Category Archives: Middle Eastern Christianity

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. Continue reading

Christians of Holy Land and the Jewish State

by Michael G. Azar

Amid the growth of Islamist persecution in the last few years, a variety of think tanks and politicians have sought to bring the plight of Christians in the Middle East to the forefront of American politics. Amid such fervor, Israeli leaders have also claimed their role in the defense of Christians. Prime Minister Netanyahu recently told a Jerusalem gathering of over 180 Christian media representatives that Israel is the protector of the Christian people and “the only place in the Middle East” where Christians have “the freedom to worship as they please.” Together, he explained, Christians and Israel stand against Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, many American Christians concur.

A likely reason why this media gathering, organized by Netanyahu’s Press Office, featured prominent Israeli officials and a visit to Israeli settlements, but no local Christian representatives nor visits to local Christian villages, is that most Christians of the Holy Land do not share the rosy view of the State of Israel that Netanyahu’s government wishes to promote. So why the disconnect? Continue reading

Modernity, Murder, and Coptic Identity

by Candace Lukasik

Bishop Epiphanius

On July 29, 2018, one of the most beloved bishops and scholars in the Coptic world, Bishop Epiphanius, was found murdered outside of his cell at the St. Macarius monastery. He was on his way to Midnight Prayer when he was assaulted and struck in the back of the head. While the Egyptian state has now officially charged an ex-monk and an accomplice at the monastery with the murder, Coptic social media prior to this was abuzz with speculation, not only for the murder’s brutality but also because of the way it brought to a head a century-long internal debate about Coptic identity.

For most Western Christians, Coptic Christianity offers a powerful testimony to modern martyrdom. Several American Christian leaders point to violence against the Copts in order to garner attention for the persecution of Christians in the modern world and to shape US policy. In this regard, US activists and scholars tend to portray Coptic Christians as passive, premodern victims of modern religious violence. Such characterizations fail to recognize the extent to which the community has undergone a series of transformations and divisions of late. Continue Reading…

Chrétiens d’Orient, 2000 Ans d’Histoire: A Major Exhibit in France

by Michael Peppard   |  ελληνικά

I spent over an hour there, in that small rotunda, about twenty feet across. Display cases of manuscripts in Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian encircled me, the only one of the museum’s patrons to linger so long in that spot. The rest of the exhibit, outside this temporary cloister, was equally worthy of attentive study, but this room captured my senses and held me still. It was the music, played on a loop, that transfixed me: the Akathist hymn, the ancient prayer about the life of the Virgin Mary, resounded in Armenian, in Arabic, in Greek, in Syriac, and in Coptic. Choirs from each tradition sang their version of the hymn, a shared patrimony that emerged from Syria to inspire Orthodox Christian worship everywhere. On the wall near the entrance flashed full-size, high-resolution renderings of frescoes from medieval churches in Lebanon.  This installation was titled “Languages and Liturgy,” and it certainly felt liturgical to the senses. Only the incense was missing.

I needed the whole hour not only for the manuscripts, but also for the monumental icon of the Akathist hymn on display. Attributed to Youssef al-Musawwir of Aleppo, painted between 1650-67, and part of the famed collection of Georges Antaki, the icon’s panels depict the twenty-four strophes of the hymn, surrounding a central image of King David. The panels are labeled in Greek, while David holds a phylactery with text in Arabic. Though the Akathist is attributed to Romanos the Melodist, the icon portrays the Psalmist David as a divine guarantor of the icon’s revelatory authority about the Virgin Mary. And just as the Theotokos is central to Orthodox Christian prayer around the world, so also is she to this rotunda, in a small museum in northern France. Continue Reading…