BY MEHMET FAHRI DANIŞ
APR 29, 2023 – DAILY SABAH
A religious shrine outside a residential building in Beirut, Lebanon. (Getty Images Photo)
In a way, Middle Eastern Christians laid the theoretical groundwork for contemporary Arab nation-states as well as Arab identity
Christianity is a very “Western” notion today, both as a religion and the civilization that developed from it, but it is impossible to overlook the “Eastern” effect on its origins. Although it is now associated with the Anglo-Euro sphere, Christianity, like other monotheistic religions, is a product of the Middle Eastern cultural basin.
Christianity, which developed as an aspect of Jewish culture in what is now Palestine, underwent institutionalization in the West. It was initially developed as a reactionary heretical doctrine to Roman rule. During that time, things turned around, and the Church emerged as one of the most legitimate heirs to the Roman Empire. In reality, the concept of the “empire,” specifically one that was “Roman,” came to be inseparably linked with Christianity.
The spread of Islam in the Middle East resulted in Christianity’s collapse there. Christians in the “Fertile Crescent” are now in the minority as a result of conversion and settlement activities. Christians in the early Middle Ages were able to contribute to the development of traditional Islamic civilization thanks to their faith in the tolerance of Muslim nations of the time. John of Damascus, one of the most revered Christian saints, was among the several Christian leaders who held important positions in the Caliphate administration.
This bond in the area was permanently damaged by the Crusades. Christians no longer play the active political and cultural role they once did, despite having access to the fundamental rights protected by Islamic law. As Lebanese French writer Amin Maalouf wrote, after the Crusades, Eastern Christians were literally stuck between “two fires”: Western coreligionists, thinking that they sympathize with Muslims and treating them as second-class subjects, or viewed as the invaders’ natural friends by their Muslim neighbors.
Heirs of an ancient tradition
While Christianity in the West was finalizing its institutionalization as a Roman-based Catholic faith, a number of communities, the majority of which are found in present-day Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, continued to exist under the pretense that they adhere to the most authentic and “ancient” form of the faith.
One of the first communities to split from the main branch of Christianity was the Nestorians, a Christian community with bases in Mosul in northern Iraq and Orumiyeh (or Urmia) in Iran. During the advent of Islam, this group was crucial in the Arabic translation of classical Greek philosophical and medical literature, and it also contributed significantly to the spread of Christianity in Central Asia and India. There is a section of the community known as Chaldean that has made peace with the Roman Catholic Church, albeit their numbers are quite small currently.
Among the oldest groups in the Middle East are a number of Christian congregations collectively known as the Oriental Churches of the East. Among them, Assyrians stand out because they claim to be the only group that still regularly speaks the same language as Jesus. It is estimated that there are currently 3 million members of the community who claim to be descended from the Assyrians who founded the first great empire of the ancient Middle East.
A few of the oldest Churches in the area are Gregorian Armenian Christianity, Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia, and Maronite Christianity in Lebanon, which over time developed a distinctive theological system within Eastern Christianity and an independent cultural structure. These groups express a minority perspective in both the East and West, despite being in a position to serve as a natural bridge between the two. Again, for many of these groups, their religious identity has become the basis of their ethnic affiliation. Although autonomously positioned within multi-national empires, these communities faced many difficulties in the era of nation-states. On the other hand, Eastern Christianity had a very important mission of its own in the era of modernization.
Pioneers of modernism
Middle Eastern Christians began playing a significant role in the region’s political and cultural processes at the outset of Westernization and nationalism. Through these Christian minorities, the liberal nationalism and patriotism that swept the world in the 19th century found expression in the East. Throughout the earliest centuries of Islam, Eastern Christians had a long history of participating in translation work, which was resurrected in the 19th century. Because of their predominance of Western languages and their origin in the region’s culture, these Christians served as a conduit through which modern political ideas were communicated to the people of the Middle East.
Christian Arabs were particularly prominent in the Nahda or Arab Renaissance movement, which created a contemporary vision of the future and a new national identity for the Arab society under the Ottoman Empire. In a way, the Middle Eastern Christians created the theoretical groundwork for the Arab nation-states of today as well as for contemporary Arab identity. But, after achieving independence from the Western powers, many Arab governments changed course. Traditionalist and conservative beliefs, rather than a secular national identity vision above religions and ethnicities, proliferated throughout the Middle East.
Only in one part of the Middle East did Christians continue to play a significant and lasting role. The Lebanese Republic, which has a long history of multiculturalism and independence and was founded as a French enterprise, was established as the only governmental entity in the Middle East where Christians did not live as a minority. Since the Crusades, Lebanese Christianity has served as the focal point for the beliefs and customs that have created the modern Middle East. Lebanese Christians see themselves as a historical extension of the West. This position for Lebanon was nearly shattered by the civil war, which raged from 1975 until the 1990s, and Christian influence was significantly constrained.
The region that serves as the home to the pillars of our modern civilization is currently experiencing a level of devastation and tragedy that it has possibly never experienced before. The old Eastern cultures have been disturbed by internal conflicts, the Israeli issue, Western interventionism and Daesh terrorism. The great cities of the Middle East, notably cultural epicenters and commercial ports, had not experienced such a circumstance since the Mongol Invasion that rendered the region untenable in the 13th century.
Eastern Christians continue to hold onto their paradoxical stance as they seek to preserve their antiquated civilizations in the face of all these negatives. These communities, which appear too Eastern to the West and too Western to the East, only seek a safe place to call home. While many Eastern Christians have relocated to America and Europe over the past century, the loss of these communities’ historic traditions also signifies the extinction of mankind as a whole.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ph.D. holder, researcher at Atatürk University’s International Relations Department
Categories: Arab World, Asia, Eurasia, Europe, Europe and Australia, Middle East
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