Over 20 centuries, Christianity in the Middle East has developed into varied Church communities in response to multiple challenges from inside and out. Hugh Wybrew completes his quick overview.
Read part one of this series
Eastern Church members join with the Roman Catholic Church (15th-20th centuries)
Later, at various times, some members of all the Eastern Churches entered into communion with Rome. In the early eighteenth century the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch split, and those who entered into communion with Rome in the Middle East are known as Greek Catholics or Melkites, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic and Coptic Catholic Churches were formed from their corresponding Oriental Orthodox Churches, while the Chaldean Catholic Church was formed from the Church of the East. It is the largest church in Iraq.
The arrival of Western reformed traditions (19th century)
The reformed tradition came into the Middle East in the nineteenth century. American Presbyterian missionaries worked in Egypt, Lebanon and other parts of the region. The Church of England and the Prussian Lutheran Church jointly set up a bishopric in Jerusalem in 1841. It came to an end in the early 1880s, and separate Anglican and Lutheran bishoprics were set up towards the end of the decade. The original purpose was to convert Jews to Christianity. In that aim it largely failed, but it attracted a small number of existing Christians, mostly Orthodox or Greek Catholic , in what is now Israel, the Occupied Territories and Jordan.
Uncertain future (20th-21st century)
All the Churches in the Middle East are losing members through emigration. There is growing hostility to Christians throughout the region, in part a consequence of the rise of a more assertive from of Islam, in part a reaction to Western political influence in the Middle East. The West’s failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the American-led invasions of Iraq are widely perceived as instances of the Christian West’s hostility to Islam. Large numbers of Christians fled from Iraq after the Second Gulf War, and a steady stream of Christian emigrants from all the churches has raised fears that Christianity could become extinct in its original homelands, including Jerusalem itself. Recent events in Iraq and Syria have made the extinction of Christianity in those areas more probable. Wherever ISIS, or the Islamic State, has conquered territory, Christians are given the choice of conversion to Islam, payment of a tax, or death. Almost all are choosing to leave.
All the Eastern Churches and the major Western Churches are represented in Jerusalem, whose holy places have been the goal of Christian pilgrimage since the fourth century. The largest communities are the Greek Orthodox, the Greek Catholics, and the Latins, as Roman Catholics are known. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land is responsible for the holy sites belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the other Eastern Churches have small communities in Jerusalem, while others are in effect diplomatic representations. There are small communities of Anglicans, Lutherans and other reformed traditions in the city.
Canon Hugh Wybrew is a former Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and a Director of JEMT (Jerusalem and Middle East Trust). This article first appeared in Bible Lands magazine and is reproduced with kind permission of Canon Wybrew and The Jerusalem and Middle East Church Association.