The Decline of Arab Christianity

Just like Muslim Arabs living in the Mediterranean parts of Islamic domains, Arab Christians suffered considerable disruption under crusader rule. European priestly and episcopal hierarchies were established, and monastic and preaching orders began activities within the crusader kingdoms, often dislodging the older orders of priests and bishops and introducing alien forms of spirituality and worship. But devastating as this was, it was marginal when compared with what was going on further east. Through the thirteenth century the Mongols swept westwards from Central Asia and virtually destroyed the Islamic Empire in its old form. For four hundred years since the middle of the ninth century the central rule of the caliph in Baghdad had increasingly been eroded as warlords seized power in the state and local rulers asserted autonomy. But with this new Turkic threat the structure of the community was almost swept away. In 1258 Baghdad was sacked and the last 'Abbasid caliph to rule in the city was assassinated. For some time following this, Christians enjoyed a measure of freedom under rule that was not only favourable but also tipping towards conversion to Christianity itself. In fact, for some years the Patriarch of the Church of the East took up residence in one of the caliphs' palaces, and felt free enough to lead religious processions in public, maybe the first since the city had been built. But the patriarchs gradually lost the rulers' confidence, and this short period of triumph over their former Muslim overlords gave way to humiliation and persecution, in which churches and monasteries were burnt and priests and bishops killed. The eventual outcome was that the Church of the East lost its position at the heart of public life and subsided into obscurity. Church communities ceased to exist in parts of Asia where they had previously been recorded, and the leadership withdrew from Baghdad. This decline was accelerated by the active persecution of Timur i-Leng (r. 1396-1405) and his descendants, and the once great church, with its bishoprics stretching east, north and south, was lost to the world in its seclusion between Lake Van and Lake Urmia east of the upper Tigris.

Further west, Christians in Egypt and the Mediterranean coastlands fared almost as badly. From 1250 the Mamluks seized power in Cairo, and presided over more intensive anti-Christian activities than before. Under the earlier Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties Christians had often been able to rise to senior positions in the state. And while there had been persecutions, most notably under the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996-1021) when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed and Christians were forced to distinguish themselves in public by wearing weighty wooden crosses, individuals had served as viziers and caliphal secretaries; just as under 'Abbasid rulers in eighth- and ninth-century Baghdad, there was no sustained animosity towards Christians on the part of the populace. Under the Mamluks, however, Christians were repeatedly removed from positions to which they had been able to rise, and the mob regularly vented its frustration at inept governments by destroying churches and monasteries.

Such direct action against Christians in the Arab world was hard to bear, but it cannot have compared in power to sap the will and kill the spirit with the persistent anti-Dhimml measures that influenced all aspects of relations between Christians and Muslims, particularly in public life. These measures had informed all aspects of relations between Muslim masters and Christian, together with other, subjects since an early stage in the Islamic era, as we have seen; although they were not frequently enforced in an active sense, they provided the general framework of communal, and presumably personal, relations, removing security and rendering client populations constantly on the defensive. Thus, while capable individuals might achieve prominence, they must always fear removal or worse at a ruler's whim or the mob's insistence.

This inequality of relationship and precariousness of position helps to explain why Arab Christianity ceases to have the resilience and strength of former times. With a few exceptions, such as the Copt al-Safi Ibn al-'Assal and his brothers in thirteenth-century Egypt, who not only held public office but also wrote works on their own faith and defences against Islam, there were no leading theological minds or creative intellects that left a lasting mark. And under the pressure of taxation and social discrimination there were steady numbers of conversions to Islam. This, of course, had happened since the earliest years of the new faith, but after about 1100 there seems to have been a gathering of momentum, until by the end of the Mamluk era in the early sixteenth century Christians represented no more than 7 per cent of the total population in the Arab heartlands.

The victory of the Ottomans over the Mamluks in 1516 brought much of the Arab Middle Eastern world under rule from Istanbul. And there was some change in circumstances for Christians. The jizya tax levelled against Dhimmis was reduced, and financial incentive to convert was thereby removed. In addition, there was some consolidation of populations under the millet system, according to which each religious community adhered to its own laws and customs, with the result that populations tended to live in greater separation from one another, even within the same town, and there was less occasion for meetings and thus much less intermarriage.

As part of the Ottoman conception of the state, followers of a particular religion were all regarded as members of a single community or millet, each of which was thought as having one head. So just as the Muslims throughout the empire all came under the sultan, Christians of all denominations came under the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, an arrangement analogous to that under 'Abbasid rule when the Patriarch of the Church of the East was recognized as overall head. This arrangement naturally reduced the prestige of the leaders of other denominations, who inevitably ceased to play prominent parts in the life of the state. This did, however, change over time as a number of millets were given recognition and thus greater autonomy, although always under the state laws.

The separation of populations within the Ottoman Empire may have been instrumental in producing rapid expansion of Arab Christian communities in the Fertile Crescent in the sixteenth century and again in the nineteenth century when it swelled to about 20 per cent of the total population. The reduction in conversions that took place through interfaith marriage and economic incentives explains this in part, though the proximity of Christian populations to coastal areas (the combined result of attraction to the crusader states and flight from the Mongol invasions), where they came into contact with European trade and social influence, gave them greater prosperity than many Muslim communities; it also opened them to new developments in health care, such as the single measure of isolating families during epidemics rather than congregating together as Muslims tended to do. Together with widely available education, which Christians in the eastern Mediterranean lands championed, these differential factors accelerated Christian population growth in these periods within the empire.

Growth in prosperity and population led to mass emigrations. Within the Ottoman Empire population movements of Christians had taken place for centuries, as communities moved away from areas of intolerance to the greater safety of majority Christian regions, or were attracted by areas of economic boom. Then, from the mid-nineteenth century, Lebanese Christians (together with some of the Muslim population) left for America in order to avoid overpopulation, leading an exodus that continued through most of the twentieth century. There are now important communities of Arab Christians in major cities of the United States and Canada, Europe and Australia, together with religious hierarchies descended from the ancient episcopates of pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, and functioning in surroundings and against new challenges of which the leaders of old could never have dreamed.

Growth in prosperity and connections with the wider world also exposed Arab Christians to ideas that, like their predecessors under cAbbasid rule in ninth-century

Baghdad, they mediated to the world of Ottoman Islam. In the eighteenth century, and more widely in the nineteenth century, Christians were instrumental in introducing knowledge of European advances in science, philosophy, politics, and so on. The resulting Rebirth, Nahda, as it was called, channelled mainly through newly founded newspapers and journals, had widespread effects on intellectual, social and religious life among both Christians and Muslims in the decades leading up to and away from the year 1900. And it was particularly influential on the growth of Arab nationalism, which clamoured for regional recognition within the Ottoman Empire. The secularist Baath Party, which in different guises rose to power in Syria and Iraq, was founded by Michel 'Aflaq, who came from a Christian background.

Nevertheless, the emigration of Christians steadily increased through the later nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. And it must be said that economic attractions cannot provide a full explanation for the exodus of substantial parts of the Arab Christian population of the late Ottoman and nation-state Middle Eastern world. Where there is tension within society, and discrimination between religions, and where increased Islamization marginalizes followers of other faiths - all factors recognizable from early Islamic times and attributable by theologians and ideologues to the Our'an and the precedent of the Prophet and his successors - there is little incentive to stay when family members press invitations to join them overseas and the prospects at home are dim. The Christian population of the Arab world had by the beginning of the present century reached a low point never seen before, and there is no sign of reversal. While the long history of Arab Christianity continues, it does so in new environments where it must learn once again to survive in the tenacious way it has done in its original homeland for more than fifteen hundred years.

References and further reading

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Baumer, C. (2006) The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity. London: I. B. Tauris.

Browne, L. E. (1967) The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia: From the Time of Muhammad till the Fourteenth Century. New York: Howard Fertig.

Chabot, J.-B. (1899-1924) Chronique de Michel le Syrien, Patriarche Jacobite d'Antioche (1166— 1199), Éditée pour la première fois et traduite en français, 4 vols. Paris: Ernest Leroux.

Cragg, K. (1992) The Arab Christian: a History in the Middle East. London: Mowbray.

Ebied, R. and Thomas, D. (eds.) (2005) Muslim-Christian Polemic during the Crusades, the Letter from the People of Cyprus and Ibn Abi Jâlib al-Dimashqï's Response. Leiden: Brill.

Fargues, P. (1998) The Arab Christians of the Middle East: a demographic perspective. In A. Pacini (ed.) Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East, the Challenge of the Future. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Finkel, J. (trans.) (192 7) A Risala of al-Jahiz. Journal of the American Oriental Society 47: 311-34.

Griffith, S. (2001) 'Melkites', 'Jacobites' and the Christological controversies in Arabic in third/ ninth century Syria. In D. Thomas (ed.) Syrian Christians under Islam, the First Thousand Years. Leiden: Brill.

Grypeou, E., Swanson, M. and Thomas, D. (eds.) (2006) The Encounterpf Eastern Christianity with Early Islam. Leiden: Brill.

Hourani, A. (1991) A History of the Arab Peoples. London: Faber and Faber.

Hoyland, R. (1997) Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: a Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press.

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Mingana, A. (ed. and trans.) (1928) The Apology of Timothy the Patriarch before the Caliph Mahdi. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 12: 13 7-292.

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