Christian Churches in the Near and Middle East

The origins of Christianity lie in the Middle East but after two millenniums the Christians have become a minority (13 million in the entire Middle East). The diversity of Christian churches goes back to theological disputes which took place in the first centuries -Council of Ephesus of 431; Council of Chalcedony of 451 (1)- and also to political conflicts between the major cities of Christian antiquity in the 5th, 6th and 7th Centuries: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople.

Yet there were some attempts to unite the Roman-Catholic and the Orthodox Churches (notably, the Lyon Council, 1274, and Florence Council, 1439), but they didn’t lead to any concrete measure. Some of these attempts gave rise to Eastern Catholic Churches.

For many centuries the Latin Church has maintained its presence in the Middle East (mostly in the Holly Land), notably by keeping  priests, monks and nuns in place. This presence, however, is relatively small.

The multiple divisions amongst Christians were a considerate factor in the Muslim conquer of the region in the VIIth Century. Muslim authorities introduced the “dhimma” principle  (“protection” in Arabic). This principle defined the rights and duties of the “People of the Book” within the Muslim system. In exchange, the Muslim authorities guaranteed their security and religious freedom. This situation lasted until the XIXth Century.

I. Orthodox churches.

1. The “Assyrian Church of the East” or Oriental Syrian Church

Patriarch of the Assyrian Church (theoretical See: Teheran, Iran – effective see : Chicago, USA): Mar Dinkha IV (1935, elected in 1976)

Members: 250.000 (of whom 130.000 in the US, Canada and Australia, small Diaspora in Europe)

This Church rejected the decisions of the Council of Ephesus, 431,  by which Nestorius was excommunicated (which is why it is sometimes called the Nestorian Church, although the Church itself rejects this appellation). Progressively it became an independent church,  characterised by strong  missionary development in Central Asia, Chine, Tibet and India. The Assyrians lived since the XVIth Century in the Turkish eastern provinces where in 1917 they became victims of massacres. Most of them found refugee in Iraq where they suffered more persecutions in 1933. Many of them then moved to Syria (rim of Khabour) and the US. The controversy about the Patriarch provoked a schism in 1964 (since 1450, the Patriarchate was hereditary from uncle to nephew). In 1976 the problem was solved after the Patriarchal family changed.

2. The Syrian orthodox Church of Antioch

Orthodox Syrian Patriarch of Antioch and all of the East (See: Damascus, Syria): Mar Ignace Zakka Ist Iwas (1933, elected in 1980)

Members: 340.000 of whom 150.000 living in the diaspora (Europe, United States, Canada)

Also called Western Syrian, Monophysite or Jacobite Church, it gathers the Christians of the patriarchies of Antioch and Jerusalem who rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedony (451).  Today it represents 17 % of the 70% non-Catholics within the Christian community of Syria (approximately 10% of the whole population is Christian). It’s characterised by the preservation of the Syriac rite: the Syriac is still the liturgy and vernacular language. During the First World War, the Orthodox Syrians in eastern Turkey were victims of persecution together with the Armenians and the Assyrians Chaldeons.

3. The Orthodox Coptic Church

Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Predication of Saint Marc and all of Africa (See: Cairo, Egypt): Shenouda III  (1923, elected in 1971)

Members: 3 to 11 million (half a million in diaspora)

The Orthodox Coptic Church comprises the overwhelming majority of Christians in Egypt. In the fifth century, 90% of the Egyptian population was Christian whereas nowadays they represent approximately 10%. Christians maintained their numerical supremacy until the end of the IXth Century, two centuries after Islam first entered into the country. There is an important Coptic diaspora in the US, Australia, Europe, and the Gulf countries. This is a recent phenomenon connected to the rise of Islamic fundamentalists and economic problems in Egypt.

4. The Armenian Apostolic Church

The Armenian Church is divided in four jurisdictions :

  • Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin (residence: Etchmiadzin, Armenian Republic): Karékine II Sarkissian (1951, elected in 1999). Although the different Armenian jurisdictions are autonomous, all of them recognise the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin as their spiritual chief.

Members: 5,5 million (from which 1,7 million are in diaspora in Iran, Iraq, India, Egypt, Ethiopia, Europe, US and Australia)

  • Armenian Patriarch of the Thron of Saint Jacques of Jerusalem (residence: convent Saint Jacques of Jerusalem): Thorgom Manoukian (1919, elected in 1990). The Patriarch is responsible of the holly places of Jerusalem belonging to the Armenians.

Members : 7.700 (Israel, Palestine, Jordan)

  • Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople (residence: Istanbul, Turkey):  Mesrob Mutafyan (1956, elected in 1998)

Members : 65.000 (Turkey, basically in Istanbul)

  • Armenian Catholicostate of the Great House of Cilicia (residence: Antelias, Lebanon):  Aram I Keshishian (1947, elected in 1995).

Members : 500.000 (Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Greece, also a part of the diaspora from those countries)

The ancient Armenia (Eastern part of modern Turkey and border regions from the former USRR and Iran) was the first nation to officially adopt Christianity. The small kingdom of Armenia was created in Cilicia, after the annexation of the Byzantine empire firstly and (XIth) and the Seldjoukides after. This kingdom disappeared in the XIVth and Armenians didn’t have a state until the birth of the Armenian Republic in 1991.

II. The Orthodox Byzantine Churches (“Greek Orthodox Churches”)

It gathers the -Arab- Christians of the Patriarchies of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, all loyal to the Council of Chalcedony, of 451. They constitute the majority of Christians in Jordan and Syria, and they can also be found in Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian Territories, as well as Kuwait.

1. Patriarch of Alexandria

Patriarch of Alexandria and all of Africa (see: Alexandria, Egypt): Pierre VII Papapetrou (1949, elected in 1997)

Members: 250.000

They were very early called Melkites, in reference to their loyalty towards the Byzantine emperor (from the Syriac malka, “king”). The Patriarch lived in Istanbul from the time of Turkish conquer of Egypt (1517) until the XIXth Century.

Nowadays, this community is mainly composed of descendants of Greeks and Orthodox from the Middle East emigrated to Egypt in the XIXth Century. Since 1930, this Church sent missions in Eastern Africa. Almost half of its members are African people, converted by these missions.

2. Patriarch of Antioch

Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all of the East (See: Damascus, Syria): Ignace IV Hazim (1920, elected in 1979)

Members: 1.200.000 (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, US, Canada, Australia, Western Europe)

The seat of the Patriarcate was transferred to Damascus after the destruction of Antioch by the Mongols in 1322. Whereas during the VIIIth and XIXth Century the ecclesiastic authorities were Hellenic, since the XXth century the hierarchy was arabised. This community is largely represented in the diaspora.

3. Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem

Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem (See: Jerusalem): Ireneos (elected in 2001)

Members: 260.000 (Palestine and Jordan)

This Patriarcat was established in 451, after the adhesion of most of the Christians from Palestinian. The high clergy is formed, almost exclusively, by Hellenic citizens whereas the faithful are mostly Arabs (Palestinians and Jordanians).

In addition to the members of the three Patriarchies, there are also 6 million Greek-Orthodox who are from the Arab world origin but live in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe.

4. Monastery of Saint Catherine from the Sinai Mount

Abbot of the Monastery of St Catherine, Archbishop of Sinai, Pharan and Raitho (See: Cairo, Egypt): Archbishop Damianos (1935, elected in 1973)

Members: 900 (among whom there are about 30 monks)

The Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine was built in the Byzantine era at the presumed place where Moses received the tables of the Law. Since 1575 it is considered as an autocephalous church. The Abbot elected by the monks is Archbishop by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Some bedouin families consecrated living in the Sinai Mount also depend on the Monastery.

III.       Catholic Churches

In comparison with the Orthodox churches, Christians affiliated to the Roman Church and the Pope are a minority in the Middle East, except in Lebanon (where Maronites represent 70% of Christians) and Iraq (80% of Christians).

1. Maronite Church

Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East (See: Diman, Lebanon): Nasrallah Sfeir (1920, elected in 1986)

Members: 2.800.000 (of which approximately two thirds in diaspora)

Maronites are mostly present in Lebanon, with a very important diaspora of nearly half of the followers. Created in the Convent of Saint Maron (Apamee, Syria), a small monastic community settles in the Lebanese mountains in the Vth Century to escape from monophists’ hostility. The Crusades enabled them to seal their union with Rome. The Maronite Church is the sole Catholic Eastern church not to be born as result of dissidence from an Orthodox church. In 1860, at the time of massacres of Maronites, they asked for the Pope’s help, but eventually it was France who intervened and forced the Ottoman Empire to recognise the country’s autonomy. The Lebanese confessional political system led to two bloody civil wars (1958 and 1975-1989) which resulted in the Taef Agreements. These agreements, reduced the Presidential power (Christian Maronite) to the profit of the Prime minister (Sunnite Muslim) and of the Chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly (Shiite Muslim). The Church, the religious hierarchy and the monastic orders play a very important role in the economic and political life of Lebanon.

2. Greek Catholic Church or Melkite

Catholic Greek-Melkite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, Alexandria and Jerusalem (See: Damascus, Syria, since France ceded Antioch to Turkey): Grégoire III Lahham (1933, elected in 2000)

Members: 2.000.000 (two thirds in diaspora, 900.000 in Brazil)

The Melkite Church was born in 1724 from a scission of the Melkite Church which united Christians of the Byzantine rite and the Patriarchies of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, loyal to Chalcedony, when a Catholic was elected Patriarch of Antioch by the Christians of Damascus. There are Melkites in all Middle East countries, and they form a majority among the Christians of Syria and Israel.

3. Chaldean Catholic Church

Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon (See: Baghdad, Iraq): Emmanuel III (Emmanuel-Karim DELLY) (1927, elected in December 2003).

Members: 650.000 (of whom 550.000 in Iraq, diaspora is mainly spread in France, Sweden, the US and Australia)

The Chaldean Catholic Church is spread mostly in Iraq where it represents the majority of Christians (87% of the 80% Catholics). From the XIIIth  Century, upon the impulse of Dominican and Franciscan missionaries, several Assyrian bishops converted to Catholicism. With time, the Chaldean Church (so called since 1830) attracted a majority of Assyrians. Chaldeans where subject to numerous prosecutions, leaving tens of thousands dead at the end of the First World War.

4. The Coptic Catholique Church

Copt Patriarch of Alexandria (See: Cairo, Egypt): Stephanos II Ghattas (1920, elected in 1986)

Members: 200.000

Coptic Catholic Church gathers most of the Catholics of Egypt (77% of the 2.5% Catholic population of Egypt). The birth of the Catholic Coptic Church materialised only after the Capuchin and Franciscan missions to Egypt in the XVIIth Century. In 1895, the apostolic Vicariate became a Patriarchy.

5. Catholic Armenian Church

Armenian Patriarch of Cilicia (See: Beirut, Lebanon): Nersès Pierre XIX (1940, elected in 1999)

Members: 60.000 plus 100.000 in diaspora (US, Canada, Europe, Australia, Argentine, etc).

This Church became Catholic during the Crusades and was affiliated to Rome in 1635 when it became a Patriarchy. The Armenian genocide in 1915, perpetrated by the Turks also affected the Catholic population.

6. Syrian Catholic Church

Antioch Patriarch of the Syrians: (See: Beirut, Lebanon): Ignace Pierre VIII Abdel Ahad (1930, elected in 1998)

Members: 100.000

This Church established as a Patriarchy since 1783 (prior attempts took place since 1656) and recognised by Pope Pius VI only represents 12% of the Catholics in Syria. It also suffered from the massacres committed in Turkey against the Christians at the end of the First World War.

7. The Catholic Church of Latin Rite

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem (See: Jerusalem): Mgr Michel Sabbagh (1933, elected in 1987)

Members: 85.000

The Catholic Church of Latin Rite, installed in 1847, has a Latin Patriarchy whose jurisdiction includes the Holly Land, Lebanon, Cyprus and Jordan (where they represent the majority of Catholics). The Arabisation process of the Patriarchy culminated in the election of a Palestinian Patriarch in 1987.

IV. Protestant Churches

Protestant Churches in the Middle East are of recent date and have no historic roots in the region. They were spread mostly from the XIXth Century onwards after the arrival of European and American missionaries. Eleven of these Churches are part of the Middle East Council of Churches.


(1) The Ephesus Council, 431, defined the unity of Jesus –against the teachings of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius -and affirmed the duality of Christ, God and men, in a single person.

The Calchedonia Council, 451, stated that Christ had two natures, a human and a divine one. Several apostolic churches refused to accept the doctrine as it was formulated in Greek by this Council. They are often called “monophysts” as they keep the expression “one nature” to define Christ –although they refuse this name themselves.

See also:

  • Christians in the Arab world
  • MEDEA Special File Num 9: Christians in the Arab world