Christian Communities

From the book Minorities in the Arab World , A.H. Hourani. Oxford University Press, 1947. 


The book is a survey that covers  religious minorities in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. These countries formed part of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries and the majority of their populations is Arabic in language and therefore to a great extent in culture.  The Christian minorities are the original monotheistic inhabitants of the Middle East.


The Christian communities may be divided into five main groups: 


(1)   The Greek Orthodox


They are adherents of the Orthodox Eastern Church, which is a group of autocephalous Churches using the Byzantine rite. Historically these Churches grew out of the four Eastern Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople, which from an early date tended to diverge form the Western Patriarchate of Rome for a number of reasons. The final split too place in the eleventh century. From that time, with the exception of a brief period of reunion in the fifteenth century, the Eastern Church has continued to reject the claim of the Roman Patriarchate to universal supremacy. Doctrinally the main point at issue between the Eastern and Western Churches is that of the Procession of the Holy Ghost, and there are also various divergences in ritual and discipline such as the married priesthood.  


The Orthodox of the countries of the Middle East are subject to the jurisdiction of three of the four Eastern Patriarchates. That of Antioch is almost wholly Arab as regards hierarchy, laity and liturgy. In that of Jerusalem, the upper clergy are Greek, the lower clergy and most of the laity Arab. In that of Alexandria  there are both Greek and Arab elements. 


(2)   The Nestorians


The Nestorian Church grew out of the Christological controversies of the fifth century. The Antioch school of theologians emphasized the distinction between the Logos and the man Jesus to the point of obscuring the real union between them. The doctrine was condemned by the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) but continued to find adherents in Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia, where, for reasons not wholly theological, a strong Nestorian Church grew up. The church and the missions were largely destroyed by Tamerlane in the fourteenth century. Today, the Assyrians of Iraq and Syria are all that is left of them. 


Doctrinally, the distinguishing mark of the Nestorian Church is its rejection of the statements of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon (AD 451) on the nature of Christ. It has an independent ecclesiastical organization, with a Patriarch, the Mar Shimun, as its head. Formerly his residence was in Northern Iraq, but since the Assyrian incident of 1933 he has been in exile. The Church also has a distinctive Syria liturgy. 


(3) The Monophysites


The Monophysite doctrine represents a reaction against Nestorianism. It emphasizes the union between Christ and the man Jesus to the point of maintaining that Christ has not only one Person but also one Nature, a divine one. Formally condemned by the Council of Chalcedon, this doctrine continued to exist, particularly in Egypt and Syria where the Monophysite movement had something of the character of a separatist revolt against the Byzantine Government and Church. Eventually the Monophysites formed independent Churches which were placed on a level with the Greek orthodox Church by the Arabs in the seventh century. 


There are three Monophysite churches in the Arab countries:


            (a) The Coptic Church in Egypt. This rejects the profession of faith drawn up at Chalcedon and all ecclesiastical authorities except its own Patriarch of Alexandria. It has a distinctive liturgy in Greek, Coptic and Arabic.


            (b) The Jacobite or Syrian Orthodox Church, which was revived and organized in the sixth century. Its doctrinal position is the same as that of the Copts, but it has its own Syriac liturgy and an independent hierarchy under the Patriarch of Antioch, whose seat was formerly Mardin and is now Homs.


            (c) The Armenian Orthodox or Gregorian Church was organized in the third century and became autocephalous as a national church in he fourth century. In the sixth century it rejected the formulations of Chalcedon and adopted a form of Monophysitism which is slightly different from that of the Copts and Syrian Orthodox. The   Armenian Orthodox Church is still a national church to be found wherever Armenians live. It has an organization which is somewhat unique: five Patriarchs of whom the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin in Armenia is the most exalted, and an Armenian liturgy. 


An offshoot of the Monophysites was the Monothelete doctrine, that Christ possesses both a divine and a human Nature but only a divine Will. After being favored for political reasons by the Emperor Heraclius in the seventh century, this doctrine was condemned bu the Council of Constantinople in AD 680. It then survived only among the Maronites of Lebanon, who themselves abandoned it in the twelfth century. 


(4) The Roman Catholic and Uniate Churches fall into two classes:


              (a) The Roman Catholics of the Western or Latin rite, fully part of the Roman Catholic Church and subject to the direct jurisdiction of its hierarchy. There is a Roman Catholic Patriarch in Jerusalem and Apostolic Delegates in Beirut, Cairo and Baghdad.


             (b) The Uniate Churches, ie churches of members of churches which were formerly heretical or schismatic in Roman eyes, but which at some point in the past abjures those doctrines which the roman Church regards heretical and acknowledged Papal supremacy. They are allowed to retain their own Oriental rites and customs (eg the marriage of parish priests) and were granted autonomy under their own elected Patriarchs. Six Uniate Churches exist int eh Arab countries:
                      (i) The Greek Catholic Church: Greek liturgy, Patriarch of Alexandria, resident in
                      (ii)The Syrian Catholic Church: Syriac liturgy, Patriarch of Antioch, resident in
                     (iii)The Armenian Catholic Church. Armenian liturgy, Patriarch of Constantinople, resident near            Beirut.
                    (iv)The Chaldean Catholic Church: Syrian liturgy, Patriarch of Babylon, resident in Mosul.
                    (v) The Coptic Catholic Church: Arabic liturgy.
                    (vi) The Maronite Church: Syrian liturgy, Patriarch of Antioch, resident in
It may be noted that the Maronite Church differs form the others in that it accepted Papal supremacy as a result of the activities of Catholic missions or for other reasons. 


(5) The Protestants, the fruit of the labour of missionaries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most of the Protestant missions were English or American , and a few from other European nations.