The history of the Christian Church in the Middle East and North Africa with its numerous internal disputes and external influences is complex, as all the present conflicts in the region have underlined. In a two-part article, Revd Canon Hugh Wybrew offers an overview of the major events of the past 20 centuries which have resulted in the multi-faceted Christian Church that exists in the region today.
The start and spread of Christianity
Disputes and splits within the Church (5th century)
Doctrinal disputes in the fifth century provoked splits in the Church. Disagreements concerned how Jesus Christ should be understood as both human and divine. The third and fourth ecumenical councils of Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451, attempted to resolve these doctrinal disputes. Their decisions were not acceptable to significant groups of Christians in the Middle East. One group refused to accept the Council of Ephesus’ ruling that Mary not only could but should be called Mother of God. Another found the decision of Council of Chalcedon that Jesus Christ was one Person in two natures unacceptable. The former became the Church of the East, strongest in East Syria and Persia, with its centre at Seleucia-Ctesiphon in present-day Iraq, south of Baghdad. It was also present in southern India. Its missions reached as far as China before it was decimated in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by the Mongols. Those who refused to accept the Council of Chalcedon formed a family of Churches, in Syria, Armenia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, known today as Oriental Orthodox. Neither group is in communion with the Eastern Orthodox Church or with the Roman Catholic Church.
The largest of the Oriental Orthodox Churches is the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. The great majority of Christians in Ethiopia belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, historically closely linked with the Copts. The Syriac Orthodox Church is to be found in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. The Armenian Orthodox Church is the historic church of the Armenian people. The Church of the East, sometimes known as the Assyrian Church, has its modern headquarters in Chicago. Probably the majority of its members now live in the United States, while others survive in Iraq and elsewhere.
Muslim conquest, crusades and the Roman Catholic Church (7th-13th centuries)
After the Arab Muslim conquest of the Middle East and North Africa in the seventh century, Christianity slowly declined in those regions. By the tenth century Christians constituted some ten percent of the population of the Islamic Empire. Into this situation at the end of the eleventh century came the Crusades, which brought with them the Roman Catholic Church. Dominant in the regions of the East Mediterranean where the crusaders established short-lived states, the Roman Catholic Church remained as a minority after the last Crusaders left at the end of the thirteenth century. During the crusader period, in the thirteenth century one group of Eastern Christians, the Maronites, entered in its entirety into communion with Rome. The Maronite Church is the largest Christian group in Lebanon.
Read part 2 of this series on unity between Eastern Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, the arrival of Western Protestant Churches, and the future facing the Churches of the Middle East.