite Church. (Website)
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was established in 1099 A.D. after the Crusaders recaptured the city. As the name implies, the Latin Patriarchate represents the traditional Latin-Rite Catholics of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus. Today, most of its members are Catholic migrant workers from across the world who moved to the region in search of work. (Website)
Recommendations for Further Reading:
The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-and How It Died By Philip Jenkins
Comment by David on January 11, 2023 at 6:22 am
There is a curious custom in the Middle East where Muslims imagine themselves to be descended from Arabs while Christians claim to the native peoples. Most of the population is actually native as revealed by DNA testing.
Let us not forget that some of the Palestinian population is Christian and they have their problems with the Israeli government in addition to extremist groups of Jews and Muslims.
Comment by George on January 11, 2023 at 10:04 am
You have just described most of the world’s population. Where is the great nation that does not have social,religious,or cultural divides within its boarders. Conflict is no stranger to these nations. You love to point out Israel time and again for its troubles. You don’t take into consideration what the Jews have gone through over the past century. A tiny nation. A Jewish home land surrounded by those who would love to see it disappear. Try picking on some nation more deserving. Try Iran or Russia. They certainly do deserve some of your criticism, don’t you agree?
Comment by David on January 11, 2023 at 4:13 pm
The US does not fund Iran and Russia unlike Israel.
Comment by George on January 11, 2023 at 5:11 pm
Your original post was not about funding was it? You used it as a way to take a cheap shot at Israel. There is a name for this but I won’t say it. No one is without sin and no country without faults. I thought the blog was very informative as well as complicated. But then I don’t have your theological expertise and command of world history.
Comment by David on January 12, 2023 at 7:33 am
You would do well to read about the plight of Armenian Christians in Jerusalem.