Who Are the Middle Eastern Christians?
The past decade of war in the Middle East has led to the mass deportation of the religious and ethnic minorities of Iraq and Syria. Westerners en masse began to pay attention to this exodus following the emergence of the Islamic State, but in reality it has been going on since before the start of the Iraq War. This article should give you some idea of who these minorities, specifically Christian minorities, are, and who is deporting them.
After the fall of Mosul and the siege of Sinjar in northern Iraq, Westerners increasingly returned their attention to a group named ISIS and the peoples they were eliminating. Overnight, people learned that “Yazidis” are a non-Arab, non-Abrahamic ethno-religious group in the region. If you search Google Trends for “Yazidi” and “Christianity in Iraq,” you’ll see that people quite literally learned this overnight in August of 2014.
Many people also spoke of the plight of Christians. Yet, perhaps due to Westerners’ own assumed familiarity with Christianity, few actually inquired as to who these Christians were and where they came from. No one really checked the Wikipedia articles on “Assyrians” or “Copts.” Westerners’ broad concern for Middle Eastern Christians was and is well intentioned, but poorly informed, in part due to apathy and in part due to the lack of resources on the subject. Perhaps I can help. My studies center on Christianity in the Middle East under Harvard’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) program, and I study the Syriac-Aramaic and Armenian languages. I also belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church. That being said, I will do my best to give a rough outline of these ancient communities in a few thousand words. First, I will give an overview of modern Christian history in the Middle East by comparing them to European Jewry. Then, I will examine how Middle Eastern Christians identify and understand themselves.
From the time Christ sent out his disciples to spread the Gospel, Christianity spread quickly throughout the Middle East, focusing around Antioch in Northern Syria (now Turkey) and Alexandria in Egypt. When Muhammad’s successors launched the first jihads against Byzantium and Persia during the 600s AD, Christians formed the majority of inhabitants in Middle East and, by extension, the majority of those under early Islamic rule. From the 7th century to now, Christians have gradually dwindled to a small minority, though a number of major persecutions, jihads, and genocides have accelerated this decline. Nonetheless, their histories, cultures, and traditions have not disappeared; rather, they have survived and evolved through the ages to the modern day.
Today, Christians are to the Middle East as Jews are to the pre-modern West. While Christians are a small, stateless minority in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, they are often highly educated, own land, and have professional degrees. They have a much lower birth rate than Muslims. With some pre-modern exceptions, they are strictly monogamous, although now many Muslims are monogamous as well. Their situation is probably most akin to European Jewry from the 18th to 20th centuries. They enjoy tolerance with sporadic repressions and genocides. As Jews remember the Holocaust, the Armenians and Assyrians remember 1915, in which Turks and Kurds slaughtered and marched to death three million Christians from eastern Turkey to Deir a Zor in eastern Syria.
In 1915 and the years after, many Christians fled south to what is now called the Arab World. Many Arab Muslims aided them in their escape. The 1915 genocide is one of the reasons Armenian and Syriac communities exist to this day in Jerusalem, Aleppo, and other Levantine cities. Though Arab Muslims in the early 20th century had welcomed refugees of the genocide, the Arab World too started to become a place of sporadic persecution for these Christians just a generation later. Some of this persecution stemmed from the popularity of Arab nationalism and the attempt to “Arabize” pre-Islamic, pre-Arab inhabitants of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In 1933, Iraqi Muslims massacred the Christians of Simele in Northern Iraq in a show of patriotic, anti-European Arab nationalism. In Northern Iraq, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Syria, there have been similar trends of tolerance and persecution.
Like medieval Jews in Europe, Christians in the Middle East, both medieval and modern, tend to live in separate neighborhoods or villages; they have formed cultural and religious enclaves by some mixture of choice, mandate, and accident. Cities like Aleppo in Syria, Minya in Egypt, East Beirut, Dora in Baghdad are all examples of this segregation. Christians also tend to live in mountainous areas isolated from centers of Islamic authority, such as Mt. Lebanon and the highlands of northern Iraq. They almost exclusively marry other Christians, although it has not been unusual throughout history for Christian women to Muslim men. The women of the Ottoman harems were typically Christians whom the Ottoman nobility purchased as sex slaves. And thus, like the Jews of Europe, the study of Christians in the Middle East leaves one with a very grim image of Islam, and the survival of both groups has frequently depended upon the good will of their theoretically tolerant neighbors.
Yet, if we look at Jews in the West today, we see that they are, broadly speaking, quite successful. They do not face widespread and desperate poverty; a high percentage graduate university and have successful professional careers. One finds a similar situation in the Middle East. Christian Arabs in Israel and Palestine have the highest rate of college graduation of any religious group. Among Copts, or Egyptian Christians, there is a joke that Coptic mothers only give their children three choices of career: “Doctor, dentist, engineer: pick one.” The economic success of the minority often earns the envy of the majority. Europeans have long characterized Jews as being greedy and stingy, and one can find similar stereotypes for the Christian Copts in Egypt. At the same time, this economic success has enabled both Western Jews and Middle Eastern Christians to integrate into society fairly easily.
But we cannot solely examine the persecution of Christianity in the Islamic world, since there have been prolonged periods of tolerance. Most Christians in the Middle East have many Muslims friends and colleagues, and there is no great discrimination on a day-to-day level.
I have thus far attempted to provide an image of Christians in the Middle East from the outside looking in, but now it is time for an inside view. How do they identify themselves? What are their religious beliefs? What languages do they speak?
When we talk about Christians in the Middle East, we are generally referring to a handful of ethnic and religious groups. Here, I will define ethnicity as a group of people who share a common history, language, religion, and tribal/social organization. Hence, an Arab is someone descended from Arabs, speaks Arabic, practices an Arabian religion (Islam, Mizrahi Judaism, Rum Christianity, etc.), and belongs to an Arab tribe. In discussing Christians, I will focus on five major ethnic groups: Armenians, Copts, Christian Arabs, Lebanese, and Assyrians. As for religion, there are Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians in the Middle East.
The overwhelming majority of Christians are either Eastern Rite Catholic or Orthodox; Protestants are only a small minority, primarily the result of modern proselytism by Western missions. Eastern Rite Catholics are Orthodox Christians, who, usually for political reasons, reestablished ties with Roman Catholicism and severed ties with the Orthodox communion. However, Eastern Catholics have kept almost all their Orthodox traditions in tact. Their liturgy and prayers are much the same as those of Orthodox Christians. Therefore, since I suspect my audience will have a much clearer idea of Catholicism and Protestantism than of Orthodoxy, I will briefly explain what I mean by this term “Orthodox.”
Orthodoxy is the tradition of Christianity that grew in the Eastern Mediterranean from the teachings of Christ’s apostles. Some historians have dated its founding to its split with Roman Catholicism in 1054, but this characterization is grossly inaccurate. Orthodoxy in 900 was not very different from Orthodoxy in 1100, some hundred years before and after the Great Schism. Additionally, Armenian, Coptic, and Syriac Orthodoxy separated from Greek Orthodoxy in 451 due to a political controversy in the Byzantine Empire. So, in reality, there was not so much the founding of new churches, but rather a schism between pre-existing churches.
Orthodoxy is very similar to Catholicism in that it teaches that there is an apostolic priesthood with the authority to dispense sacraments, called holy mysteries by the Orthodox churches, and forgive sins. However, there is no papacy or single church, rather, the Orthodox have institutionally separate churches united by common doctrine, hence the distinction of “Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.” Greeks believe the same Orthodox teachings and keep the same commandments as Russians, but the Russian Church is independent from the Greek Church. Orthodoxy is also different from Western Christianity in its sense of continuity with the past. If you go to an Orthodox Church, most of the prayers and liturgies you hear were written around the 5th Century or even earlier. Many Christians are often uncertain of what early Christians believed and practiced; indeed, many modern Protestant denominations have been founded in an attempt to restore ancient practices. The Seventh Day Adventists’ restoration of the Saturday Sabbath is a good example. Yet, because of its continuity with the past, Orthodoxy does not have this tension. Orthodox Christians firmly believe that their traditions are the same as those of the earliest disciples and indeed Judaism before Christ, and little has changed since the days of the Roman Empire.
Orthodoxy is divided into two groups, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox. In doctrine and ritual, they are almost identical, and, in fact, very few Orthodox Christians even know this difference exists. The divide stems from an archaic, pseudo-religious, political controversy that arose in the Byzantine Empire in the fifth century. There was a debate over whether Christ had two natures, one divine and one human, or one nature, both fully divine and fully human. As a result, Egypt, part of Syria, and Armenia became Oriental Orthodox, sometimes called Miaphysites (lit. “One-Naturers”), while Greeks and some Arabs became “Eastern Orthodox.” Eastern Orthodoxy later spread to the Slavic nations, and hence it is much larger. In recent years, there has been much effort to reconcile this difference.
Outside of religion, Christians in the Middle East constitute a number of ethnic groups. Of these, Armenians are probably the most successful. They are the only Christians with their own state, their language is alive and well, and they are the only Christians in the Middle East to have modernized their culture. That is, only Armenians have been able to create their own corpus of modern Armenian literature, art, and music. The culture of other Christians is alive and rich, but it is very much the same as it was two hundred years ago. Armenians live all over Middle East, and, though the Armenian Republic is a tiny nation in the Caucasus, historic Armenia covered a much larger region in present-day Iran and Turkey. The reason Armenia is so small today is because the Turks killed 1.5 million Armenians during the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Comparing this figure to present Armenia’s population of 2.9 million, it is clear how close this genocide came to completely wiping out Armenians from their homeland.
Armenian Orthodoxy, a church within Oriental Orthodoxy, occupies a very central role in Armenian identity. Because the Turks gave Armenians the options to become Muslim or die, essentially everyone in Armenia is descended from a martyr (this year the Church canonized all the victims of the genocide). Imagine, how might the US look if everyone’s grandparents were literal saints? Thus, though Communism has created a modern secular stratum within Armenian culture, the Christian faith is the essential, inalienable foundation of Armenian civilization and identity. Armenians have often seen themselves as a beacon of Christianity in a world of Muslims and heretics.
Moving south, to Iraq and Syria, there are the Assyrians, also known as Arameans, Chaldeans, or Syriacs. Assyrians are distinct from Arabs. Arabs have their own set of well-documented tribes, poetry, music, and language. Assyrians have their own tribes, music, dress, etc. It is easy to distinguish between Arabs and Assyrians by tribal affiliation. There is no doubt that the Urmishnaya are an Assyrian tribe, while the Tay are Arab. However, in the modern era in places like Lebanon, tribalism has disappeared, and ethnic identity has become more fluid.
The Assyrians are the natives of Mesopotamia. They are the original Aramaic-speaking population of the region that existed before the Islamic Invasion of Iraq in 633. Because Arabs first settled southern Mesopotamia in cities like Basra, Christians generally live more to the north in the hilly country. In Syria as well, they live in the hilly northeast, inland from the coast. To this day, Assyrians speak their own modern Aramaic language, which has two main dialects: eastern and western. In Church, they use ancient Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. In the Greek New Testament, we occasionally encounter Aramaic phrases like “Ephphatha” which is a Greek rendering of the Aramaic ethptah, “be opened,” from ptah, “to open.” Unfortunately, the modern Aramaic languages will probably die out in the next hundred years.
Unlike Copts or Armenians, Assyrians belong to a number of Churches. There is no single, primary church encompassing the vast majority of Assyrians. Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Antiochian Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Chaldean Catholic are some of the largest Aramaic speaking churches in the Middle East. At the same time, some of these churches include non-Assyrians. The Antiochian Orthodox church contains a number of Christian Arabs. Nevertheless, three hundred years ago the daily or at least liturgical language of all of these Christians was Aramaic. In Syria and Lebanon today, many so-called Arabic dialects are more similar to Aramaic than Standard or Quranic Arabic. Because of linguistic similarities to Arabic and Arabization, it is difficult to say who is and is not Assyrian. Many Antiochian Orthodox Christians would call themselves Arabs, even though their church has historically used Syriac Aramaic and their Arabic dialect contains a great deal of Aramaic. Maronite Christians have sometimes distinguished Lebanon and Lebanese as an ethnicity unto itself, even though they too have an undeniable connection to Syriac Aramaic language and culture. Among Assyrians, there is debate as to which term: Chaldean, Aramaic, Syriac, or Assyrian, is most appropriate to describe their people. Because of this division, cultural differences abound and Assyrian culture is only just modernizing. Assyrian dialects are so different that most Assyrians use Arabic to communicate between different tribes, or simply do not communicate at all. Assyrians have never had a cultural movement to coalesce into a single, coherent civilization. Their nationalist movements never united enough of the Assyrian people to bring about true political and cultural unity. Ecumenical movements have also failed to restore religious unity. There has not been a Pan-Assyrian movement akin to the Pan-Arab or Pan-Armenian movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Only in very recent times has there been modern Assyrian television or film; m. Music is still exclusively traditional. Assyrian/Syriac literature currently is limited largely to religious texts, although a century ago there was an effort to use Assyrian for modern secular literature.
Lebanese Christians too have debated extensively on their ethnic identity. Are they Arab? Are they Syriac? Or are they just Lebanese? Presently, the third option seems most appealing, since Lebanon itself has a unique culture of openness and secularism unparalleled in the Middle East. After the civil war of the 1970s and 80s and occupations by Israel and Syria, Muslims and Christians alike have grown weary of sectarianism. Lebanon has been a center of modern Arabic pop culture, and Christians have been at the heart of this movement. Singers like Fairouz, a Syriac Orthodox Christian, are popular with Muslims and Christians alike. The Lebanese dialect of Arabic is itself thriving, and some, mostly Christians, have argued that it is a separate language from Arabic. There were even attempts to Romanize the Lebanese language and abandoned standard Arabic language and script completely. A linguist might tell you that there are more differences between Lebanese and Standard Arabic than between Norwegian and Swedish. After Armenians, the Lebanese Christians are the closest in creating a distinct, modern culture, yet attempts to sever ties culturally as well as politically from the Arab world have backfired.
In Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Southern Syria, there are Christian Arabs. Before Islam, Christianity had spread among a number of major Arab tribes, some of the largest being the Tay, the Lakhmids, and the Ghassanids. A large number of Palestinian Christians can trace their lineage to the Ghassanid tribe. In ancient times, they formed alliances with the Byzantine Empire on the basis of a common religion, and they have been in Northern Arabia and the Levant ever since. Many of them are Melkite Catholic, Jerusalemite Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox. In Arabic, people often call them Rum or “Romans,” because of their loyalty to the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Orthodox Church. The Rum are Eastern Orthodox, like the Byzantine Greeks, while Assyrians and Armenians are Oriental Orthodox. Christian Arabs sing Byzantine chants and pray Byzantine prayers, but in Arabic. Unlike Lebanese and Assyrian Christians, there is no debate on their identity. Christian Arabs have a distinct history and place within Arab culture, and they have been some of the most fervent Arab nationalists in the Middle East. Arab nationalism has been a way of sharing an ideology and common cause with Muslim Arabs.
Finally, east of Jordan and Israel, we reach Egypt. In Egypt, the Copts, or Egyptian Christians, make up about ten percent of the population. The Copts are almost totally Coptic Orthodox, which is part of the Oriental Orthodox communion. They speak Egyptian Arabic like everyone else. However, in church, they use Coptic, which is the ancient Egyptian language from before the Arab Invasion in the seventh century AD. Even after Arab conquest, Coptic remained the dominant spoken language among Copts until some time around the eleventh century when Arabic was introduced into the Coptic liturgy. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Copts have had an uneasy situation. They are not Arab, and they are not Muslim. In a country that prides itself on being the largest Arab nation, this can be a problem. A frequent issue is intermarriage. A Coptic boy and a Muslim girl have an affair, and violence breaks out. Copts usually cannot celebrate a major holiday without suffering from a terrorist attack on one of their churches. After the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime by the military, angry mobs burned down some eighty Coptic churches. But alongside these hardships, the Coptic Church is in a renaissance. The late Pope Shenouda and his successor, Pope Tawadros of the Coptic Orthodox Church, greatly reformed the church and reestablished monasteries; they have served as the default liaison between Copts and the government. While the church has no direct political influence, the Coptic Church has exerted indirect political influence. In addition to forbidding Copts from joining political parties that promote sharia law, the Church also secured a constitutional article that would guarantee Coptic representation in the Egyptian parliament. In most aspects of life, however, Copts are not very different from Muslim Egyptians; they listen to the same music and watch the same movies.
So, when we talk about Christians in the Middle East, we have to be precise about whom exactly we mean. Hopefully, after reading this article, it is clear that Christians are really many different ethnic and religious groups. At the same time, we must remember that they share a common doctrine and spirituality in the traditions of Eastern Christianity. If we can recognize these two facts, then we will be closer to understanding the issues they face in preserving their heritage and culture.Tags: Catholicism, economics, ethnicity, Harvard University, history, ISIS, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Orthodox, politics, Protestantism, race, terrorism, violence