Christianity in the Middle East Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Christianity was born in the Middle East, the religion has become globalized with a relatively sparse and scattered Christian presence in the region today. Currently, Christians suffer from frequent persecution, especially at the hands of terrorist groups like ISIS/ISIL. As Thomas (2014), points out, "members of the Islamic State have targeted Christian churches, destroyed symbols of Christian faith and killed Christians because of their beliefs." Current events echo the roots of the religion in the Middle East. Just as now, Christianity was a minority religion when it started in the Middle East and as it spread throughout the Roman Empire, persecution became commonplace. The history of Christianity in the Middle East has therefore been one of continual struggle and persecution.

Perhaps because of the experience of perpetual persecution, Christianity in the Middle East is as diverse, if not more so, than Christianity in Europe. Fragmentation and the distinction between different linguistic and ethnic groups has meant that Eastern Orthodox, Chaldean, Maronite, Coptic, Assyrian, and other Christian religious denominations have evolved separately without the type of centralization that occurred under the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. It is precisely because of the stark differences in theology, ritual, and doctrine that Western Christians such as those in the United States do not feel culturally connected to Middle Eastern Christians. Likewise, within academia, Christianity in the Middle East has been a "neglected field" of study, due to the "psychological wall" that has been erected between East and West (Parry, 2010, p. xv). Unfortunately, the theological and cultural gaps between Western and Eastern brands of Christianity may account for the lack of overt political or economic support for the vast numbers of Christians currently under attack in places like Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Historically, the schism between Eastern and Western branches of Christianity solidified the cultural chasm that transcends the common elements of the faith such as the most fundamental issue of Jesus Christ.

In the centuries following Christ's death, Christianity had spread from Judea in all cardinal directions, including Egypt and North Africa, Syria and Mesopotamia, the Levant, Cyprus, Asia Minor, and even parts of the Arabian peninsula. Even before Constantine's conversion and the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Alexandria and Antioch had become important Christian hubs. After Constantine's conversion, Alexandria, Antioch, Caesaria, and other Christian centers in the Middle East could just as easily have become the seats of Christian power as Rome itself. These hubs of Christian power were called patriarchates, because their head of state was a Christian bishop (The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association, 2011).

Significant political, social, and doctrinal changes determined the course of Christianity in the Middle East during the first several centuries after Christ. The Roman Empire was dissolving rapidly due to weak governance and decentralized power, and the resulting geo-political changes allowed Christianity to become a quasi-political institution throughout the extent of the Empire and beyond. Although hubs of power would form primarily in Rome and Constantinople, the former Christian centers in the Middle East remained viable until the rise of Islam and the subsequent transformation of Arab culture. In addition to these geo-political changes, doctrinal issues shaped the character of Middle Eastern Christianity. The Great Schism was not a single event, but a culmination of centuries of doctrinal disputes related to key theological topics in the Christian faith.

Among the most important doctrinal issues that would distinguish Eastern from Western Christianity included the divinity of Christ and the nature of Christ's mother, Mary. The Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 in particular revealed the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. In fact, the Council of Ephesus specifically decried the beliefs of the patriarch Nestorius of Syria, related to the divinity of Christ. Christian groups throughout the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, also did not accept the ruling of the Council of Ephesus on the nature of Mary as being the Mother of God (The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association, 2011). Likewise, Syrian and Egyptian Christian groups, which would become the Coptic family of Christian churches, disputed the Council of Chalcedon's ruling on the dual nature of Christ as being divine and human. The followers of Nestorius, referred to as Nestorians, and other Christian groups like the monophysites established doctrinal differences that severed their political and theological connections with Rome. Instead, the Eastern churches flourished in the Middle East and Mesopotamia.

After the Great Schism, Christianity in the Middle East experienced several centuries of intellectual, literary, and social flourishing. According to Jenkins (n.d.), "networks of churches and monasteries equal in wealth, learning and spiritual achievements to anything in contemporary Europe" flourished throughout Mesopotamia even after the birth of Islam in the 7th century (p. 1). Christians actively translated ancient Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic. "Eastern Christians dominated the cultural and intellectual life of the slowly emerging 'Muslim world', playing a critical role in Muslim politics and culture," (Jenkins, n.d., p. 1). The Quran in fact mentions Jesus Christ, and early Islamic discourse included matters related to Christianity and the perception of Jesus as the Messiah. For the Muslim, Islam is a natural extension of Judaism and Christianity as all three religions are "people of the book." Early Islam remained relatively kind to Christianity, especially as Islam itself had yet to find its own political footing. Moreover, Christians and Muslims coexisted due to mutual interests in global trade, especially along the Silk Road (Jenkins, n.d., p. 1). Through established trade routes, Christianity was able to spread into Central and Eastern Asia. The Nestorians developed a robust missionary system, helping Christianity to spread from Mesopotamia throughout the Persian Empire.

Christianity was relatively well integrated into the multicultural landscape of the Middle East. There was no real attempt to solidify power, either religious or political. The Middle East enjoyed avid trade with India and China, and religion was not as integral to politics as to religion. However, as Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula to the rest of the Middle East and to North Africa, the fabric of Middle Eastern society changed. The rise of Arab Islam did transform Christianity in the Middle East in significant and irreversible ways, primarily by reducing the number of Christians and also their economic, social, and political clout in the region. As Islam became the religion of the people in power, Muslim political leaders tolerated minority religions tacitly. They had Christians simply "pay tribute," in the form of taxes; later, the paying of "tribute" was equated with political and social subjugation as well (Thomas, 2010). Christianity started to decline as a result of coercive conversions. By the tenth century, only ten percent of the Islamic empire was Christian (The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association, 2011). By the eleventh century, Islam had deeply penetrated the Arab-speaking world, the Syriac, and the Turkisk speaking worlds as well. As Arabic became the dominant language of politics and business, "growing numbers of Christians convert to Islam," causing shock waves in Europe (Tolan, 1996, p. xiii).

When the Ottoman Turks overthrew Christian Byzantium, Rome feared for the demise of Christianity and perceived a pending clash of civilizations. The first Christian Crusade began in 1095 with Pope Urban II and the Council of Clermont in France. At the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II first publically and officially expressed his desire to wage war against the Ottoman Turks, who seemed interested in and ready to seize Jerusalem. Although it was geographically far from Rome and other Christian seats of power in Europe, Jerusalem remained the most important pilgrimage destination for European Christians. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem had been part of European Christian tradition. Thus, the first Crusades were loosely based on the concept of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. By the second and third waves of the Crusades, pilgrimage was more obviously a thin veneer disguising the true purpose of the crusades as military campaign to attempt to weaken the Muslim stronghold in the Middle East. Christian leaders started using anti-Muslim propaganda to garner widespread public, political, and financial support for the Crusades.

By this time, Islam had been spreading via the Berbers throughout the Maghreb and into Morocco. When the Moors conquered Spain, the Frankish kingdom dealt with a clear and present danger. The Franks managed to stop the Moors, and to hold them to the Iberian Peninsula. Yet the threat loomed large. The crusades did receive widespread support because of the perceived fears, exacerbated by xenophobic propaganda. Northern Europeans devised caricature versions of Muslims not dissimilar to the later caricatures of Jews (Tolan, 1996). Although unsuccessful insofar as squelching Islam in the Middle East, the Roman Catholic Crusades were successful in establishing Roman Catholic religious centers throughout the region, and also bolstering some of the indigenous Christian communities. Yet for the most part, the European Christians who arrived during the Crusades were shocked to find that the brands of Christianity practiced…

Sources Used in Document:

References

Douthat, R. (2014). The Middle East's friendless Christians. The New York Times. 13 Sept, 2014. Retrieved online: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-the-middle-easts-friendless-christians.html?_r=0

Jenkins, P. (n.d.). The forgotten Christian world. History Today 59(4). Retrieved online: http://www.historytoday.com/philip-jenkins/forgotten-christian-world.

The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association (2011). A history of Christianity in the Middle East and North Africa. JMECA. Retrieved online: http://www.jmeca.org.uk/christianity-middle-east/history-christianity-middle-east-north-africa

MacEvitt, C. (2008). The Crusades and the Christian World of the East. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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