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Christian Churches in the Middle East

The twists and turns of the history of Christianity in the Middle East have resulted in a wide and varied Christian presence in the region. There are five main groups or families of Churches. However even within these overall groupings particular Churches may express a wealth of  different liturgical practice, historical tradition, communal culture and political viewpoints.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches

These Churches are considered the local ‘heirs’ of those Christians who accepted the definitions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and their leadership has traditionally acknowledged the Patriarch of Constantinople (Byzantium) as a ‘first among equals’. In the Middle East region they are represented by the Patriarchate of Antioch, (now based in Damascus) and covering Lebanon and Syria, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, covering Egypt (and Africa) and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, with jurisdiction in Jerusalem, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Although linked to the wider ‘Orthodox’ world, and with close connections to Greece, the local Christians who are members of these churches are proud of their Arab identity, and Arabic is often used as the language of worship.

In addition, and especially in and around Jerusalem, there are a number of Churches and Christians linked to Eastern Orthodox Churches whose base is in other parts of the world. The Russian Orthodox presence is particularly significant.

Although the island of Cyprus is not quite part of the Middle East in the same way, within Anglican structures the island forms part of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. The Church of Cyprus, an Eastern Orthodox Church with autocephalous (independent) status is the Church to which most local Cypriot people belong, and has a national role in the country. It uses Greek in its worship and is led by the Archbishop of Nicosia.  

The Oriental Orthodox Churches

The name ‘Oriental Orthodox’ is widely given to a group of historic Churches in the region that do not accept the definitions of the 5th century Council of Chalcedon concerning the person of Christ. There were a number of reasons for that original refusal, linguistic differences played a part as did social and political concerns. Each of these Oriental Orthodox Churches is proud of its distinctive liturgical traditions and culture, and has conserved the use in worship of the historic language with which they are associated. 

By far and away the largest of these churches is the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, centred upon the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria, and using Coptic in their worship. Their membership  of 10 million constitutes by great measure the largest Christian community in the area. The Syriac (Syrian) Orthodox Church, centred on its Patriarchate of Antioch, now resident in Damascus, uses Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus Christ, in its worship. Its total membership of approximately 1.4 million people includes communities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and small groups in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as well as a substantial number of members in Kerala, India, who have long historical connections with the Church and with the Syriac Christian tradition.  Although the primary centre of the Armenian Orthodox Church is in Etchmiadzin, in Armenia, Armenian Christians have been present in the Middle East since before 500 AD, and their numbers were considerably swelled when many Armenians fled Turkey during and after the First World War. There are two Armenian patriarchates in the Middle East, one named Cilicia (though it is currently based in Antelias, Lebanon), and the other at St James Cathedral Jerusalem. In total the Armenian population in the Middle East may reach 200,000, with the largest communities to be found in Iran and Lebanon.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is present in the wider region to which JMECA relates. Using Gez (ancient Ethiopic) in its worship it is the majority faith community in Ethiopia, with adherents numbering at least 30 million. Up till 1959 it was considered as under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, but has since gained autocephalous status.

Catholic Churches - both Roman (Latin) and Eastern rite

These are churches in communion with Rome. They are mostly constituted of descendants of members of the two Orthodox Church families who at various points of history broke from their Orthodox relationships for historical, doctrinal or pragmatic reasons to affiliate with Rome, but have maintained their eastern liturgies and practices. So there is a Syriac Catholic Church (patriarch based in Beirut, though called Patriarch of Antioch); Coptic Catholic Church (patriarch based in Cairo); Armenian Catholic Church (patriarch based in Beirut); Greek Catholic Church, often called the Melkite Church, (patriarch based in Damascus with the title of Patriarch of Antioch).  The Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church uses Arabic in its liturgy and the majority of local Christians within the 1948 boundaries of Israel are members of this Church. There are also substantial Greek Catholic congregations in both Lebanon and Syria as well as a considerable membership in the diaspora.  The largest Christian Church in Iraq is the Chaldean Church, with a patriarch in Baghdad, and using Syriac and Arabic as its liturgical languages. It is also in communion with Rome, although the word ‘Catholic’ is not normally included as part of its name.

As a group the Catholic Churches listed above in this section above are referred to as ‘uniate’ Churches, reflecting their union with Rome. There is one other eastern Catholic Church present in the Middle East. This is the Maronite Church, whose self-identity is deeply interwoven with that of the nation of Lebanon where live the vast majority of its Middle Eastern adherents. It uses Syriac (and some Arabic) as its primary liturgical language. Because there is no ‘Orthodox’ equivalent of the Maronite Church it is not formally described as a ‘uniate’ Church.

The western ‘Latin’ rite Catholic Church derives from the Crusader period, and grew particularly as a result of Roman Catholic missions to the region from the 17th century onwards. A Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was first established in 1099, went into exile after the fall of the Crusaders, and was then re-established in Jerusalem in 1847.  Its membership is largely Arab, though there is also a small vicariate of Hebrew speaking members. Foreign members of Roman Catholic religious orders resident in the Holy Land e.g. the Franciscans are also linked to this Church. Within Jerusalem itself the Latin Catholic Church has the largest membership of any Christian group.

The Assyrian Church of the East

This Church traces its origins to Christian communities in East Syria and Mesopotamia.  Its understanding of the nature of Christ diverges from that of both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians, and it does not formally accept either the Council of Chalcedon (451) or the Council of Ephesus (432).  Its members are mainly found in Iraq and Iran, though, as with the other churches listed above many have emigrated from the region in recent decades, and the numbers of adherents in western countries often considerably exceed those still living in the Middle East. Both in the Middle East and in the diaspora many ‘Assyrian’ Christians are strongly attracted to a form of ‘Syriac’ or ‘Assyrian’ nationalism, which seeks to differentiate itself strongly from the majority Arab and Muslim culture. The designation ‘Assyrian’ to refer to this Christian community initially originated with western, frequently Anglican, missionaries to the region in the 19th century.

Unlike the other families of churches listed in this note, the Assyrian Church is not a member of the Middle East Council of Churches.

Protestant and Anglican Churches

These Churches, together with a variety of independent and non-denominational Christians, are largely the result of missionary endeavour, mainly from America and Britain, beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century.  In countries where  American missionaries were predominant the Church which evolved was largely Presbyterian, in countries where British missionaries worked, the Church became largely Anglican in tradition. There was also a German missionary presence which has resulted in a small Lutheran Church in Israel, Palestine and Jordan.  In addition, particularly in the case of the Anglican Church, a number of chaplaincies were established from the late 19th century onwards in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa to minister to British expatriates. Over the years  these have become integrated with the local Church.

The educational, medical and social work of these Churches is strong, as are their contributions to Bible translation and Christian communication. For this reason alone they have had an influence well out of proportion to their very small numbers.

The original intention of the missionaries was to work mainly among Muslims and Jews. When that proved either difficult or impossible to achieve they turned their attention to Eastern, especially Orthodox, Christians, and their proselytising work among these older Christian Churches left a legacy of bitterness. Church relations are recovering from this history of resentment and misunderstanding, partly as a result of joint participation in such bodies as the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), which was established in its present form in 1974, and which since 1990 has also included the Catholic Churches.

Christian Churches in the Gulf States

The oil-rich economies of the region have attracted people from across the world for employment and to make a new life in the region, particularly the Gulf States. From the 1980s significant numbers of Christians from India, Pakistan, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, elsewhere in Asia and a number of African countries have moved to take up work (often low paid) mainly in the oil rich states of the Gulf but also in Egypt, North Africa and Lebanon. In a number of countries they have formed large congregations, and especially in the Gulf area the Christian communities significantly outnumber local citizens. Alongside these Christian communities deriving from other parts of the world, Christians from other parts of the Middle East have also moved to the Gulf in considerable numbers, and so most of the ‘historic’ Churches (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) referred to above are also present in one or more of the Gulf States.

In 2014 the Gulf Churches Fellowship was established to help give ecumenical expression to the variegated Christian presence in the Gulf region.