Arabic: ‘al-masihiyya or ‘an-nasrāniyya
1. Myths and Theology
4. Holy places
Armenian church in Baghdad, Iraq.
Christianity: Icon of Babai the Great, in the Nestorian church of Baghdad, Iraq.
Armenian Orthodox Church
Eastern Rite Churches (Catholic)
Armenian Catholic Church
Chaldean Catholic Church
Coptic Catholic Church
Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Syrian Catholic Church
Greek Orthodox Church
Roman Catholic Church
Syrian Orthodox Church
Christians by country
Last column: % Christians in the population
Algeria4,500<0.1%Bahrain60,0008.5%Egypt7,300,00010.0%Iran510,0000.7%Iraq1,300,0005.2%Israel210,0003.1%Jordan360,0006.1%Kuwait250,0009.0%Lebanon1,450,00039.0%Libya100,0001.7%Mauritania300<0.1%Morocco100,0000.3%Oman80,0002.4%Palestine100,0002.4%Qatar100,00012.0%1) Saudi Arabia880,0003.5%Spanish North Africa94,00073.0%Sudan2,500,0006.3%Syria1,670,0008.5%Tunisia20,0000.2%Turkey130,0000.2%United Arab Emirates1,420,00030.0%Western Sahara160<0.1%2) Yemen5,000<0.1%Total *)18,620,0004.0%
1) All Christians belong to the expatriate community
2) As there are no updated sources, this figure is simply a guess.
*) Calculated for the total population of North Africa and the Middle East, approx. 460,000,000.
Christians by church
Last column: % adherents of the population in the Middle East and North Africa
Armenian Orthodox940,0000.2%Coptic Orthodox6,620,0001.7%Greek Orthodox870,0000.2%Nestorian750,0000.2%Protestants1,500,0000.5%Roman Catholic4,000,0000.9%Eastern Rite Chuches750,0000.2%Syrian Orthodox750,0000.2%Armenian95,000<0.1%Chaldean465,0000.1%Coptic215,0000.05%Maronite923,0000.2%Melkite Greek777,0000.2%Syrian170,0000.05%Total *)18,960,0004.0%
*) Calculated for the total population of North Africa and the Middle East, approx. 460,000,000.
January 19TeophanyBetween February 10 and March 1640LentBetween March 15 and April 167Holy WeekBetween March 22 and April 237EasterMay or June1PentecostDecember 251ChristmasCeremonies
Indicator for the birth place of Jesus, in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. Photo: amanderson.
Contents deals only with Christianity in the Middle East and North Africa, due to the geographical focus of this encyclopaedia.
Third largest religion in the Middle East/ North Africa, second to Islam and Alevism.
The many Christian churches in the region have between 14 and 20 million adherents. These figures are uncertain for a number of reasons. In some countries, the religion of expatriates is generally not included in official figures or statistics. In other countries, the Christian minority is represented with smaller figures than foreign estimates and/or the statistics of the churches themselves. The figures to the left, indicating 19 million as of 2005 are fair estimates, but cannot be verified. In the case of Iraq, with the present Muslim Religious Cleansing of Iraq, the estimates now go as low as 600,000 remaining Christians.
Christianity started as a Messianic orientation in Judaism, which in this encyclopaedia is called Jesus-Judaism. It was around 100 CE that the differences between the Jesus-Jews and Jews who did not accept and believe the stories about Jesus became so grave that a reconciliation was no longer possible. From this time on, the supporters of Jesus formed their own fully independent religious groups and developed theologies and organizations independent of Judaism and Jewish leaders.
Christianity is a religion based upon the belief that the Bible contains a divine message and that Jesus (who died between 25 and 40 CE) represents a new orientation in the relationship between man and God. There are differences on how the different churches of the Middle East and North Africa see this message, how they transmit it, and also how they define Jesus. But in general, the similarities outnumber the differences.
Myths and Theology
All Middle Eastern Churches employ a common approach to Christianity’s extraordinary metanarrative, sometimes referred to in religious or literary analysis as its mythical dimensions. These dimensions are presented at three levels: 1) The personalities and the stories of Judaism before Jesus (Old Testament); 2) Jesus, the disciples and the first apostles (New Testament); 3) The personalities of each church and their stories, down through the centuries. Within the latter level, which often has been central in forming unique identities for the different churches, stories about martyrs and saints are often found.
Central to first 2 levels of metanarratives or myths is the notion that there is only one god, and that man is offered eternal life in Paradise after death, or they will be sentenced to harsh punishment.
As Christianity understands it, the Old Testament contains the promise of Jesus as the Messiah. This creates a great divide between Christians and Jews; the two groups could be seen as defining themselves belonging to two different religious perspectives within the same history.
The actual understanding of the role of the Messiah himself was, however, different for Christianity. The Jews considered the Messiah as a political liberator of Israel, while Christians understood Jesus to be a spiritual liberator of humankind in a far broader sense. But in both religions, Messiah represented an end of the unjust world. As the Christians saw it, Jesus’ main task was to prepare for the forthcoming apocalypse and the end of Satan’s influence in the world. One book in the New Testament tells about this, Revelation. It has many similarities with the apocalyptic books of the Old Testament, but also with some of the literature in the gospels, It both threatens the unbelievers and the lukewarm, and gives promises to the many who believe.
But as the decades passed, and the promise of the end of the world was not fulfilled, one might have expected that Christians would reject the idea of a link between Jesus and the end of the world. This really never happened; instead the idea of a new world order was developed to explain the delay of the parousia, or return of Jesus: With Jesus, a new relationship between humanity and God had been established, and Christians could use this as a basis for living in the secular world. While living an earthly life, they were saved and purified through their trust in Jesus’ claim on that life.
But even today, Christians expect that the end of the world remains an ever-present prospect. When this final event arrives, God will judge every human being, and his or her destiny in the hereafter will be determined. The unjust will burn in Hell, while the just will experience eternal bliss in paradise.
Central to the message of Jesus is love, along with forgiveness and openness towards other human beings. While Judaism at the time of Jesus was predominantly a closed religion, the message of Jesus was by many understood to imply that every human being could become a Christian – through the prospect of conversion and faith alone.
The gospels are far less detailed about regulations on morality and life than the Jewish Law. Among other things, the dietary regulations are here abolished.
The third group of metanarravies and myths belong to the period when Christianity had established itself as a religion. It was often in the clash with kings and rulers, as well as with other religions (especially Islam) that many Christians faced persecution, and had to stand up for their beliefs. These stories, true or not, gave the churches both strength and identity, but also cultic centres that were built around places central to each personality.
There are also many myths about ascetics, men or women who devoted themselves entirely to Christianity, and sometimes moved to inhospitable places, like the desert, yet who still managed to survive.
In most of the churches in North Africa and the Middle East, many rituals are performed by the clergy for the benefit of all members of the congregation. In many cases, it is expected that a membership attend the churches and cathedrals to participate in these rituals, but there are also some central everyday rituals that are performed for the benefit of members who are not present.
The totality of rituals are both too complex and time consuming for each individual to perform. It is, therefore, necessary to have a clergy who perform all obligations and do it correctly. The adherents participate with money, gifts and, sometimes, voluntary work.
Some rituals are however central and cannot be effective unless the believer participates. These include acts like baptism, confirmation, marriage and the Eucharist. It is sometimes also expected that that certain worship services have obligatory attendance.
Important feasts among the Orthodox Christians are: Easter (celebrated at other times than in western Christianity, starting in April or May); Christmas (December 25); Theophany (January 19); Great Lent (fast, starting in February or March).
Confession, fasting, prayer, self denial, obedience, righteous deeds and visits to holy places are other rituals, and they are often performed on an individual basis. In ones personal religious life, these can often be of more importance to the believer than the big feasts.
The organization of the churches in the Middle East and North Africa is strictly hierarchical, and there is little congregational democracy. The existing leaders are effectively in charge of appointing new leaders.
Most of the independent churches are headed by a patriarch, who has a small group of bishops below him, who then again have a group of priests below them. Connected to some of the churches, there are also monasteries which enjoy a certain amount of independence, but are still subject to the authority of the highest leaders.
Even the local Catholic churches have a great deal of independence, and cannot be defined as controlled by the pope in Rome. The relationship between the pope and these churches is more symbolic than factual, but but the Vatican has the ability to exercise influence through communication channels.
There are many holy places for Christianity in the Middle East. The most important place is Jerusalem, where a church has been erected over the place claimed to be the crucifixion and burial place of Jesus.
In Bethlehem a church has been constructed over the place where Jesus is believed to have been born.
Nazareth has several sites that remember the life and works of Jesus.
Syria has many cult centres for lesser known personalities, but in Damascus there are places that are visited and revered as sites from the life of St. Paul.
Egypt has a rich tradition of its own, and there are places that commemorate the stay of Jesus and his family in Egypt.
This is only a brief treatment, more details being listed under each of the different church traditions/denominations.
1st century CE: Spreading of the Jesus-orientation in Jewish communities, also called Jesus-Judaism, that ultimately developed into churches as part of what came to be an independent religion. It is possible that groups like the Essenes and others may have had both positive and negative influences in this development.
Around 100: The Jesus-Jews break free from other Jews, and start developing their own emphases and structure.
2nd century: The spread of the new religion continues. At this period of time, the congregations are weak but have much contact with each other. The main centres at this period of time are in Syria and northern Egypt.
2nd and 3rd centuries: Strong growth in North Africa, but also inside the Roman Empire.
312: The Roman Emperor Constantine becomes a Christian, resulting in Christianity developing into the state religion of the empire.
5th century: A great schism between the churches over a central issue: Was Jesus of two natures, a human and a divine, or did he just have one nature? At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the western churches came to decide that Jesus had two – 2 – natures, but combined in the same person. Many Eastern Churches do not accept this, and new and independent church bodies with no relationship to the Western Church results.
7th century: Muslim rulers take control of the Middle East and North Africa. This results in a centuries long relationship that would alternate between mild and strong persecution on the one hand, and fruitful coexistence on the other hand. Many Christians would over the next couple of centuries convert to Islam.
— Formation of the Christian Byzantine Empire, which comes to cover most of modern Turkey, Greece and parts of lands further west in Europe. This develops into an important centre for the development of eastern Orthodox Christianity. The empire would remain large for more than 700 years, until it was defeated by the Ottomans.
12th and 13th centuries: The Christian Crusades in the lands around Jerusalem involve new contacts between Eastern Churches and the Catholic Church of Rome. In some areas (especially around modern Lebanon), Christian countries are established, while in other areas hostility between eastern Christians and the Crusaders results.
15th to 18th centuries: A well-conducted campaign from the Catholic Church towards Eastern Churches, encourages some to rejoin the Catholic Church. But they were allowed to keep their identity, organization, special rites, and a liturgy performed in their own traditional languages. None of the churches were forced to introduce celibacy for its clergy against its own will.
19th century: Heavy and brutal actions from Muslims against Christians in the Ottoman Empire result in a great exodus of Christians from the region.
— Start of colonization in Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania brings large quantities of Christian Europeans into the region. For a period deep into the 20th century, Christianity becomes the politically dominant (if not largest) religion for this region. There was minimal persecution from the Christian side, and very few conversions from Islam to Christianity.
Early 20th century: Morocco and Libya are colonized, and experience a large immigration of European Christians. The same religious development takes place here, as had been characteristic of the other North African countries earlier.
Around 1960: With the fall of the North African colonies, most Christians with European origin in North Africa return to their families’ original home countries. Only a few Christians remain.