Middle East Christians — an overview
What Christians lack in numbers, they make up in variety. While in what is traditionally defined as the Middle East most are Arabs, they nevertheless constitute a diverse church: Greek Orthodox and Latin and Melkite Greek Catholics make up the bulk of the remaining Christians in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Chaldean Catholics stand out in Iraq. Maronites dominate Lebanon. Antiochene and Syriac Orthodox Christians comprise significant groups in Syria. Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church is by far the region’s largest Christian community.
Complementing these larger faith communities are smaller groups. Many Armenian Apostolic Christians found refuge in Lebanon and Syria after the horrors of World War I in Ottoman Turkey. Most of Iran’s Christians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Assyrians, especially those who belong to the ancient Church of the East, are scattered throughout Iran, Iraq and Syria. Armenian and Syriac Catholic communities have thrived in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Anglican, Reformed and evangelical Protestant communities may also be found in the region.
However, this accounting ignores the large number of Christian migrants settling in Israel, Lebanon and the Gulf states. Who are they? According to Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar for Arabia, more than 2 million Filipinos live in the region, and about 80 percent of them are Latin Catholic. There also are tens of thousands of Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, Latin Catholics from the southeastern Indian Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of Armenian, Chaldean, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac Christians from the heart of the Middle East as well as thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians — as many as 50,000 live in Yemen alone.
At a press conference in Rome last week, Bishop Hinder said he found the Special Assembly for the Middle East “too focused on the classical Oriental churches in the Middle East” and on the problems confronting the region’s indigenous Christians due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, war in Iraq and the continuing tensions in Lebanon.
The church cannot downplay the needs of the millions of Christian migrant workers in the region, he said. The situation is urgent, he continued, because in too many places migrant workers, especially women, “are treated as slaves,” not just in the Arabian Peninsula, but in Lebanon and Israel as well.
“It’s not a particular problem of the Muslim world,” but also happens when the employers are “wealthy Christians who treat these women in a horrible way,” forcing them to “work 22 hours a day, preventing them from leaving the house and, sometimes, subjecting them to sexual abuse,” the bishop said.
If they manage to flee, the first place they turn to is the church, whose priests and religious take the exploited to their embassies, which provide a safe house until they can be repatriated. No psychological help or support is offered, the bishop said, often due to the lack of funding and personnel.
What about the pastoral needs of displaced Christians?