Chapter Three: Faith and Religious Identity

Part 11. Christian Sects in the Middle East

Like the other Abrahamic faiths, Christianity was born in the Middle East and has maintained a continuous presence in the region for almost two thousand years.  Following the death of Jesus, the early church was intermittently persecuted and tolerated by the Roman Empire for three centuries.  Intense persecution of Christians took place under the emperors Nero (r. 54-68), Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180), Decius (r. 249-251), Trebonianus Gallus (r. 251-253), Valerian (r. 253-260), and Diocletian (r. 283-305).  At other times Christianity, though still considered illegal, was loosely tolerated.  All of this came to an end in 313 CE with the Edict of Milan when Christianity was legalized by the emperor Constantine.  In the following years Constantine actively patronized the Christian church, sponsoring the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome even though he was not baptized until he was on his deathbed.  He also summoned several church councils, including the important First Council of Nicaea in 325, which produced the first uniform Christian doctrinal statement (The Nicene Creed).

Under the emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395), Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  For more than two hundred years, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire ruled over much of the Middle East, including Syria, Palestine and Egypt.  Churches and monasteries were built and large numbers of Middle Eastern people converted to Christianity.  However, the combination of religion and politics did not have positive outcomes for everybody.  This period is described by William Ochsenwald and Sydney Nettleton Fisher in the following way: “The union of autocracy and theocracy in the Byzantine state ensured the alienation of some of the masses in the Middle Eastern provinces.  As new Christian doctrines from the Middle East were branded heresies by the state-dominated church councils, separate native Christian churches evolved.  Byzantine Constantinople could not force its type of Christianity upon all the Middle Eastern peoples” (Ochsenwald and Fisher, The Middle East: A History Sixth Edition, 2004, p. 17).  In fact, early Islamic sources indicate that many of the local Christian populations in the Middle East initially welcomed the Muslim conquest of the region, believing that Muslim rule would be less repressive of their faith than Orthodox Byzantine rule.

Following the Islamic conquests in the seventh century, Christians in the Middle East came under Muslim governance.  Now considered to be People of the Book, Christians were allowed to practice their faith with some restrictions as long as they paid an additional poll tax to the Muslim government.  For at least two hundred years after the Islamic conquests, Christianity remained the largest religion in the region, particularly in Syria, Palestine and Egypt.  However, over the centuries many Christians converted to Islam, perhaps induced by a desire to escape the poll tax or to obtain the increased career opportunities and status that came from being practicing Muslims.  For most of the past 1400 years, Christians have been tolerated by Muslim governments and populations, but there have been periodic persecutions, such as in Cairo in 1354 or in the Ottoman massacre of Armenian Christians during World War I.  More than overt persecution, the pressure of living as religious minorities in Muslim states created a strain on Christian populations in the Middle East.  The percentage of Christians in the region has continued to decline up to the present day.  In the past seventy years, the pace of decline has increased, as post-colonial Middle Eastern states have dealt with political instability, wars, and oftentimes outbreaks of interfaith violence.

Christians in the Middle East are a diverse group, speaking several different languages and practicing multiple forms of Christianity.  The following article, published in 2017 in the Harvard University Christian student magazine, Ichthus, describes the main Christian sects in the modern Middle East.


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Keys to Understanding the Middle East by Stephen C Cory, Alam Payind and Melinda McClimans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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