Christianity in the Middle East 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 in the Middle East differed significantly from those in Europe.

The first wave of Crusaders under the guidance of Pope Urban II had been profoundly disturbed by what they found throughout the Eastern world, including what is now Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. As MacEvitt (2008) points out, the crusaders were “alarmed by the religious diversity of the Christian world of the Middle East” (2). In the 21st century, the same type of alarm continues to grip those whose worldviews are too narrow. The clash of civilizations was more than a clash of religions; it was a true clash of cultures. Frankish Christians colonizing the Middle East in the name of Christ, to preserve Christian values and promote the gospel, had to face once again the difficult questions that continued to plague the faith such as how to frame the divinity of Christ, how to codify the gospel, or which sacraments or rites were required for salvation. These and other questions included right modes of Christian practice, attitude, and doctrine. The Crusades helped to highlight how diverse the Christian world had become by the Middle Ages. The Melkites, a local Christian group that became allied with Rome, the Maronites in Lebanon, who also allied themselves with Rome, and the Jacobites engaged in heated theological linguistic and cultural debates.

To formalize the Crusades, several Christian military organizations were founded in order to protect the integrity of the faith and propagate its messages throughout the world. These organizations included the Knights Templar, the Teutonic Knights, and the Hospitalliers. These militaristic Christian organizations maintained troops on the ground in the Holy Land, with the express purpose of preserving Christian relics and appropriating their value for use in Europe. With the first Crusade, Christians captured key cities like Antioch, Nicaea, and especially Jerusalem, all traditionally Christian and now to be made Christian again. The Frankish Catholics also successfully colonized areas of North Africa and the Maghreb, enabling new types of Christianity to penetrate there. In fact, the success of the first Crusade was known to be “miraculous” because the Turkish presence was dominant, and Christian troops had travelled excessively long distances (MacEvitt, 2008, p. 4). From this point, the Crusades changed their character from a purely theological one to more of a political one.

In spite of their sharing a mutual grounding in faith in Christ, the Franks treated local Christians in the Middle East harshly. This may have seemed a necessary evil in order to ensure the spread of the gospel in the way deemed suitable by the Roman Catholic Church. However, there is some evidence to suggest that the Crusaders did not have purely holy intentions in mind during their military campaigns. The first Crusade was proclaimed to be a “miracle” it was claimed to be, but second waves of Crusades seemed more politically and financially motivated. The most obvious indication that subsequent crusades were less about Christ and more about mundane gains was the fact that the Sinai Peninsula was overlooked in favor of more “fertile” territory for colonization (MacEvitt, 2008, p. 5). Had the crusaders been purely motivated by religious reasons, they would have sought to preserve the integrity of some of the holiest spots in Biblical history. Still, the Frankish empire in the Levant became extensive and allowed Christianity to exist even within a strictly Islamic political framework. Christianity therefore survived tenuously, and only occasionally thrived, in the years subsequent to the Crusades.

The aggressiveness of both Muslim expansionism and the Catholic Crusades planted the seeds of mutual mistrust, which continue to haunt the globe today. Whereas prior to the Middle Ages, Christianity and Islam coexisted relatively peaceably, after the Crusades, both sides waged a holy war. Islam was framed as a “diabolical error” by Christians, as an Apocalyptic battle between the forces of Christian good and the forces of infidel evil (Tolan, 1996, p. xiii). The ongoing clash of civilizations that wages in the 21st century is merely an extension of what took place about a thousand years ago in the name of Christ.

Two major political and social changes dealt another blow to Christianity in the Middle East: the Mongol conquest and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Because the Mongols were not Christian, they initially appeared to offer a potential ally to Christians in Central Asia (Jenkins, n.d.). However, the Mongols converted to Islam and became brutal rulers in Babylonia and former Mesopotamia. “Christian communities were uprooted or wiped out across the Middle East and ceased to exist in most of central Asia. Churches suffered mass closure or destruction, bishops and clergy were tortured and imprisoned. Christianity survived, but was confined to poorer and more remote regions,” (Jenkins, n.d., p. 1). For centuries, Christianity barely survived in any form other than ruins in some parts of the Middle East.

However, some Christian communities survived in Syria, Iraq, the Levant, and Egypt. The Middle Eastern Christian groups that did survive through the modern era include Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian, Coptic Orthodox, and the Chaldean Catholic Church of Iraq. These groups did not remain static or monolithic during the past several centuries, in spite of their lack of access to new recruits or methods of rejuvenation. Moreover, the evolution of these churches was far from static in spite of their being socially and politically subjugated. Largely due to increased access to information and changing social and political dynamics, these Middle Eastern Christian groups have developed strong doctrines and cohesive communities. Changes in their allegiances with Rome, or later, allegiances with Protestant organizations, also altered the composition of Christianity in the Middle East, and especially their doctrinal and ritualistic manifestations. In the 18th century, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch split (The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association, 2011). Also in the 18th century, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Jerusalem became Catholic, influencing the Coptic churches in Egypt (Timbie, 2010). In the 19th century, Protestantism made its way to the Middle East. Presbyterian missions left their mark on Egypt and Lebanon by the early nineteenth century.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire had a major impact on Christianity in the Middle East as it changed the entire social, cultural, political, and economic fabric of the region. As the empire weakened during the 19th century, European reform churches including the Church of England and the Prussian Lutheran Church began to establish missionary outposts and even bishoprics in the Levant and in Jerusalem (The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association, 2011). Interestingly, “the original purpose was to convert Jews to Christianity. In that aim it largely failed, but attracted a small number of existing Christians,” (The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association, 2011). Furthermore, these Christian outposts became a means by which to facilitate control over and colonization of the region in the wake of the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire reached its official terminus with World War One, the British and French interests did impact the development of Christianity in the Middle East. Due to the fragmentation and instability that ensued subsequent to Ottoman rule, Christians in the Middle East faced uncertain futures. Whereas their presence was loosely tolerated under the Ottomans, the new nation-states formed in ways that tended to be strongly anti-Western and anti-colonialist. Because Christianity had been long linked to European culture, Christians found themselves in an awkward position. Many emigrated to Western nations like England, Canada, and the United States (The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association, 2011). The result has been dwindling numbers of Christians in the Middle East.

Still, there have been some attempts to revitalize Christianity in the Middle East. Assistance from external churches, such as American reform churches, Roman Catholic churches, and a variety of Eastern Orthodox churches, have helped local Christian communities bolster their resources. The greatest challenge to Christianity in the Middle East remains persecution. Because the ancient churches of the Middle East, such as the varieties of Eastern Orthodox, Chaldean, Maronites, Coptic, and Assyrian churches are “theologically and culturally alien to many American Catholics and evangelicals,” it has been difficult to forge genuine and meaningful long-term global alliances with other churches (Douthat, 2014). If this were to change, Christian groups may have more political clout.

Furthermore, Christianity was born in the Middle East and the region remains important for Christian pilgrimages. Pilgrimages to archaeological sites and archives with significant textual holdings link together the seemingly disparate branches of Christianity that have evolved differently over the years. It is important to remember that Europe was the continent where Christianity thrived only because it was not destroyed. Matters could easily have developed — and may yet develop — very differently,” (Jenkins, n.d.). “Christianity became predominantly European not because the continent had any obvious affinity for the faith, but by default,” (Jenkins, n.d.). The Middle East does foster some Christian communities, such as those extant in Lebanon. Christianity in the Middle East has taken a trajectory so completely different from Christianity in Europe that it appears a gap has developed that is unbridgeable.

Perceived cultural differences, and age-old doctrinal disputes related to the nature of Christ, prevent unity between Eastern and Western types of Christianity. Christianity is practiced differently in the Middle East than it is in Europe, North America, and Africa. Because of these differences, the nature of Christianity in the Middle East cannot be distinguished from its linguistic and cultural context. Arab scripture and local iconography have indelibly shaped the flavor of Christianity around the world. Because Christianity traces its roots to Syria, the Levant, and North Africa, more attention needs to be paid to this rich but troubled region. Unfortunately, Douthat (2014) claims Christianity “is now the globe’s most persecuted religion.” Christian tourism in the Middle East will continue to be strong, and has the potential to transform the status of Christians in the Middle East. Because of this, Christianity does have the potential to thrive in the Middle East as long as political persecution is not a problem. Christianity remains scattered in pockets, and each community contends with different political and social conditions that impact its survival.


Douthat, R. (2014). The Middle East’s friendless Christians. The New York Times. 13 Sept, 2014. Retrieved online:

Jenkins, P. (n.d.). The forgotten Christian world. History Today 59(4). Retrieved online:

The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association (2011). A history of Christianity in the Middle East and North Africa. JMECA. Retrieved online:

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

Parry, K. (2010). The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity. UK: Wiley.

Thomas, C. (2014). Help desperately needed for Middle East Christians. Washington Times. 27 Oct, 2014. Retrieved online:

Thomas, D. (2010). Arab Christianity. In Parry, K. (Ed), The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity. UK: Wiley.

Timbie, J.A. (2010). Coptic Christianity. In Parry, K. (Ed), The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity. UK: Wiley.

Tolan, J.V. (1996). Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam. New York: Routledge.

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