Studies in World Christianity 28.3

Heritage and Identity. Exploring the Middle East within World Christianity

Edited by Elizabeth S. Marteijn and Lucy Schouten

It is only fitting that Studies in World Christianity dedicates a special issue to the geographical region that is the cradle of Christianity: the Middle East. This region, spread across North Africa and West Asia, was the site of some of the most significant events in early church history. Jesus Christ was born in a village that is now the bustling Palestinian city of Bethlehem, and the holy Middle Eastern city of Jerusalem was the scene of his death, resurrection, ascension and, shortly thereafter, of the earliest missionary movement, when Jesus’ disciples ventured into the world to spread the Christian message. The apostle Paul received his vision of Jesus Christ on the way to Damascus – what is now the capital of Syria, and his voyages brought him to other places in the contemporary Middle East, mostly in what is now Turkey. The second-century prolific Church Father Tertullian wrote his apologetic and dogmatic literature from the ancient city of Carthage, which is now a neighbourhood in the Tunisian capital city of Tunis, and fourth-century Church Father Athanasius operated from what is now the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria. The birth of another famous fourth-century theologian and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo, happened in the ancient city of Thagaste in what is now modern Algeria. The missionary travels and theological teachings of these Middle Eastern figures, as well as others, were fundamental for the development of Christianity across different times and different places. The foundation of Christianity as a world religion lay, thus, in the Middle East.

With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Christians came to live side-by-side with Muslims, who, undoubtedly, now comprise the majority religion of the contemporary Middle East. Nonetheless, Christians remained in high-ranking political positions in seventh- and eighth-century Umayyad Damascus, and Christians made important scholarly contributions in eighth- to thirteenth-century Abbasid Baghdad. Another highlight in this very concise history of the Christian contributions to Middle Eastern history takes us to the Levant in the late nineteenth century, in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire, and to Egypt under the modernising Muhammad Ali Dynasty, where indigenous Christians took a pioneering role in the Naḥda, the Arab Renaissance movement. Christians were at the forefront of establishing national schools in their countries, they established printing presses, and they pioneered in the emergence of Arab national thought and secularism for Arab countries. In sum, Christians made considerable contributions to Middle Eastern culture and society in the past and, as we argue here, continue to do so in the present.

It is, however, undeniable that the number of Christians in the Middle East has dropped in the last decennia. According to the statistics of the World Christian Database (2022), the percentage of Christians in the Middle East decreased to 4.2 per cent in 2020. This is a troubling figure, but should not mislead us into thinking that Christians from the Middle East are only persecuted, victimised communities on the brink of disappearance. On the contrary, the nearly nineteen million Christians throughout the Middle East today are part of Christian communities who, albeit small, proudly carry on the rich Christian history that developed from this part of the world. This Christian presence in the Middle East consists of a number of church families: the Eastern/Greek Orthodox churches, the Oriental Orthodox (or ‘Miaphysite’) churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Catholics and the Protestants. Together they embody a wealth of histories, cultures, liturgical practices and political standpoints.

The purpose of this special issue, therefore, is to showcase some of the incredibly rich diversity of these ancient yet living Christian traditions throughout the Middle East and argue for a robust enquiry of Middle Eastern Christianity in World Christianity scholarship. The authors of the four articles in this special issue do just that: they demonstrate this rich heritage and identity of an ancient yet living Christian tradition in the Middle East in the modern period, be it through the preservation of liturgical practices (Nasrallah and Sonnenberg), lived religious and cultural practices (Munayer and Munayer), language (Hager) or through forcefully protecting it all (Roussos and Drakoularakos). Each in their own terms, the authors explore the reality of Christian communities in the Middle East in the modern period from either a theological, historical or social-scientific disciplinary background.

Additionally, this issue includes two articles on intercultural Christian relations beyond the Middle East, concerning African Christianity and Asian Christianity. The first article, by David Killingray, examines black diaspora Christian activity in Britain from the late eighteenth century till the mid-nineteenth century. Killingray argues that these diasporic black Americans were often engaged in Christian missionary and devotional activities while travelling, hence making the case that this ‘mission en route’ – or what we now call ‘reverse mission’ – has firm roots in this period of time. The second article, by Ladislav Charouz, shifts the attention to Spanish Catholic and Dutch Protestant missionaries in nineteenth-century Taiwan who, as Charouz argues, relied on a self-reinforced historical consciousness of the colonial era that shaped their mission strategies among the indigenous Taiwanese.

This is an excerpt from the editorial for SWC 28.3 by Elizabeth S. Marteijn and Lucy Schouten, entitled ‘Heritage and Identity. Exploring the Middle East within World Christianity‘.

One thought on “Studies in World Christianity 28.3

  1. Pingback: Debunking 5 Myths about Middle Eastern Christians | Centre for the Study of World Christianity

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