Christianity today

The Christian presence in the Middle East consists of a number of groups or families of Churches with a variety and wealth of liturgical practice, historical tradition, communal culture and political viewpoints that they stand for and express.

The Eastern (Byzantine) or Greek Orthodox Church

With Patriarchates in Jerusalem, Damascus (originally Antioch), Alexandria and Istanbul (Constantinople) this Church belongs to the same family as the Russian, Romanian, Greek and other great national Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe, and accepts the authority of the seven ecumenical Councils.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is frequently called 'Greek' locally because of its historical links with (Greek) Byzantium. But the name is confusing for, in the Arab world, the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem are the most Arab of the historic Churches. Their membership of over half a million is almost totally Arab.

The Oriental (Non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox Churches

These Churches are distinguished from the other historic Christian communities in that they do not accept the definitions of the Council of Chalcedon concerning the person of Christ. In Egypt the Coptic Orthodox Church of over eight million is by far the largest Christian community in the area. The Armenians (300,000) and Syrians (100,000) in the Arab world number somewhat fewer than the Eastern Orthodox. They have come into the international fellowship later than the other Churches of the East.

In recent years the doctrinal differences between these two families have been reconciled.

Catholic - both Roman and Eastern rite

These are churches in communion with Rome, hence the name 'uniate'. They are mostly constituted of descendants of members of the two Orthodox Church families who broke from these relationships for historical and doctrinal reasons to affiliate with Rome. But they have maintained their eastern liturgies and practices. The largest is the Maronite Church in Lebanon which claims to have an unbroken continuity with Rome. There are additionally Latin rite Catholic Churches in most countries.

The Assyrian Church of the East

This Church traces its origins to Christian communities in East Syria. It accepts the authority of the first two ecumenical Councils only. It members are mainly found in Iraq and Iran, though many have emigrated from the region in recent decades.

Protestant and Anglican Churches

These Churches, together with a variety of independent and non-denominational Christians are the result of missionary endeavour mainly from America and Britain, beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century. Their educational, medical and social work is strong, as are their contributions to Bible translation and Christian communication. For this reason alone they have had an influence well out of proportion to their very small numbers.

The original intention to work mainly among Muslims and Jews has in many cased proved impossible to achieve. Inasmuch as their members have been drawn from the ancient Churches they are charged with the offence of proselytism, which has left a legacy of bitterness. But Church relations are recovering from this history of resentment and misunderstanding, partly as a result of joint participation in such bodies as the Middle East Council of Churches, which was established in its present form in 1974. Although the Catholic churches are not members, relationships with the Catholics of both Latin and Eastern rites are good, especially in Lebanon.

A very signal achievement of the MECC has been to draw these Churches together in common programmes of service. There is also a strong programme designed to further the course of Christian unity by moving towards doctrinal agreement between Churches; such an achievement in lands which cradled the origins of Christianity, and our first divisions, would be immensely significant.

Recently arrived Christian Communities

The oil-rich economies of the region, in particular,  have attracted people from across the world for employment and to make a new life in the region, particularly the  Gulf States. From the 1980s significant numbers of Christians from India, Pakistan, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, elsewhere in Asia and a number of African countries have moved  to take up work (often low paid) mainly in the oil rich states but also in Egypt, North Africa and Lebanon. In a number of countries they have formed large congregations, and at times the Christian communities significantly outnumber the citizens. The expatriate phenomenon in these states is different from other countries because they retain their national and linguistic orientation in worship rather than simply joining in with local churches, which of their nature in the Gulf States, are expatriate. It is important to note that their numbers (including all nationalities and all strata in the economy) are significant expression of Christian identity alongside the historic Christian Churches..

Section based on Towards Understanding the Arab Israeli Conflict - The Report of a British Council of Churches Delegation to the Middle East (1982)