The Christian East

August 4, 2009

The Pope recently took a tour of the Middle East. He might have stopped at Jerusalem and some other holy cities as well. He made a number of speeches about Christians and Muslims and Jews getting along, and then got on his way.

This was all dutifully covered by the news organizations.

Forgotten by all but scholars and bookworms, is the fact that for the most part, Christians in the Middle East and Near East are anything but Catholics. The Assyrian Church or Church of the Near East, which up through the 15th Century used to command millions of followers, continues to have followers in Iran and Iraq; the Coptic Orthodox Church is the dominant Christian Church in Egypt, and its followers are the original Eqyptians, the ones who built the pyramids (the muslim Egyptians are Arabs and Mamluks; Coptic is a version of spoken hieratic ancient Egyptian); the Lebanese are pretty evenly split between the Orthodox (eastern church) and the Maronites (western church); the Armenian Orthodox continue to exist in small but significant numbers in Iran as well as the newly formed Armenian Republic; and in the rest of the near East, notwithstanding the wholesale expulsions of Armenian and Greek Orthodox by the Ottomans in 1923, Orthodox Christians far outnumber Catholics everywhere in the Middle East and Near East.

This is why when scholars and bookworms speak of the East, they speak of the “Christian East.”

Secondly, the catholic presence in the Middle East was first introduced by the several Crusades, beginning in 1096 and thereafter, and after their expiration with the last failed crusade at Varna in 1396 and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Jesuits continued missionary activities throughout the Middle East, largely on behalf of the French, mainly to convert Orthodox subjects of the Sublime Porte to Catholicism, since it was forbidden to convert Muslims to Orthodoxy.

During the Crusades and thereafter, the Catholic Church set up a series of parallel bishoprics and patriarchates which essentially duplicate the hiearachical structure of the Eastern Orthodox prelates and Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire’s Church as it then stood in 1096 A.D.; if there was a greek patriarch in Antioch, they replaced him with a latin patriarch, if there was a greek patriarch in Jerusalem, they replaced him with a latin patriarch, if there was a greek patriarch in Edessa, they replaced him with a latin patriarch, and so forth ad nauseam.

Consequently, even though the Crusades are long gone (and the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire as well) the dual Eastern Church/Catholic titles (and dual office holders) in the middle east still co-exist, confusingly so. There are still catholic and greek bishops and patriarchs of many middle eastern cities, and they often have fights and squabbles for control of sacred places and relics, most notably over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was commended to the care of the Eastern Orthodox Church by St. Constantine and his mother St. Helena in the 4th Century A.D., which is built over the tomb of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

That these petty fights and squabbles are often mediated by the Arabs (or Jews) who actually own the land in question demonstrates the practical reality that in the Middle East, everyone must really get along; it’s not a hollow truism merely echoed by the Pope as one more speech, but an actual, living fact of living as an oppressed Christian minority in a Muslim land.

To really appreciate the value of being Christian, or simply the value of freedom of religion which we enjoy here in America, one should live as an oppressed Christian minority for a year in a land which is overwhelmingly muslim or otherwise non-christian for a year or two.

It will shed great light on our great freedom of worship here.

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