Current Issue
September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
28 September 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The Shrine of Hussein in Karbela, Iraq, stands above the tomb of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib.
(photo: Tasnim News Agency [CC BY 4.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons)

Muslims will be commemorating a significant event this weekend — and it’s one that has ramifications for our world today.

On Saturday 30 September Shi’ite Muslims observe Ashura, the martyrdom of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib. In the Muslim calendar Hussein died on the tenth (‘ašara) day of the month of Muharram in the year 61. This translates to 10 October 680 AD. The death of Hussein is a pivotal event in the history of Shi’ite Islam.

When the Prophet Muhammad died in June 632, he left behind no instructions about a successor. As the “Seal (i.e. “last”) of the Prophets,” there was no one who could succeed him. However, his role as Commander of the Faithful (amīr al-mu’minîn) — the religious and political leader of the Muslim community — required a successor.

From the very beginning, Muslims were divided about who should succeed Muhammad as leader of the faithful. One group held that Ali bin Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet, should take leadership — and that leadership should remain in the family of the prophet. This group was known as the “party/faction” (Arabic: šî‘ah, hence Shi’ite). Another group held that anyone of the prophet’s tribe could be elected to fulfill the office. This group acted immediately after the death of Muhammad to elect Abu Bakr as the first caliph. This pre-empted the candidacy of Ali.

Three caliphs followed each other in succession until the assassination of Uthman, the third caliph, in 656. At this point, Ali was elected the fourth caliph. His election was contested by the Umayyad clan, the clan of the assassinated Uthman. Mu‘awiya, of the Umayyad clan was also elected Caliph and conflict ensued. Ali was ultimately assassinated in 651 by one of his disaffected followers. Ali’s first son, Hassan, made a treaty with Mu‘awiya agreeing not to pursue his (rightful) claim the to caliphate during Mu‘awiya’s lifetime.

Hassan died before Mu‘awiyah and, for the party of Ali, the caliphate should rightfully have passed to Ali’s second son Hussein. Once again this led to conflict. Hussein had a strong following in Kufa in what is now modern Iraq and attempted to go there to be with his supporters. Yazid, the son of Mu‘awiya, intercepted Hussein and his small caravan at a place called Karbala, just north of Kufa. Hussein’s retinue consisted not just of fighters but also women and children, among whom was Hussein’s 6-month-old son.

Hussein was betrayed by the people of Kufa. Hussein and his entourage faced the much larger army of the Kufan followers of Yazid. The forces prevented Hussein’s followers from obtaining water and they suffered greatly from thirst. The forces attacked; most of Hussein’s followers — including his infant son — were killed. Lastly, Hussein himself was killed and his head taken to Damascus, the seat of Yazid.

For Shi’ite Muslims, Hussein is the martyr par excellence. His martyrdom galvanized the followers of Ali into a clear movement in opposition to the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus.

Over the centuries, Shi’ite Muslims have developed a piety of martyrdom surrounding the events at Karbala. Every year on 10 Muharram, Shi’ite Muslims stage commemorations of Hussein’s death. The ta‘ziya (literally: “consolation”) reenacts the martyrdom of Hussein and is accompanied by great mourning, loud wailing and self-flagellation. The emotional intensity of the ceremonies is extremely high; some of the mourners in an almost ecstatic state strike themselves to the point of drawing of blood.

Although strange to most Westerners, similar rituals can be found in some cultures on Good Friday. Indeed, there are some striking parallels here to Christianity. One of the unique characteristics of Shi’ite Islam is their belief in the sanctifying power of Hussein’s death. Some Shi’ite scholars would speak of redemptive suffering, a concept not acknowledged in Sunni Islam and considered heretical by Wahhabi Muslims. Nevertheless, in both his righteousness and his suffering, Hussein becomes the ideal of the Shi’ite community.

Shi’ite Muslims comprise about 15 percent of the Muslim community. As a result even people in the West familiar with Islam are likely more familiar with Sunni Muslims.

Nevertheless, Christians can easily see points of comparison and between the death of Jesus and the Shi’ite observances of Ashura — and from that, perhaps, there may even be a possibility for understanding and dialogue.

Tags: Islam

21 September 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Jews around the world mark their holiest day of the year next week, Yom Kippur. The painting above, dating from 1878, is entitled ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur’
by Maurycy Gottleib. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Our Jewish friends and neighbors are marking Rosh Hashanah today, but another great holy day comes just next week.

Starting on Friday evening, 29 September, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. In the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews take stock of their spiritual and moral lives and begin the process of asking God for forgiveness.

What does this entail?

The ritual for the duties of the High Priest (hakkohen haggadôl) for the Day of Atonement is laid out in detail in chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus. On the Day of Atonement the high priest is to purify himself and the people through animal sacrifices and ablutions. On the Day of Atonement the high priests enters into the Holy of Holies in the Temple and intercedes for the people asking God for forgiveness. It the chapter there is instruction about the Scape Goat. A goat is chosen and “Aaron must lay his hands on its head and confess all the faults of the Sons of Israel, all their transgressions and sins, and lay them to its charge. Having thus laid them on the goat’s head, he shall send it into the desert…and the goat will bear all their faults away with it into a desert place.” (Leviticus 16:21-22).

For modern Jews, the Day of Atonement is a day of prayer and fasting. The number of services in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement is five instead of the normal three. Synagogue attendance is usually very high on this day. Jewish tradition suggests a festive meal before sundown on the day before Yom Kippur. Since the day for Jews begins and ends at sunset, from the beginning of the Day of Atonement Jews begin a period of abstinence: no eating and drinking, no bathing, no using perfume or make up and no sexual activity.

At the end of the services for Yom Kippur comes a prayer for the High Priest. Jews recall the Temple of Jerusalem, the first of which was destroyed in 587 BC and the second of which was destroyed in 70 AD. Even in the absence of a temple, Jews throughout the world fast and pray for God’s forgiveness and for the same purification which was once achieved through the ministry of the High Priest in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.

More than just another holy day, the Day of Atonement is a day for profound prayer and reflection — a time for taking stock. It is the day when Jews reflect on their lives, their commitment to God and the Covenant and, in seeking forgiveness from God, renew that covenant for the year to come.

14 September 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

In this video from 2010, the shofar, or ram's horn, is blown in Jerusalem for Rosh Hashanah.
(video: Torah Channel/YouTube)

Over the next few weeks, our Jewish friends and neighbors will be marking some of the most important days on their calendar. These holidays have deep, complicated Biblical roots — and help us understand our common heritage.

On Saturday 30 September Jews throughout the world welcome in the year 5777. Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew for “the head/beginning of the year,” issues in the “Days of Awe,” the “High Holidays.”

In Exodus 12, God gives Moses the instructions for observing the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In verse 2, God commands Moses, “This month is to be the first of all others for you, the first month of your year....” Yet we know that Passover takes place on the full moon of the month of Nisan, which is in the spring. However, in Leviticus 23 we note that there is an unnamed “great day of rest (shabatōn)” which takes place on the first day of the seventh month, which is Tishri. This day is sacred and is characterized by remembrance (zikrōn), a blast (trû ’ah) — presumably of the shofar — and a sacred assembly (miqrā’ qodeš).

In contemporary Judaism all of these are connected with Rosh Hashanah.

More significantly, Leviticus prescribes a further holiday. “The tenth day of the seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement (yôm hakkippurîm).” Clearly the unnamed holiday in Leviticus 23:24, ten days before the Day of the Atonement, is the Rosh Hashanah celebrated by Jews today. In the post exilic (586 BC) book of the prophet Ezekiel, the prophet speaks of “...the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month” (Ezekiel 40:1), which most scholars hold to be month of Tishri (September-October).

According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah is calculated from the creation of the world. On this day, tradition has it that all creation passes by God who determines its fate for the coming year. It is the day when God reasserts his sovereignty over the world. As with Christians and Muslims, the day starts not at midnight, but sunset. For Jews, it is a day of celebrating with special foods — with an emphasis on sweets.

It is also a day of prayer and visiting the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah one of the most important ceremonies — as one would expect from Leviticus 23:24 — is the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. It is sounded on the two mornings of Rosh Hashanah (unless one is the Sabbath, as it is this year). The shofar is blown 30 times after the readings from the Bible during the morning worship service. It may be blown up to 70 more times during the day. There are three different “notes” to the shofar each with its own significance. The blast of the shofar is reminiscent of the coronation of the king and is also connected with Abraham’s sacrifice on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22).

This helps lead up to the next big holiday after Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. The days between these two are the most sacred for Jews around the world. Rosh Hashanah, as is to be expected, is a joyful celebration — while, as we shall see next week, Yom Kippur is a solemn day of fast and penance. While it is perfectly good to wish Jewish friends, neighbors and colleagues Hashanah tova, “Good/Happy New Year,” it is not appropriate to wish them a happy Yom Kippur.

7 September 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Displaced Iraqis flee their homes in January as Iraqi forces battle with ISIS militants near Mosul, Iraq. (photo: CNS/Khalid al Mousily, Reuters)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS; or dā’iš from its Arabic name) came forcefully to the attention of the world on 29 June 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi introduced himself as the new caliph of Islam. This followed a series of military victories which gave ISIS control over several Iraqi cities; on 10 June 2014, it seized Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. It was not long before ISIS controlled much of northern Syria and large sections of Iraq.

Where did ISIS originate? How did it begin? There are many differing theories. While some consider it a purely political movement with a religious veneer, others see it as a purely religious movement with political goals. While I personally believe the neither position is correct, I think it is helpful to look at some of the ideologies and theological underpinnings which helped bring it about, since it casts such a long shadow over so much of the world CNEWA serves.

Two concepts are crucial to understand ISIS: jihād and takfīr. Jihād is a complex concept but involves the struggle (Arabic jahada) to bring the entire world to submission to God and to God’s rule. Those parts of the world that have submitted form the dār ul-salām, “the House/Realm of Peace” and those which have not form the dār ul-ḥarb, “the House/Realm of war.” Classical Islam saw itself at least potentially in a state of permanent conflict with the Realm of War. Although distinctions were drawn between the “greater jihād,” which was similar to asceticism in Christianity, i.e. the struggle to overcome one’s baser tendencies, and the “lesser jihād,” it was clearly the lesser or military jihād that has continued to be of concern to the non-Muslim world.

Takfīr, on the other hand, is the declaration that someone is a kāfir, “an infidel, non-believer, apostate” and, hence, deserving of death and damnation. Very soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, Muslims struggled with what rendered someone a non-believer. This question became acute when it dealt with declaring other Muslims to be infidels/apostates. The question arose over whether Ali, the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the prophet, was responsible for the assassination of Uthman, the third Caliph, and hence and infidel/apostate, or whether Uthman was deserving of death and hence an apostate.

One group, the Kharijites, was very clear on this: everyone who didn’t agree with them was an infidel and apostate. Being an infidel made one the object of jihād, while being an apostate made one worthy of death. The Murji’ites (from Arabic ’irjā’ “to put off {judgement}”), on the other hand, held that judgment should be left to God. Although this was in the context of very specific historical circumstances, the question remained as to what, if anything (other than outright rejection of Islam) could render a Muslim an infidel. With a great deal of oversimplification, the question was: could an external act alone render a Muslim an infidel and apostate or did there have to be a concomitant internal intention?

Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymīya (1263-1393), a major Muslim thinker, held the opinion that an external act can render a Muslim an apostate. But this was not the predominant Muslim opinion at the time.

With the emergence in the 18th century of what is called the Wahhabi movement (in in what would become Saudi Arabia), ibn Taymīya’s thought took on a new prominence. In the 20th century Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), after studying and traveling developed an extremely negative stance towards the West. This resulted in him judging very harshly those Muslim societies which he saw as abandoning Islam for Western values. He deemed these Muslim countries to be in a state of jāhilīyya, which means “foolishness” but is also used to refer to the time before the arrival of Muhammad. Relying on an idiosyncratic interpretation of Qur’an 5:44, Qutb came to the conclusion that all Muslim nations which do not “govern by what has been revealed by God” are infidels/apostates.

Although Qutb was not well received in Saudi Arabia — because he did not use classical, Islamic sources — some of his ideas found a home in the kingdom. Muslim thinkers over the centuries were extremely reticent to apply the concept of takfīr — fully aware of the forces it could unleash. But ISIS has not shown any reticence at all: it has been unusually careful to provide religious justification for its atrocities, which are more often directed against Muslims than non-Muslims.

While there are indications ISIS has been at least driven from the areas of Syria and Iraq it conquered, it is important to realize that its roots run very deep. It did not begin overnight — and it will not end overnight, either.

Military solutions are not enough. The ultimate solution must be religious.

31 August 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, celebrated this year on 1 September, comes at the end of the Hajj and commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. (photo: Abraham’s sacrifice, from a fresco in Bulgaria/Wikimedia Commons)

This year, Friday 1 September marks the Muslim feast of Eid ul-Aḍḥā, the Feast of Sacrifice, one of the most significant feasts in the Muslim calendar. It comes at the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which Muslims are obliged to make at least once in their lives during the Month of the Hajj.

To understand its significance, it helps to understand the story of Abraham and his two sons.

Muslims trace their religious lineage back to the patriarch Abraham, as do Jews and Christians, though in different ways. For Jews, Muslims and Christians, Abraham had two sons. Ishmael, Abraham’s first born, was the son of Hagar, Sarah’s servant. Sarah was childless, so Abraham, following the customs of the time, had a son through Hagar to carry on the line. Later, when Sarah miraculously conceived and gave birth to Isaac, the Bible sees Isaac as the main heir of Abraham and, therefore, of God’s promise (Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-21). After the birth of her own son, Sarah convinced Abraham to send away Hagar and their son Ishmael. In Genesis 22 there is the familiar story of Abraham expressing willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son Isaac; the Lord intervenes and provides, instead, a ram (Genesis 22:13).

For Muslims, Ishmael — not Isaac — is the child of the promise. The Bible and the Quran differ on the story. If in the Bible Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, the account in the Quran 37:103 ff. presents Ishmael as the intended sacrifice. Both the Bible and the Qur’an agree that Ishmael was sent away, but they differ greatly in the details. In the Muslim telling, Abraham and Ishmael traveled to Mecca and set up the House of God there.

Much of the ritual of the Hajj revolves around Abraham and Ishmael’s time in Mecca. At the end of the Hajj, commemorating the “sacrifice” of Ishmael, Muslims recall that sacrifice by slaughtering (or having someone slaughter) a sheep or some other acceptable animal and giving the meat to the poor.

Interestingly, there are similarities between the two major Muslim holy days, the Feast of Sacrifice and the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast (of Ramadan), and two major Christian holy days, Christmas and Easter.

For Muslims, the Feast of Sacrifice is more important theologically — as Easter is theologically more important for Christians. However, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast for Muslims and Christmas for Christians have somehow captured the hearts and imaginations of believers. There are many more popular traditions around the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast than of the Feast of Sacrifice. Greetings, visits and family events are often closely related to the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast. Nevertheless, theologically, if not emotionally, the Feast of Sacrifice remains, al-‘eid al-akbar, “the greater feast.”

24 August 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

This painting depicts the Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V, being arrested by the Ottomans on Easter Sunday in 1821. He was later hanged.
(photo: Nikiforos Lytras [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As I noted in an earlier post, Christian decline in the Middle East covered a period of many centuries. As early as the 9th century, we find Christians converting to Islam for any number of reasons. The almost total destruction of the Christian infrastructure during the Mongol invasions (13th century) further weakened the Christian position.

Under the Ottoman Empire (from the end of 13th century until 1923) the status of Christians further deteriorated. The Ottoman Empire did everything possible to expand its borders. For several centuries, it enjoyed considerable success. Most of the Balkan countries, parts of Hungary and Poland and all of Greece came under Ottoman rule. All of these countries were Christian — Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. The Ottomans employed the millet (originally Arabic for: religion, religious community, nation) system in which each religious group enjoyed a certain autonomy and lived under its own denominational leadership and laws. But each remained under the strict control of the Ottoman overlords. While this provided a certain autonomy, it also ran the risk of “ghettoizing” and, hence, isolating the communities. At the same time the same social, cultural and financial incentives continued which would entice Christians to convert to Islam.

In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire entered a period of decline. There were large groups like Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and others who became restive. Nationalist movements began to emerge and many of these groups sought independence. In 1821 Greek nationalists revolted against the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II. The patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V, who was also the leader of the Greek millet, opposed the revolt. Nevertheless, the Sultan held him responsible. On 22 April 1821, Easter Sunday, the Ottomans arrested Gregory after the liturgy and hanged him in full vestments on the gate of the patriarchate, where his body remained for two days. This not only enflamed the Greeks but also encouraged Russian, French and British intervention on the side of the Greek rebels. Ultimately the rebels were victorious and Greece achieved independence in the Treaty of Constantinople in May 1832.

The success of the Greeks was a shock to the Ottomans. They had been invincible for centuries. Soon other Christian millets became possible hotbeds for revolutionaries. The intervention of Russia, France and Britain on the side of the Christian Greeks was a warning to the Ottomans.

At the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918), the Ottomans joined on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary against the British, French and Russians, who not coincidentally had supported the Greek war for independence. After some initial successes, it became clear that the Ottomans were on the losing side. Christian millets were looked upon as possible areas for revolt and for support of the Allied Powers. In fact, some of the millets, like the Armenians, did see an opportunity for independence.

In 1915 the Ottomans began a systematic extermination of Armenians, the vast majority of whom were Christians. It should also be noted that Armenians were widespread in the Ottoman Empire. In what the United Nations and others, including Pope Francis, refer to as the Armenian Genocide, over 1.5 million Armenians were either executed or died from starvation and forced migration. While the Armenians have received the attention of Western historians, they weren’t the only ones who faced persecution and death. Other groups, including the Assyrians and Chaldeans, were also massacred.

The end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire allowed the French and British to divide up the Ottoman remains along lines of their own national interests. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) created artificial countries in the area of Syria Mesopotamia. Created according to British and French national interests — and not linguistic, ethnic, religious or political considerations — these countries were and are inherently unstable. As British and French control in the region began to wane, many of these countries experienced anti-colonialist revolutions and sought their identities in a non-European, non-Christian (which to many in the region was the same) Islam. Once again, especially in Iraq, Christians became the target for massacres. Beginning in 1933 there were several massacres of Assyrian Christians, the worst event being at the town of Simele on 10-11 August of 1933.

By this time Christianity in the region was in sharp decline. The Christian population of Turkey in 1914 was estimated at 14 percent. By 2017 it had sunk to 0.2 percent. Genocide, emigration and expulsion reduced the Christian population, which had been the majority in the 6th century, to an insignificant minority in the 21st.

The wars the United States waged against Iraq (2003 to the present) further worsened the situation of Christians, who were often caught in the crossfire of competing forces or targeted as traitors, sympathetic to the (Christian) invaders. Having once numbered more than 1.5 million, Christians now number 150,000 or less in Iraq. The Syrian Civil War (2011-present) and the rise of the Islamic State have made the situation of Christians in Syria and Mesopotamia almost intolerable.

Whether Christianity will or even can survive in the region is today a very open question.

2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia: Introduction
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 1: In the Beginning
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 2: Christians and Muslims Co-exist
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia —Part 3: Christianity Begins to Decline

17 August 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

This image from the Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East in the 13th century,
when Mongols conquered much of Asia.
(photo: by Abraham Cresques, Atlas catalan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The decline of Christianity in the Middle East did not occur over night. It took over a millennium for Christians to go from being a slight majority of the population of the Middle East to being 5 percent at present.

When did it start? We see the beginnings of decline by the 9th century. Initially, the Muslim conquerors discouraged the People of the Book, Christians, from converting to Islam. The benefits which the conquerors enjoyed were initially not given to non-Arab converts to Islam. But as the caliphate developed into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state, those privileges were granted to all converts, providing incentives for Christians to convert to Islam.

Under the Abbasid Caliphs (750-1258) there were often dialogues/debates in which Christian and Muslim theologians debated the superiority of their own faiths. By the 9th century, though, we notice subtle and not so subtle changes taking place. Since many of these debates have survived in written form, we can follow their development. (You can read more about that here.) Although for the most part, there was no violence exerted on Christians to convert to Islam, subtler and perhaps more powerful incentives were at work: social status, political status and financial advantage. While there does not seem to have been any mass conversion to Islam, the decline had begun.

At the beginning of the 13th century, nomadic groups in north central Asia began a migration and conquest. In 1258, Mongols conquered Baghdad and brought the Abbasid Caliphate to an end. By 1300, they had conquered China, all of Central and Western Asia and parts of Eastern Europe. Until the advent of ISIS, the Middle East had not experienced wanton destruction such a scale since the Mongol invasions. The infrastructure of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious caliphate was destroyed — and with it, most of the Christian infrastructure in the region.

To be sure, there would not be a permanent vacuum in the Middle East. Smaller groups of Muslims formed Khanates and Sultanates which often competed with each other for the position which the Abbasid Caliphate had possessed and which was now gone forever.

Even towards the end of the caliphate, one notices the presence of Turkic people in positions of power. After the demise of the caliphate, more and more of these groups move into the Middle East and begin to establish governments.

One of these groups, the Oghuz Turks, was to begin the most important empire in Europe and Asia for almost 600 years. The Osmanli family formed a dynasty, the Ottomans, which would conquer the entire Middle East and much of Central Europe until its dissolution in 1923. The Ottoman Empire was inspired by the ghazi or raiding tradition and engaged in almost constant raids against their non-Muslim and Muslim neighbors.

In many ways, the situation of Christians and non-Ottoman Muslims under the Ottomans was similar. Both were subjects. However, there were several factors which made the situation of Christians worse. Christians were becoming a minority lacking the “demographic depth” of the Arab Muslims, making any recovery very difficult. The Crusades (roughly 11th to 13th centuries) and the later constant Ottoman attacks in Christian central Europe gave Christians in the Ottoman Empire the air of being “the foreign enemy” or, worse, a “fifth column.” Forced conversions of Christians to Islam had been rare. However, the Janissaries, the Ottoman shock troops, were originally manned by young Christian boys kidnapped from (mostly) Balkan countries, forced to convert to Islam and then trained as the personal troops of the Sultan.

Relations between Christians and Ottoman Turks are memorialized in several Catholic holy days. The Feast of the Name of Mary (12 September) commemorates the defeat of the Ottoman armies at Vienna in 1683 and the Feast of the Holy Rosary (7 October) commemorates the Christian victory at the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571. It’s no accident that these holy days are linked to battles; the Ottoman Empire was in an almost constant state of war with Eastern Europe until the end of the 17th century.

The time of the Umayyad and Abbasid Christian-Muslim dialogues was over. For the Christians in the West, Islam — in the form of the Ottoman Empire — was not an opportunity for dialogue, but a threat. Christians in the East were considered objects of suspicion — sympathizers of the Christian powers in Europe — and not people for dialogue.

Christians in Syria and Mesopotamia never really recovered from the Mongol invasions and destruction. Any opportunity to recover was greatly diminished under the Ottomans. Christians went from being high officials and respected scholars under the caliphates to being a poor, shrinking and suspect minority under the Ottomans.

As we will see, the events of the 20th and 21st centuries would make the situation of Christians in the Middle East even worse.


2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia: Introduction
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 1: In the Beginning
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 2: Christians and Muslims Co-exist

10 August 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

St. John of Damascus, (John Damascene) is shown in this Arabic icon. The words on the scroll read, in part: “Blessed is the way of life of the people of piety, for they will arise forever in love.”
(photo: Wikipedia Commons)

This was a period of tremendous change in the region.

Within a hundred years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death (June 632), Muslim armies had driven the Christian Byzantine rulers out of the eastern Mediterranean, destroyed the Persian Sassanid Empire (651), conquered North Africa and were poised to attack Spain. The Christian Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria in Egypt were under Muslim control, as were about half of the world’s Christians.

We are dealing here with a period of five centuries corresponding to: the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) and the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1158).

So, what happened?

After disagreement and bloodshed among Muslims over who was to succeed the Prophet Muhammad, the Umayya family of Mecca was victorious. This began the Umayyad Caliphate, centered in Damascus. The Umayyads found themselves the unprepared rulers over a large, very developed and sophisticated part of the Middle East — and the overwhelming majority of their subjects were Christians. However, these Christians were often bitterly divided among themselves between those who followed the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and who formed the Church of the Byzantine Empire, and those who did not — primarily the Church of the East and the Monophysites Churches. Often this latter group found its situation better under Muslim overlords than under Byzantine Christians who considered them schismatic at best. In addition, Muslims at times actively discouraged Christians from converting to Islam.

The Umayyad Caliphate needed administrators and trained bureaucrats — and Christians fit the bill. Thus we find the grandfather and father of St. John Damascene (676-749) working at the Umayyad Court. Although they were dhimmy — i.e. protected but second class citizens — Christians played an important role in the caliphate as administrators and scholars. Christians, like John Damascene, were not sure what to make of Islam. John, for example, thought that it was a Christian heresy, having as it does so much in common with Christianity. As time went on, Christians realized that Islam was, in fact, another religion rooted in the Quran; Christians began to respond accordingly. Nonetheless, relations between the Christians and Muslims in the Umayyad Caliphate were generally not hostile.

The Umayyad Caliphate came to a violent end with the Abbasid revolt of 750. Many in the ruling Umayyad family were killed and a new caliphate set up in the new city of Baghdad.

Although Christians often rose to high positions in the government, and made up a majority, the Abbasids were not nearly as dependent on them for the administration of the caliphate. The Church of the East moved its Patriarchal See from Ctesiphon, the former Persian capital, to Baghdad, the new Abbasid capital.

This was a time of great intellectual activity and Christians played a major role. Syriac-speaking monks of the Church of the East had kept alive the traditions of the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle. The emerging Muslim intellectual class with its philosophers and theologians interacted with Christian scholars. Timothy I, Patriarch-Catholicos of the Church of the East, was a prominent scholar of Aristotle. (Caliph al-Mahdi even hired Timothy to translate Aristotle’s work The Topics for the caliph’s library.)

During this time, Muslims and Christians engaged in dialogues/debates on the respective strengths of their religions — and often these encounters were sponsored by the caliphs themselves. Texts of many of these debates still exist today — and you can see some important developments.

With time, the Christian critiques of Islam began to get harsher. One also gets the distinct feeling that these texts were directed more to Christians than Muslims. This indicates that by the end of the 8th century, Christians —for any number of reasons, force not being among them — were beginning to convert to Islam.

As the Abbasid Caliphate went into a long, slow decline, missionaries of the Church of the East remained active throughout Asia. Christianity was learning to express its faith using Arabic, the language of the Quran. It was a time of Christian-Muslim interaction, if not dialogue. Although Christians were not persecuted, one begins to note increasing social, cultural and financial motivations for Christians to convert to Islam.

But other forces were at work.After the Abbasids, Mongol invaders launched more than a century of widespread destruction that overwhelmed the Middle East, indirectly contributing to what became a centuries-long decline of Christianity in the region.


2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 1: In the Beginning
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia: Introduction

3 August 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

This pagoda in Shaanxi, China, dates to the seventh century. Scholars believe it was originally part of a monastery for the Church of the East — offering evidence of Christianity's deep roots in Asia. (photo: J. Coster/Wikipedia)

While all the ancient churches traditionally trace their roots back to one of the Apostles — or one of the 72 disciples who are mentioned without names in Luke’s Gospel — it is often difficult to verify these traditions in way which would be acceptable to modern historians.

The New Testament offers little help. It has Peter traveling to Antioch, although there is no mention in the Bible that Peter went to Rome. We also know from Acts 8:4-8 that Philip, one of the Twelve Apostles, travelled and preached in Samaria, which was not far from Jerusalem. There is more evidence in the Bible about Paul desiring to go to Rome and ultimately going there as a prisoner. Paul is also known to have founded several churches. However, although he insists that he is an “apostle” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:9 and elsewhere), Paul was not a member of the original Twelve Apostles.

While traditions about the apostolic origins of some churches may be hard to verify, they do have deep roots. Early on, traditions arose according to which of the Twelve evangelized a particular area — Thomas in India, Andrew in Byzantium, and so on.

Nearly 200 years later, we find — as in India and parts of Armenia — that church institutions developed. The traditions were beginning to flourish. Shrines and memorials recording the presence of one of the Twelve, even many decades later, also indicate a longer tradition. So, when churches trace their roots back to apostolic times, there is very often an historical core to those traditions.

But before long, several forces — mostly political, theological, linguistic and cultural — led to isolation between the churches of the East and those of the Latin and Greek-speaking West.

The Church of the East, sometimes inaccurately called the Nestorian Church, was a church separated from the Western churches in many ways. First, it existed politically in the Persian Empire, which was almost in a constant state of war with Byzantium, the political center of Western Christianity. Secondly, its theology found the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon unacceptable. This actually was to its advantage because “orthodox” Christianity was — sometimes correctly — seen by the Persians as the faith of the Byzantine enemies. Lastly, members of the Church of the East spoke Syriac and different dialects of Aramaic, in contrast to the Greek and Latin of the churches in the West.

But it was, in many ways, ahead of its time. It might surprise people to learn that the Church of the East developed schools of theology in Edessa and Nisibis (both in modern Turkey) some 500 years before the opening of the first great European universities. Also, for the first five centuries of the church, most Christians lived east of the Mediterranean; by the time of the Muslim conquests in the mid-seventh century, Christians formed a slight majority of the population of the Persian Empire.

One reason for its growth is that the Church of the East was renowned for its missionary activities. By the eighth century it had metropolitan sees (archdioceses) in several places in China and across Central Asia. The Church of the East brought Christianity to China before it arrived in Denmark and the Slavic countries of Europe and almost 1,000 years before St. Francis Xavier arrived in the region.

Although the Church of the East remains widely unknown in the West, for centuries it was one of the most vital forces for theology and missionary activity in the Christian world.


2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Introduction

Tags: Christianity Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Church of the East

27 July 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

In this image from last year, Christian worshippers pray at Sayydet al-Niyah Church in Damascus, Syria. Centuries before Christianity took root in Europe, it was flourishing in Syria and other countries to the East. (photo: CNS/Youssef Badawi, EPA)

Recently we have been hearing that Christianity risks extinction in the Middle East, the region often described as the “cradle of Christianity.” While Christians in the West lament the possible extinction of Christians in the East, the attitude is often “well, there never were a lot of Christians there any way.”

Each of us sees reality through a very local lens. It often seems as if the unspoken attitude among Western Christians is that, after the Ascension of Jesus, the Apostles got together, Peter decided to go to Rome and the other 11 went into assisted living. The conclusion: from the very beginning Christianity was a European phenomenon.

In fact, nothing could be further than the truth.

For at least the first 500 years of Christianity, most Christians lived east of the Mediterranean in what was then known as Syria and Mesopotamia. Many might be surprised to learn that the Church of the East, often referred to as “Nestorian,” was in China before Christianity reached Denmark and the Slavic countries. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day in the year 800, Timothy of the Church of the East was a metropolitan archbishop in Tibet. Middle Eastern Christians were in India and China 1,000 years before the arrival of St. Francis Xavier (who died in 1552).

The region known as Mesopotamia stretched from the Mediterranean east, all the way to the
Persian Gulf. (photo: Wikipedia)

The Christian presence in the East, from the early days, was fairly extensive. For several centuries after the Muslim conquest of the Middle East (in the seventh century), Christians formed a majority of the population in the two Islamic caliphates. In the first caliphate, the Umayyad (661-750), Christians played a major role in the government. St. John Damascene (ca. 675-749) came from a family of Christian civil servants in the caliphate at Damascus.

There were and remain several different Christian churches in the Middle East, both Orthodox and Catholic, tracing their roots back to the time of the Apostles. Some of the ancient churches of the Middle East had great centers of theological learning like Edessa and Nisibis (respectively Sanliurfa and Nusaybin in modern Turkey). The university in Nisibis antedated the earliest universities in Europe by over 500 years. One of the interesting characteristics of Middle Eastern theology is that, while Western Christians often used creeds to express their faith, the preferred medium for expressing faith in Middle Eastern Christianity was hymns and poetry. Thus, St. Ephrem the Syrian, one of the great biblical scholars and theologians of both the Western and Eastern churches, left behind not summas, like Aquinas and others, but rather huge volumes of hymns and poetry.

Over the next three weeks, we will look at 2,000 years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia and how these ancient and most interesting churches were founded, flourished and ultimately began to decline; in places where they were once the majority, they are now small minorities, often well under 10 percent.

We hope to help readers not only understand just who these Christians are, but also why their survival is critical to Christians everywhere.

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