Orthodox Christians in the Middle East Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Paul Gadalla

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Pope Tawadros II

Orthodox churches in the Middle East are facing their gravest existential threat since the Arab Conquest. The church communities in Christianity’s historic cradle are faced with shrinking flocks due to the lure of immigration, threats of sectarian violence, and increasing societal marginalization. With fewer members and less clout, church leaders have bet their waning political capital on secular—but often brutally oppressive—dictators in hopes of attaining communal survival, pitting their beleaguered flocks against protest movements calling for change.

Orthodox Christians raised in the West might be left scratching their heads at the sight of the Orthodox patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch standing in solidarity with strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ask: how are men of God dealing with such leaders?  How can the church remain silent in the face of brutal repression and even war crimes?

The answer to the church’s moral and political quandary is not simple. And a millennium of fraught church-state relations in the Middle East will likely take centuries more to unwind—if Christian communities there can survive that long.

Islamic law enshrines protection for non-Muslim peoples of Abrahamic faiths under certain conditions, i.e. restrictions on church building and renovation, a ban on proselytization, and their payment of a special tax known as the jizya. After Islam’s rapid expansion in the seventh century into lands inhabited by disparate ethnic and religious groups, Arab dynasties and their successors ruled their new subjects vis-a-vis spiritual leaders, which would eventually be formalized into the millet system.

Under the millet system, Orthodox patriarchs became not only spiritual leaders but also quasi-political leaders responsible for the administration for their community, collecting the jizya tax, and the maintaining the allegiance of their flock to whichever dynasty came to power. Patriarchs and Christian civil servants would seek good relations with the caliphs in hopes of securing guarantees such as the ability to build a new church or renovate an existing one.

As an early example of the millet system at work in the 10th century, productive relations between the Fatimid Court and the Coptic Patriarchate lead to a number of churches being built and older ones renovated across Egypt, guaranteeing at least a modicum of security for Copts.

But patriarchs were also responsible for their community’s actions, meaning falling out of favor with a caliph or local governor—or failing to collect taxes and keep the peace—could have severe repercussions. In the 19th century, Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V threatened to excommunicate any Orthodox Christian supporting the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. When this failed to have the quieting effect the Ottoman authorities had hoped for, Gregory was hung by Sultan Mahmud II on Easter day, 1821.

Even with the passing of the Ottoman Empire and the end of colonial rule, the echoes of the millet system still haunt Christian communities in the Middle East. As late as 1981, Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III was banished to a desert monastery by former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat due to Coptic activist work abroad and his refusal to join Sadat on his visit to Israel. Afterwards, security forces turned a blind eye to Islamist attacks on Coptic churches. Orthodox patriarchs after the Arab Spring have continued to side with military dictators in the hope that they will guarantee power over their flock, security, and political representation in exchange for Christian financial and political support.

A common trope is to point to how Iraqi Christian populations were decimated after the topple of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Armed militant Islamic groups attacked churches and murdered clerics and parishioners alike and the country’s current security forces have done little to stem the problem. Even with “free and fair elections,” the Christian presence in the Iraqi parliament is negligible with just 5 MPs out of a body of 329 lawmakers—fueling concerns that democracy won’t ensure a Christian political presence.

But does the Iraq catastrophe mean that Orthodox clerics should simply perpetually follow military dictatorships blindly? The simple answer is no.

Although the Arab world’s dictatorships have brought a semblance of stability, they have done little to protect and nourish Christian communities in the region. Despite Coptic papal support for al-Sisi in Egypt, attacks on churches and Christian-owned property have not stopped. The same regime killed  25 Copts in October 2011 when they protested the demolition of a church. Today, Syrian and Lebanese Christians (many whom support groups tied to the Syrian regime) are right to fear ISIS, but must also realize they have now pitted themselves against the majority of Syrian people who have been brutally persecuted into submission by the Assad regime—which despite its recent advances, still does not fully control all of Syrian territory, relies on outside powers for survival, and is led by a member of a splinter Muslim sect.

Islamist and anti-authoritarian movements in the Arab World should do more to allay Christian fears, especially if they hope to build a coalition that could credibly challenge the region’s remaining dictators. But Orthodox patriarchs must have more foresight and realize that the church’s future is grounded in its youth, who continue to immigrate in droves and are not impressed by token spots in authoritarian governments. While Christian populations in the Levant and Egypt continue to shrink, Christians tend to have higher incomes than the average population, significant Church-controlled assets, and a wealthy politically-involved diaspora—affording them some degree of continuing influence.

If some form of democracy is truly inevitable, the Middle East is on a slow path. But if the Orthodox Church continues to blindly go along with dictatorships it will wind up on the wrong side of history, losing its credibility with its flock along the way. In Latin America and Spain, the Catholic Church has lost millions of members for—among other reasons — its tacit support for the stable, conservative military dictatorships of the last century. Instead, the Orthodox Church must be more in tune with its flock who, like all people around the world, want equality and freedom and not mere token gestures and invitations to state dinners.


Paul Gadalla is a former Beirut-based journalist who also worked in communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center and is currently with the Central Communications Department at The Brookings Institution. He holds an M.A. in Political Science with a focus on the Middle East from Northeastern University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.