Middle East Christians
Who are the Christians in the Middle East?
An Overview of Christianity in the Middle East

 

The Christian Church throughout the Middle East is a small minority with Islam being the principal religion.  Yet the diversity within this minority is greater than in any other part of the world.  Virtually the entire spectrum of worldwide Christianity is represented.  Some of these Churches have been there from earliest times.   The worlds oldest Churches are to be found in the  Middle East and many claim specific apostolic founders.  Others emerged in the course of theological and political disputes in the early centuries.  Some are the result of proselytizing zeal at various periods including the nineteenth and twentieth century.   The breach between Eastern and Western Christianity has kept the Churches of the two hemispheres in virtual isolation from one another for almost a thousand years.  Consequently, many Westerners are unfamiliar with the present-day distribution of the Churches in the Middle East.  In this regard, it would perhaps be helpful to provide a general overview of Christianity in the region. Today there are between 14 and 15 million Middle Eastern Christians, but only about 10 million remain in the Middle East due to rapid immigration.  This represents a small minority among 200 million Muslims and 3.5 million Jews in the region.  Yet these Churches carry rich spiritual, cultural, and doctrinal traditions, most of which are very different when viewed from our Western Christian experience.  Yet we have much in common and a great deal we can learn from each other.  The incredibly rich Middle Eastern Christian spirituality, which is Oriental in its orientation, teaches much about prayer, meditation, fasting, and even martyrdom.  Arab Christians can share with us how to live with Muslims, who represent the fastest growing religion in the West.

The Middle East Churches are grouped according to several major families.

 

The largest Church family is the Oriental Orthodox Community.  The largest single Church is the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, which traces its roots to the Pharonic Egyptians who converted during St. Marks ministry.

 

The rich tradition of monasticism in the eastern desert is very alive today, as is the Coptic missionary movement.  Next in size is the Armenian Apostolic  Church, with its unique ethnic history (Armenia was the first nation to claim Christianity in 301 A.D.), and successive persecution.  It has approximately 2 million members worldwide.  The Syrian Orthodox Church, with its Patriarch in Damascus, is the smallest in the Middle East (approximately 160,000 members) due to severe immigration.

 

The Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox Churches

The Armenian Apostolic Church

The Coptic Orthodox Church

The Syrian Orthodox Church

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church

 

The second family is the Byzantine (also called Eastern or Greek) Orthodox Churches.  They constitute three self-governing Churches that are linked by doctrine, liturgy, and canon law, with the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul (Constantinople ).  They belong to the wider family of Orthodox Churches in the former Soviet Union , Europe and North America.  

 

The Antiochian Orthodox Church (named for the city where Christians claimed the term Christian in Acts 11) counts approximately 1.3 million members, primarily in Lebanon and Syria.  This Church has provided outstanding leaders in the modern ecumenical movement in the Middle East.  The Church of  Cyprus (mentioned in Acts 11:19) is a product of Paul and Barnabus missionary journey.  It constitutes approximately 80% of the population in Greek-speaking Cyprus.

 

The Eastern (Byzantine) Orthodox Churches

The Antiochian Orthodox Church

The Church of Cyprus

The Greek Orthodox Church (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria,  Constantinople)

 

Third, the Catholic family accounts for approximately 15% of the Middle East Christians.  These Churches all accept the ecclesiastical authority of the Pope in Rome, but most are not considered Latin-rite, but rather Eastern-rite Churches.

 

The largest of these Churches are called Melkite Catholics, with significant communities in Israel/Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.  They follow a Byzantine liturgy, and their doctrine is closer to the Orthodox Churches from whom they broke in the 5th century.  The Maronite Catholics are found primarily in Lebanon.  They are an Eastern-rite (liturgical) Church that dates back to the 4th century, with an independent tradition tied to the Lebanese Mountains.  There are approximately 1.2 million Maronites in Lebanon, but over 6.5 million in Europe and the United States.  Smaller Catholic communities include the Chaldeans (Iraq), Armenians, Syrian Catholics, and Coptic Catholics.

 

The Catholic Churches (in communion with Rome, but mostly with Eastern-rite liturgies)

The Chaldean Catholic

The Armenian Catholic

The Maronite Catholic

The Greek (Melkite) Catholic

The Syrian Catholic

The Coptic Catholic

The Latin Patriarchate

 

Fourth, with its unique history is The Assyrian Church (Nestorian) of the East, one of the oldest Churches in the East.  It was excommunicated on the alleged grounds that it followed the teachings of the heretic Nestorius.  It is found in Iraq, Iran,  India, China, and Tibet with approximately 250,000 members.  This church was the first to send missionaries to China in 410 A.D.

 

Fifthly, there is the Modern Church family, we can include ourselves and the Evangelical Churches--the latest arrivals in the region.  Most are called "evangelical"  which means Protestant in the Middle East.  They are the products of American and European missions during the previous 150 years.  They include Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Reformed, Methodists, and Quakers.

 

Anglicans being both catholic and reformed (that is not simply Protestant) and often having included church building programs with early mission and development relationships (certainly till the mid 1950s) have historically offered a unique role in the region.

 

Relationships among Christians in the Middle East have often left the communities divided and separated from each other over doctrine, politics, and history.  However, since 1974 the Orthodox and Protestant Churches have been cooperating through the Middle East Council of Churches, one of the most creative ecumenical ventures in the world.  In January 1991 the Catholic Churches joined the MECC, bringing over 90% of the regions Christians under one umbrella.