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Ancient and Fragile Churches

by Giorgio Bernardelli

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  • Description:
    In the Arab countries they are fewer and fewer Christians, driven to exodus by growing hostility. This article is an up-to-date map, taken from issue no. 22 of 2013 of the magazine Il Regno of the Sacred Heart fathers of Bologna, written by an expert in the field. The English excerpt appeared in Chiesa online in an article by Sandro Magister.
  • Larger Work:
    Chiesa
  • Pages: 692 - 694
  • Publisher & Date:
    Il Regno, December 2013

How many Christians are there in the Middle East? To how many Churches do they belong, and what are they like? In order to get our bearings, the reference point is made up of the patriarchates of Christianity in the first centuries, which in addition to Rome and Constantinople assigned a role of the first rank also to Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.

THE COPTS

Looking at the numbers today, one cannot help but begin with the Christians of Egypt, the heirs of the patriarchate of Alexandria. And specifically with the Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II, responsible for more than 90 percent of the Christians in Egypt.

It is called Coptic Orthodox, but it must be clarified immediately that it has nothing to do with the Orthodoxy that is the daughter of the schism between Rome and Constantinople. The genesis of an autonomous Egyptian Church in fact sets down its roots in the refusal of the patriarch of Alexandria to participate in the Council of Chalcedon in 451, at the time of the theological disputes over the nature of Jesus.

The Copts are today the most numerous Christian community in the Middle East. But how many are there? In the last two census surveys of 1996 and 2006 the question about religious membership in Egypt was omitted from the questionnaires, following a guideline in this direction given by the United Nations. Only that this has fostered two parallel reckonings.

On one side there is that of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which based on its records maintains that Christians are 10 percent of the country's population, or between 8 and 9 million.

On the other side are the official statistics, which maintain that there are far fewer: in 2012 the government agency said that there were no more than 5,130,000 Christians. And also an independent source like the Pew Research Center in the United States estimates that there are only 4,290,000 Christians in Egypt, equal to 5.3 percent of the population. It is not to be taken for granted, however, that the official statistics are more accurate: one must take into account the fact that Egypt is not only Cairo and - above all for the most outlying districts - even the numbers on the overall population are highly dubious.

It must be added that the number of Egyptian Christians also includes the Coptic Catholic Church, which is Coptic in rite but in communion with Rome, headed by Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, which numbers about 160,000 faithful. And then there are the Egyptian Christians of evangelical origin, who are estimated at around 250,000.

If there are so many uncertainties about the Copts in Egypt, the matter can be no different when it comes to estimating the numbers of Egyptian Christians who have left the country in recent years.

What is certain is that the most substantial community of the diaspora is that of the United States, where the figure of 900,000 persons is circulated. There are also very large communities in Canada (about 200,000) and in Australia (75,000). As of a couple of years ago, the Coptic presence in European countries was smaller.

All of this, however, does not take into account those who have left the country in the past two years. On this the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has released an estimate that speaks of 100,000 Christians having fled from Egypt after the fall of Mubarak. A figure that is contested by the Coptic Orthodox Church, which speaks of just a few tens of thousands of persons, but it also has interests in containing the phenomenon.

THE GREEK ORTHODOX

These are the heirs of the patriarchate of Jerusalem, which in antiquity always remained within the orbit of Constantinople. But they are also one of the various strands born from the see of Antioch, the most beleaguered patriarchate in history.

It is partly for this reason that the Greek Orthodox in the Middle East still find themselves under the jurisdiction of two distinct patriarchates: that of Jerusalem - currently led by Patriarch Theophilos III - which numbers approximately 500,000 faithful and is the most numerous Christian community in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan; and the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch, which has its see in Damascus and for a few months has been headed by Patriarch Youhanna X Yazigi, the brother of one of the two bishops kidnapped in Aleppo.

It is estimated that this patriarchate is responsible for roughly 2 million faithful, in addition to Syria including the Orthodox communities of Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, and above all the emigrants of the diaspora, present in very significant numbers in the United States, Latin America, Australia, and western Europe.

This diaspora began well before the tragedy that Syria is living through now, but the war is certainly accentuating it. If in the spring of 2011 it was estimated that there were more than 500,000 Greek Orthodox in Syria, today this number can only be flanked with many dramatic question marks. One eloquent figure is provided by Melkite patriarch Gregory III Laham, according to whom out of 1.5 million Syrian Christians at least 450,000 have had to leave their homes because of the war.

THE MELKITES

We just cited them along with the Greek Orthodox of the patriarchate of Alexandria, and not by accident. The Melkites were in fact born from a division within that community, which took place in 1724 when the patriarch of Constantinople did not recognize the election to the Greek Orthodox see of Antioch of Cyril VI, seen as being too close to the West. Five years later, he returned to full communion with Rome, preserving the Byzantine rite.

Like the Coptic Catholics, therefore, the Melkites as well are an Eastern-rite Catholic Church. According to the statistics of the Annuario Pontificio, they now number about 1.6 million faithful. Only 750,000 of these, however, still live in the Middle East, less than half; and it is striking to note that a number almost as large currently resides in Latin America.

In the Middle East the Melkites are present in different countries: in Syria there were about 235,000 (but as for their current number the same discussion applies as for the Syrian Greek Orthodox), in Lebanon almost 400,000, and smaller communities in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. The Melkite patriarch also has his see in Damascus.

THE SYRIANS

The Byzantine is however not the only face of Christianity born from the patriarchate of Antioch. Here as well, in fact, a first schism had already taken place at the time of the council of Chalcedon and the heirs of that community can still be found in the Syriac Orthodox Church. A Church of the greatest missionary tradition in the first millennium, witnessed to by the fact that there are still more than 5 million Syriac Orthodox living in India, compared to the million residing in the Middle East and the diaspora.

Another significant characteristic is the fact that this Church has kept as its liturgical language Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Since 1980 the Syriac Church has been led by patriarch Mar Zakka I, who has his see at Saydnaya near Damascus but resides in Beirut.

There also exists a Syriac Catholic Church with a history parallel to that of the Melkites, even if their communion with Rome dates back a century earlier. There are currently 140,000 Syriac Catholics in the Middle East, most of them living in Syria and Iraq, led by Patriarch Ignatius III Younan.

THE MARONITES

Also in the line of the Syriac tradition are the Maronites, the Eastern-rite Catholic Church with the greatest number of faithful.

The Maronites are the majority Christian group in Lebanon. They are heirs of Syriac-rite communities that adhered to the council of Chalcedon in 451. In Lebanon, according to the data of the Annuario Pontificio, they are just under 1.6 million in a country of 4 million inhabitants. And this makes the country of the Cedars the one with the highest percentage of Christians, around 36 percent.

Here as well, however, it must be recalled that emigration hit hard, especially during the years of civil war. Today about half of the 3.5 million Maronites live far from the Middle East, with the most substantial group, more than 1.3 million, in Latin America.

The Maronite Church is led by Patriarch Bechara Rai, who today is the only patriarch who is also a cardinal. The Coptic Catholic Anthonios Naguib was a cardinal too, but he had to resign from the see of Alexandria for grave reasons of health.

THE CHALDEANS

Another thread of Syriac Christianity is that of the Assyrian Church, which today numbers 400,000 faithful between Iraq and the diaspora and is based in Chicago, where its patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV, also lives. From it come the Chaldeans, the majority group among Iraqi Christians.

The Chaldean is also an Eastern-rite Catholic Church, in communion with Rome since 1553. And it is the community that has suffered in its flesh the whole drama of the period following Saddam Hussein. Before the war there were at least a million Chaldeans in Iraq, but now there are only 300-400 thousand, mostly concentrated in the area of Iraqi Kurdistan. A frightening exodus that threatens to resume after in recent weeks - partly because of the combination of sectarian clashes in Baghdad and the war in Iraq - the number of attacks in the country is again on the rise.

The current situation has led Chaldean patriarch Raphael Sako to use very strong tones recently against the flight of Christians, coming to the point of accusing some Western countries of fomenting it through the granting of entrance visas for Iraqis.

THE ARMENIANS

Also historically significant for the Middle East is the presence of Christians of the Armenian tradition. In this case as well it is a matter of an ancient Eastern Church that did not adhere to the council of Chalcedon in 451.

In spite of having its spiritual center in Echmiadzin - in modern-day Armenia - the Armenian Apostolic Church has two important sees in the Middle East: the Catholicosate of Cilicia, which has jurisdiction over Lebanon and Syria and is led by Catholicos Aram I, and the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem, occupied by Patriarch Nourhan Manougian.

The largest community in numeric terms is in Lebanon, where there are about 150,000 Armenians. There were another 100,000 in Syria, mostly in the area of Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor, the final destination of the long forced marches of the persecution carried out by the Young Turks. Armenians are also the great majority of Iranian Christians (80-100 thousand).

In this case as well there is an Armenian-rite Church in communion with Rome: it is that headed by Armenian patriarch of Cilicia Nerses Bedros XIX, based in Beirut. This community numbers about 540,000 faithful in the world, fewer than 60,000 of whom however live in the Middle East today.

THE LATINS

Where in this complex picture does the Latin-rite Church fit in, with its fulcrum in the patriarchate of Jerusalem headed by Fouad Twal? Its jurisdiction is over those communities of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan that blossomed over the centuries around the presence of religious orders of the Latin Church in the Middle East, Franciscans in the first place, but not only them.

It is a small community: apart from the new phenomenon of immigration, the Latin community currently numbers about 235,000 faithful in the whole region, just 7 percent of the Christians in communion with Rome.

It is the group that together with the Greek Orthodox and the Melkites has suffered the most on account of the exodus from the Holy Land. Today there are only 27,500 Latins in Israel, 18,000 in Palestine, 50,000 in Jordan.

Generally speaking the number of Christians in Palestine has been cut in half since 2000, dropping from 2 to 1 percent of the population. The data are most complex for Israel, where the central statistics office speaks of 158,000 Christians, stable at around 2 percent of the population; but this is a number with two sides to it, because while in Galilee the Christian community is growing according to the normal dynamics of a young population, in Jerusalem the Christians have remained just 6,000 in a city that now numbers 780,000 inhabitants, while there were more than twice as many in 1967, when Israel took control of all of Jerusalem and there were only 260,00 inhabitants in the city.

But the discussion of the Latins remains incomplete if one does not also address the issue of Christian immigrants who in recent years have come to the Middle East by the hundreds of thousands, driven by the new routes of the global labor market.

These are Filipinos, Indians, Thais, but also Romanians and Nigerians. In Israel the Filipinos alone are more than 50,000, or practically double the Arab Christians who attend the Latin-rite parishes.

This phenomenon becomes even more macroscopic if the view is expanded to the Arabian Peninsula, a land where until a few years ago Christians practically did not exist.

Thanks to immigration, today there are 1.2 million Christians in Saudi Arabia (4.4 percent of the population), 950,000 in the United Arab Emirates (12.6 percent), 240,000 in Kuwait (8.8 percent), 168,000 in Qatar (9.6 percent), 120,000 in Oman (4.3 percent), 88,000 in Bahrein (7 percent).

This is, however, a Christian presence that is structurally foreign, exposed to precariousness and, when it comes to the countries in the Gulf, subjected to heavy restrictions on its religious life.

It must finally be added that - although they are canonically under the jurisdiction of the Latin bishops of the two vicariates of Arabia - among the Christians of these countries there are also many Indians belonging to the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches.

English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.

© Il Regno - Via Scipione Dal Ferro, 4 - 40138 Bologna –The complete text of the article in Italian, in "Il Regno" 22/2013

© 1999-2014 Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso Spa - Partita IVA 00906801006

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