« The Christian Communities in the Middle East » – M. Andraos

« The Christian Communities in the Middle East: Persecuted Minorities or Indigenous Peoples? »

By: Michel Andraos

Table of contents – Table de matières – Indice – Inhaltsverzeichnis – 指數
English: Minorities – – Italiano: Minoranze
François: Minorités – – Português: Minoridades
Deutsch: Minderheiten – – Español: Minorías – – 中國人: 並通過

1. Introduction

It would be difficult to speak about all the Christian communities in the Middle East as one group[1], especially in relation to their status as a majority or minority in their respective nation states. Each community has a distinct history and relationship to the state where it exists as well as to the other ethnic communities within that state. In this short article, I will present a brief and selective historical background and analysis in order to trace some aspects of the identity formation and self-understanding of the Christian communities since the early Ottoman period in relation to their minority status. The article concludes with a brief reflection on the new direction that the leadership of these communities has taken over the past few decades, which I believe has inaugurated a new era. My focus will primarily be on the Middle Eastern Christian communities that are affiliated with the Catholic Church for two main reasons. The first reason is simply the limited length of the article; and the second is the significant change that these communities went through during the past few decades, which help me better illustrate my main argument.

[1] For a broader discussion of some of the arguments in this article, see the author’s recent publication “Christian Communities in the Middle East and Islam: A Shift in the Understanding of Mission among Eastern Catholic Churches,” in Elochukwu E. Uzukwu, ed., Mission for Diversity: Exploring Christian Mission in the Contemporary World, vol. 8, Interreligious Studies (Zürich: Lit Verlag, 2015), 171–86. See also the forthcoming publication “Levantine Catholic Communities in the Diaspora at the Intersection of Many Identities and Worlds,” in Mike Budde, ed.,Scattered and Gathered: Catholics in Diaspora, Studies in World Catholicism Series (Oregon: Cascade Books, expected date of publication, 2017).

Let me state from the outset that I do not agree with the narratives of “the suffering Christians for their faith in the birthplace of Christ, whose communities are dwindling toward extinction,” or that of the “persecuted Christian communities in the world of Islam in need of protection” that dominate the media and the many writings on this topic. Other than the fact that these arguments are not historically correct, they are also very problematic for a variety of political reasons. With all the sometimes good intentions apparent reasons behind such convictions, they primarily serve the political interests of those who promote them and, today as in the past, continue to contribute to the colonial relationship between the West and the Middle Eastern Christian communities, as will become clear in my discussion below.

2. From Protection to Minoritization

Gradual political changes took place since the early Ottoman period between the empire and the Christian communities in its territory in the area we today call the Middle East. The Ottoman rule of the eastern Mediterranean region lasted more than five centuries and ended with the defeat of the Empire at the end of World War I. The root causes of many of the sectarian power struggles and conflicts, and the religio-ethnic fragmentation we witness today go back to historical developments that took place during that period. The situation did not get any better under the European, mostly French and British, direct power that began in the 1920s and officially ended around the middle of the last century. It got even worse since the more recent interventions of the world’s new super powers shortly after the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the rising economic power of the oil producing countries in the following decades, a phase in which we still are to the present day. The minority-majority power dynamics between the Christian communities and their respective states evolved and shifted several times over the past centuries and continue to do so today. The current language of “persecuted minorities in need of protection” used today to describe most Christian communities in the region, I will argue below, is a modern construction that has been an integral part of these shifting power dynamics and colonial foreign interventions, the same today as in the past centuries.

New alliances evolved between the Western European states and the Christian communities in the Middle East during the Ottoman period as part of the power negotiations between the empire and European powers. Since the middle of the sixteenth century, agreements, known as “Capitulations,” were made between the Ottoman Empire and some European states to grant certain privileges to their citizens and protect their interests and institutions in the empire. According to Joseph Maïla’s well argued historical analysis, these privileges were gradually extended to include certain Eastern Christian communities. Maïla notes that

Traders, missionaries, Western citizens living in the Empire, and soon Eastern Christians too, all found themselves placed under the protection of the French kings. Gradually a tradition of French protection of Eastern Christians was formed. … In the middle of the eighteenth century France was recognized by the Holy See and by the European powers as the protector of Christians affiliated to Rome.[2]

[2] Joseph Maïla, “The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities,” in Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East: The Challenge of the Future, ed. Andrea Pacini (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 34–35.

Another important citation from Maïla’s work articulates very well the shift that took place as a result of this new protection among many Christian communities in terms of their relationship with the Ottoman Empire, European powers, as well as in their self-understanding and identity. Maïla notes,

The constant concern shown by the European consuls for the Christian minorities, attested in numerous diplomatic documents, as well as the number of times they intervened on their behalf at the Sublime Porte, turned them into political patrons of Europe, and made them extremely dependent psychologically on the West. From minorities within the [Ottoman] Empire, Christians became children of the West.[3]

[3] Maïla, “The Arab Christians,” 40.

At a time when the economic and political power of certain European states, particularly France, was on the rise in the region, association with Western Europe through conversion to Roman Catholicism, with all the attached benefits it brought, such as consular protection, lower custom duties and restrictions, became an attractive option to disadvantaged communities in the unequal Ottoman imperial system. One clear example, according to Robert Haddad, is how the conversion to Roman Catholicism helped create prosperous Melkite (Greek Catholic) communities and a new bourgeoisie in Aleppo and Sidon that could not have been created otherwise.[4] These commercial and political benefits, however, reinforced over time the relationship of patronage between those Eastern Christians who converted to Catholicism and the “Christian West.” Within less than a century, these communities changed from disadvantaged minorities within the Ottoman Empire to an extension of European power and its civilizing mission to the Muslim East. They became within a relatively short period of time powerful minorities. This new relationship, I would argue, has shaped the identity of the Eastern Christian Catholic communities in many ways that continue to the present time. It also complicated their future relationship with the other Eastern Christian communities who did not convert to Catholicism as well as with the majority Muslim communities. Understanding this important development helps us better understand the latter and complex construction of the “persecuted Christian minorities” in constant need of protection from the “Christian West” that developed later. While remnants of this thinking continue to exist among some, for the most part the Catholic Eastern Christian communities and their religious leadership have recently moved beyond this colonial imposition, as I will discuss below.

[4] Robert M. Haddad, “Conversion and Continuity: Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands, Eighth to Eighteenth Centuries,” in Conversion and Continuity: Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands, Eighth to Eighteenth Centuries, ed. Michael Gervers and Ramzi Jibran Bikhazi (Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990), 454.

Another important development during that same Ottoman period, which reinforced the above mentioned developments, is the making of the religious communities into millets, or small nations,that is into autonomous groups with distinct political and ethnic identities within the empire. Originally created for managing religious diversity in the empire, these millets contributed to what later became known as “sectarianism” and were exploited by Western European colonial powers after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.[5] Many scholars rightly argue that what is today commonly referred to as “Christian minorities” in the Middle East is a direct outcome of the politics of sectarianism that were introduced by the Ottomans and reinforced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by France and Britain. This is a modern, colonial construction in response to a modern problem, as historian Ussama Makdisi has very well explained. According to Makdisi, the development of sectarianism is not an old problem inherent in the nature of Middle Eastern Christian communities; it is rather evolved as the result of an alliance between European powers and local elites in the modern states, and therefore is primarily a modern colonial problem.[6]

Another important outcome of the encounters with Western Christianity during the European colonial period is the emergence of a new worldview and self-understanding on the part of Middle Eastern Christian communities, particularly in relation to Islam and Muslim-Christian relations. Makdisi’s pioneer work on American missionaries in the Middle East demonstrates that essentializing the difference with Islam and the Muslim communities is a product of nineteenth and early twentieth-century French and British colonial politics in the region.[7] The “European insistence on essential differences between Christianity and Islam,” according to Makdisi, “provided one of the key legitimating factors to their intervention in the Middle East” in order to protect the Christian communities. A new generation of Christian intellectual elites, church leaders and statesmen were formed by influential missionaries who reinforced these ideas in their educational institutions. The well-known case of the influential Belgian Jesuit Henri Lammens who taught oriental studies in the early part of the twentieth century at the Jesuit university and his promotion of what Makdisi calls “French colonial ideology” that strongly influenced the French policy in the region is just one example.[8]

[5] On the particular notion of sectarianism among the Christian communities in the Middle East, see the excellent historical and social analyses by Bruce Masters, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2004), and Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon, (University of California Press, 2000). For an excellent study of the Christian communities in Palestine on the same topic,  see Laura Robson, Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).

[6] Makdisi, “Reconstructing the Nation-State: The Modernity of Sectarianism in Lebanon,” Middle East Report(September 1996).

[7] Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East(Cornell University Press, 2009).

[8] Makdisi, “Reconstructing the Nation-State,” 24-25. On the influential work of Henri Lammens on the Christian and especially Catholic elites, see also the work of historian Kamal Salibi, A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (University of California Press, 1990), 130–150.

This brief and partial historical background and analysis demonstrates the complexity and ambiguity of the language about minorities that often hides more than it reveals about particular situations, such as the one discussed above. Despite the present chaos and violence in the region, my concluding reflection below points to the new decolonial direction that the Middle Eastern Christian communities are taking by reclaiming their indigenous roots in the region along with and among the other communities.

3. Concluding Reflection: The Beginning of a New Era

The colonial ideology has been significantly challenged during the second half of the twentieth century by a variety of political and social movements, including new contextual Arab Christian theologies.[9]  One of the significant developments that is particularly relevant to our topic is the new shift in the official teaching and position of the leaders of the Catholic Eastern churches since the early 1990s. For the first time since the creation of these churches in the eighteenth century, the leaders of the seven Eastern churches in communion with  Rome issued a series of pastoral letters proclaiming a new positive attitude towards Islam and the Arab culture they share, as a common heritage between the two religions. The letters affirmed that both religions worship the same God and that it is God’s wisdom that willed these religiously diverse communities to live together in the same region, embrace a shared life, and work for a future together before God.[10] In their Easter 1992 pastoral letter, the Catholic bishops of the Middle East state that “The Christians of the East are part and parcel of the Muslim cultural identity as the Muslims in the East are an inseparable part of the Eastern Christian cultural identity. In this sense, we are both responsible for each other before God and history.” This is a total break from the colonial ideology of the past that was behind the creation of the “persecuted minorities.” While these letters and the new teaching and attitude do not fully reflect the reality on the Christian communities on the ground, they certainly inaugurate a new era and give a sense of direction for a possible new and different future.

[9] See the section on the emerging Arab Christian theology in my above mentioned publication, Andraos, “Christian Communities in the Middle East and Islam,” 179-182.

[10] See the pastoral letters of the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East, published by the General Secretariat of the Council, Bkerké, Lebanon between 1991-1994. The letters are available in the Arabic and French languages.


Michel Andraos, native of Lebanon, is associate professor of intercultural theology and ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago (CTU). His main areas of research and teaching include religion, violence and peace, theologies of interreligious dialogue, and intercultural theology. The foci of his current research are reconciliation of the church with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and contemporary developments among the Christian communities of the Middle East. Michel is the director of the Ecumenical Doctor of Ministry program at CTU, member of the editorial board of Concilium, and member of the coordinating team of EATWOT America. He lives with his family in Quebec, Canada.

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