17 August 2017
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
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
27 July 2017
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.
20 July 2017
The video above, from 11 July, shows the extent of the destruction of Mosul, the largest city in Iraq that ISIS tried to conquer. (video: Radio Free Europe/YouTube)
Editor’s note: this week, we launch a new feature on our blog, “CNEWA Connections” — weekly posts that we hope will provide background and context to some of the stories unfolding in CNEWA’s world.
The Iraq city of Mosul has been in the news quite a bit lately and has been freed from the control of ISIS. It may, however, prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, since much of the city now lays in ruins.
While the world watches in sorrow the stories and images coming out of Mosul, and witnesses the humanitarian nightmare its destruction has created, it’s worth taking a moment to put the place in context. This city, the largest that ISIS tried to conquer, has a long history.
Mosul (Arabic al-Maw?il, “the connection, confluence, depot”) originally on the west bank now lies on both sides of the Tigris River. It is not a very ancient city, although it is close to the ruins of Niniveh, the capital of the very powerful Assyrian Empire which was destroyed by the Chaldeans of Babylon at the close of the 7th century BC. The position of Mosul made it an ideal center for trade between China and India via the Silk Roads to the east, to the Greek and Roman Empires to the west and Arabia and Africa to the south.
In pre-Muslims times, Mosul was a metropolitan see (archdiocese) of the Church of the East and was second to Ctesiphon — and later Baghdad — where the Catholicos/Patriarch resided. It was conquered by Muslim armies in the 7th century AD and later became part of the Abbasid Caliphate. As would be expected for a city on the juncture of several trade routes, Mosul was very cosmopolitan. Originally a Christian city, over the centuries it became increasingly Sunni Muslim. Nevertheless, there was a considerable Christian minority consisting of Christians of the Assyrian tradition (Church of the East and later also Chaldeans) and other Christian churches, Jews, Shi’ites and others. Ethnically, the majority of the population of Mosul was and remains Arab, although there were a good number of Kurds in the city. Many Christians in the region consider themselves Assyrian and not Arab. As might be expected, instances of sectarian conflict in Mosul were recorded over the centuries.
Mosul is the main city of the Nineveh Plain which has been home to a large Christian population spread over several small cities and villages. The Christian population of the Nineveh Plain is an ancient one, tracing its roots back in some instances to the 4th century AD.
Historians recount that Mosul was famous for its textiles and the English word, muslin, a type of fabric, is derived from the name Mosul.
Mosul and its environs were home to several pilgrim sites. Perhaps the most famous of these was the shrine of Nabi Yunas, the prophet Jonah — who, according to the Old Testament, had preached repentance to the Assyrians in nearby Nineveh and was buried at the site.
In this image from 1999, Iraqis visit the shrine of Nabi Yunas, the prophet Jonah.
(photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Originally a Christian shrine, it became a mosque as the Christian population diminished over the centuries.
Iraqis inspect the shrine of Nabi Yunas after ISIS destroyed it in 2014. (photo: CNS/EPA)
The al-Nuri Grand Mosque was built in the 12th century and underwent several renovations over the years. A huge structure, it was famous for its minaret, from which the Muslim call to prayer is broadcast. The minaret leaned at an angle similar to Italy’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Under the Ottoman Empire, modern day Iraq, was (wisely) divided into three vilayets or provinces: Bosra for the Arab Shi’ites in the southern third of the country; Baghdad for the Arab Sunnis in the center of the country; and Mosul for the Kurdish Muslims in the northern third of the country. After the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917, the French and British united all three vilayets to form the new country of Iraq.
After several revolutions, Iraq evolved into one very diverse country held together by a strong man, Saddam Hussein. Kurdish revolts in the north and Shi’ite revolts in the south were common and were met with incredible brutality by the Hussein government.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq began to become unglued. Centrifugal forces surfaced and the old Ottoman vilayets provided the fault lines which continue to divide the country. In that vacuum arose first al-Qaida in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a brutal terrorist. After Zarqawi’s death al-Qaida in Iraq went underground and metastasized to what would become known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and by its Arabic acronym da’ish.
With incredible speed in 2014, ISIS attacked Mosul. The large Iraqi army fled when faced with an almost minuscule ISIS force and Mosul became part of ISIS. In June 2014 in the al-Nuri Grand Mosque in Mosul Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (whose name has changed several times, each time giving him a more noble pedigree) declared himself Caliph. ISIS was now on the world stage with a vengeance. Although Raqqa in Syria was the purported capital of the caliphate, Mosul was in some ways more important. ISIS plundered the many resources which Mosul had to offer — military equipment left behind by the fleeing Iraqi army, many banks whose funds were stolen, and a population estimated at 1.8 million, half of which fled, leaving behind properties, money, etc., which was confiscated by ISIS.
ISIS was driven from Mosul in the spring and summer of 2017 by a coalition of Iraqi troops, Kurdish militias and American advisors. The loss of Mosul was a serious loss for ISIS but perhaps a greater loss for the people of Mosul and the Christians who had fled from the Plain of Nineveh. Arial photographs show the city to be leveled. The retreating ISIS forces used explosives to destroy the Shrine of Jonah and the al-Nuri mosque. Christians who fled to Irbil in Kurdish Iraq wait and wonder if the Niniveh Plain will ever again be safe enough for them to return.
It is a sad irony that for centuries Mosul lay just across the Tigris River from the ruins of ancient Niniveh — ruins which Mosul itself now resembles.