The Divided House of Middle Eastern Christians

by Paul Gadalla  |  Ελληνικά  |  Русский

The Splitting

The current situation is bleak for Christians in the Middle East, largely split between the Oriental and Byzantine rites.  They are hemmed in by dictatorships, sidelined by political Islam and exploited by militia groups while their pleas for aid are generally disregarded by Western powers.

Yet despite their dwindling numbers and waning influence, petty squabbles between Middle Eastern Christian churches remain to this day despite various ecumenical meetings. Even worse, these squabbles have spilled into lands outside of their traditional borders. It is bewildering to hear clerics and lay people even here in the U.S. accuse others of not “being Orthodox” while our house, the Church of Christ, is littered with literal and figurative infighting.

Take for instance the more infamous incidents involving Greek and Armenian clergy engaging in public fist fights within the Holy Sepulchre, where our Lord was entombed.

It seems we have not learned from Christ Himself: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand” (Matt 12:25). His statement was directed towards the Pharisees, those who sometimes placed material power for some in this world above salvation for all in the next.

What’s all this hoopla about? Since the year 451, Coptic, Armenia, and Syriac churches have split away from the Byzantine Churches after the Council of Chalcedon over the phrasing of Christ’s nature (two natures, one human and one divine vs. one nature that is both human and divine).

Like any of the church councils, politics, nationalism, and coercion were all involved. And despite attempts by a number of emperors, clergy on both sides refused attempts at genuine reconciliation with the Oriental Churches setting up their own competing hierarchies.

The irony is that working groups between the two Orthodox families in the 20th century discovered that, despite terminological differences, both churches have held the same basic Christology all along, so there is no genuine theological basis for schism. One could say that the situation is like two rival brothers whose dispute has grown so old they’ve forgotten what started it all in the first place.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has noted that on the doctrine of the person of Christ, the biggest issue of separation between the two churches, “There is no real disagreement.” Ware says, “The divergence, it was stated in Aarhus [Denmark 1964], lies only on the level of phraseology” (The Orthodox Church pg. 305). Since when did we as Orthodox Christians, members of a faith that proudly lets each culture celebrate the Divine Liturgy in its native tongue, care so much about phraseology?

So why exactly are we still separate? Indeed, this subject maybe beaten to death. Each side has made its case against ecumenism in the name of keeping the “truth”, although ironically both believe in the same truth on the matter that supposedly divides them. Instead stumbling blocks have appeared towards institutional unity, especially on how church books should perceive Chalcedon.

Traditionalists and hardliners on both sides have dug in their heels, demanding a number of institutional concessions instead of mutual acceptance. For example the monks of Mount Athos in 1994 and 1995 issued strongly worded statements against the dialogue, branding ecumenism as heresy. The monks demanded Oriental Orthodox churches accept all seven ecumenical councils as the only avenue to full unity.

Oriental churches in turn have asked for the anathema taken off Patriarchs Dioscorus and Severus, whom they revere as saints but were defrocked at Chalcedon. There is also little consensus on either side on how to treat Chalcedon in church history books. Were non-Chalcedonians schismatics? Were the Byzantines persecutors of the true faith?

Talks between the two families of Orthodoxy have slowed to a standstill due to these obstacles with no clear path forward. There is still a need for brave theologians and clerics on each side to take steps to set up a realistic road map to full communion.

Through constant infighting, Middle Eastern churches have decreased their lobbying power and further divided peoples. Each church (Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, Greek…) has set up its own institutions and hierarchs that only represent narrow communal interests instead of the ecumenical body of Christ. This has created a tribal mentality over holy sites and among congregations. A shining example is the ladder in the Holy Sepulcher that has not been moved in fear that it could spark conflict between the different churches that have carved out different spaces in the Holy Sepulchre and Church of the Nativity.

With little coordination or solidarity among Orthodox churches in the region, their presence and voice on important issues that threaten their survival goes unnoticed. Although the majority of Christians in Syria are Syriac or Greek Orthodox, there has been little coordination between churches on a way forward in the country despite the fact that they each faces communal extinction. And very recently, Christian churches in the region have had differing opinions and positions on the Turkish incursion into northern Syria.

Even within each rite there is petty infighting. For several years the patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem excommunicated each other for several years over who presided over a church built in Qatar. On the non-Chalcedonian side, Coptic and Ethiopian monks have been in a fight over who owns Dier al-Sultan Monastery in Jerusalem.

Institutional coordination in the United States and abroad would help end division among diverse groups, bring persecuted peoples together, and strengthen the political and historical role of Middle Eastern Christians. It would help groups here in the U.S. to display their history and push for important matters like the recognition of the 1915 Genocide of Christian Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. Churches such as the Syriac, Armenian, and Antiochian, especially in the diaspora, could highlight the plight of Syrian and Iraqi Christians. Moreover, we should not forget both the Syriac and Antiochian bishops of Aleppo were on a humanitarian mission together when captured by Islamic militants, driving home the point that our fate is intertwined.

The ones who rally against reunification should be reminded that there have been many instances of unity in the past. Constantin Pachenko’s book Arab Orthodox Christians Under the Ottomans noted that there were Byzantine emperors who interceded on behalf of persecuted Copts in Islamic Egypt and according to Mark Swanson’s The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt 641-1517, Coptic patriarchs would also secure Greeks taken as slaves during Arab raids.

There are signs of hope though. Seminaries like St Vladimir’s allow both Orthodox families and have been a major center of dialogue between the two sides. Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center has recently launched a research fellowship in Coptic Christianity and frequently includes Oriental Orthodoxy in its programming. The Greek government has also allowed the non-Chalcedonian churches to become full legal entities in Greece, a major step for an Orthodox country. Even more recent was the trip to Damascus by Serbian Patriarch Irinej, who visited the Syriac Patriarch and stated: “Faithful long for the day on which we partake in the same one Eucharistic chalice, after the theologians of both churches agreed that we confess the same belief in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word.”

And as former dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary Rev. John H. Erickson said to commemorate the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia: “If our church families can overcome the division of centuries, if they can recognize in each other the same one faith, if they can enter into a life of communion in the deepest sense of that word, their reunion will be a sign of promise for all Christians.”


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.