Persecutions against the Christians in the Middle East can constitute a providential opportunity to advance towards the unity that has been so long awaited

This article was published in Oasis 22. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:22:32

After millenary divisions, Christians in the Middle East are growing increasingly aware that the instances of persecution hitting them today can also constitute a providential opportunity to advance towards the unity that has been so long awaited. Patriarch Sako’s shock proposal to re-unite the Chaldean Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East is a step in this direction. As is the idea of establishing a shared feast day for all the martyrs from the Churches of the East.

Published in August 1991 with the title Arab Churches, Living Churches,[1] the first pastoral letter written by the new ecclesial body set up by the Catholic Patriarchs of the East stated significantly, “In the East, we Christians will either be united or we will not be.” That is to say, either the Christians will survive together or they will not survive at all. Since then, this cry of commitment and hope has often been echoed at inter-Christian conferences in the Middle East and on the Middle East, being quoted, together with comments and updates, in various documents. The entire Region’s Christians are growing increasingly aware that the tragic moment they are currently going through – particularly in Syria, Iraq and Libya – can become a propitious and providential opportunity to emphasize the essential matters that already unite them and lay aside the inessential ones that are still separating them and, in this way, take the steps that lead to unity.


An Intricate Situation

Christians are present in all the countries in the Middle East. The percentages differ greatly from nation to nation and always constitute a minority in relation to the overall population. Of a total population for the region that is somewhere around 380 million today, the autochthonous Christians numbered – at least until 2010 – approximately 15 million souls in all, thus constituting approximately 3% of the overall population.[2] Recently, however, after the so-called Arab Springs, the various revolutions and instances of politico-geographical reorganization that followed them, and especially because of the persecutions aimed at the Christians, their number has greatly decreased: the result of a continuous exodus. Flowing in the opposite direction, on the other hand, there are over two million Christians amongst the foreign workers in the Arab Gulf States today. They are all seasonal workers, however, not residents. Although they are not openly persecuted, they are subjected to restrictions and harassment.

As far as denominational affiliations are concerned, the Middle East presents a vast array: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches, the Catholic Churches, the Anglican Communion and many protestant Christian communities.[3] In this intricate situation the believers, while aware of belonging to different Christian Churches and communities that are separate in a canonical sense, feel in their hearts that they are united in their belonging to the one Christ, particularly when they have to state and live their identity before non-Christians. In a certain sense, ecumenism as the search for communion between formally separated Churches has always existed in the Middle East, particularly at a local level where it is lived out on the firm ground of family relations, friendship, encounters, co-operation, mutual support and solidarity. This is the ecumenism of life and also of service,[4] which prevails over any emphasis on differences, above all when the latter are simply the heritage and expression of ancient traditions and instances of inculturation of the one Christianity.

It is particularly in this historic period of shared suffering and persecution, that Christians perceive themselves as brothers and sisters in the same family and members of that one community founded by Christ and announced to the whole world by the apostles; starting from, precisely, Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria and Edessa... Just as it is true that shared suffering unites hearts more closely, the Christians of the Middle East feel that they are “united, heart and soul” (Ac 4: 32). It is the dialogue of love. But we well know that communion is built and must be built through the dialogue of truth as well.[5] Indeed, St Paul was already exhorting Christians to “live by the truth and in love” (Ep 4: 15). In the following lines I will therefore seek to highlight how this double journey in truth and love, this parallel and unitary journey, has been lived in the present situation of persecution.


Reconciled Christologies

Let us consider the dialogue of truth, in the first place. From an existential point of view, everyone understands realizes that when people are in danger is not the time to talk but, rather, to act. That explains why the official and unofficial meetings on the points of difference between the various Churches – both in the form of bilateral dialogues between one Church and another and in the form of multilateral dialogues with several Churches involved – have been less frequent these last few years. As for the places, some of such meetings have taken place in the Middle East, in Egypt (Cairo and the Monastery of Anba Bishoy), in Syria (Aleppo) or in Lebanon (Balamand). Various subjects have been treated, ranging from the truths of dogma and from doctrines and their theological expositions to sacramental, liturgical, canonical and jurisdictional issues.

Without a doubt, the Christological problem must be considered the most essential and important of all of them, since it is precisely because of differences over Christ’s identity and nature that the initial splits took place among the Christians of the East, particularly during the fifth century. During the period from the mid-twentieth century to the early years of the twenty-first century, the pre-Ephesian Church (the Assyrian Church of the East), the pre-Chalcedonian Churches (the Syrian, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Malankara Churches) and the Orthodox and Catholic Churches have all been involved in Christological dialogue.[6] The positive results of these fraternal meetings and their intense dialogue are to be seen not only in a better mutual understanding but also in a rapprochement or, indeed, the recognition of a full dogmatic communion in this fundamental field. The texts of the joint statements, the Common Declarations and the Christological Agreements between the various Churches document this quite clearly.[7] Nevertheless, it is also important to note that other areas of division remain and that, above all, there persists a psychological distance: the remnant of so many centuries of reciprocal estrangement.

It is therefore obvious that the field covered by the dialogue of truth has been extended to include many other topics because, during the period of the 1,500 or 1,000 years of separation, each individual Church has cultivated its own theological knowledge, but without any dialogue with the other Churches. Since ecumenical dialogue has recommenced, many topics of common interest have been tackled, in practically all areas of theology: dogmatic, liturgical, sacramental and pastoral alike. However, being issues treated amongst experts and by experts, they often do not reach ordinary people and all the more so because the latter are generally ignorant of the reasons for the divisions or do not understand them and consider the doctrinal and practical differences to be interpretations of the same shared faith and thus possible different ways of practising it. The practical guidelines and pastoral proposals set out in some official Declarations for the purposes of taking concrete steps towards full communion almost always remain a dead letter as well.[8] Still on the subject of pastoral service and in the light not only of the growing flow to countries outside their motherland as a result of frequent war situations and general malaise but also of the difficulties in approaching the sacraments in churches of their own rite, some Churches have catered for the pastoral care of their faithful by way of specific pastoral agreements with individual Churches. Some of the first agreements of this kind are the ones between the Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church and the one passed between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.

Another frequently recurring ecumenical issue in that it touches the habits and life of the various Churches (both in their regions of origin in the Middle East and the diaspora) regards the date of feast days, particularly the two main ones in the liturgical year i.e. Christmas (and Epiphany, which is linked to it) and Easter. As far as Easter is concerned, a committee of experts composed of representatives of the Ecumenical Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches met in Aleppo in 1997 to study the issue and propose a shared solution.[9] Recently, in May 2013, Pope Tawadros, Patriarch of the Copts, also wrote a letter to Pope Francis about the need to identify a single date for Easter for all the Christian Churches. However, no agreement has been reached to date.

The analogous issue of the feast of Christmas is also a recurring theme on the agenda regarding the liturgical calendar of the Middle Eastern Churches. The reason for this is that different Churches with separate rites are to be found grouped together, side by side, in the same town or area, with some following the Julian calendar and others the Gregorian one. To that is added the not uncommon fact that some families have members belonging to either one or the other Church. In various Middle Eastern countries and particularly where it is a minority in comparison with the other Churches, the Catholic Church has provided that Easter should be celebrated together with her Eastern and Orthodox brothers (and, therefore, on their date), asking that Christmas be celebrated, as it is universally, on 25 December. But it does not work like that in reality, given that the Syrians, the Orthodox and the Copts continue to celebrate Christmas on 7 January, in accordance with their Julian liturgical calendar.


We are all Nazarenes

A shock proposal of ecclesiological interest that in some way comes in the wake of the dialogue of truth (and also of love) is the one made at the end of June 2015 by the Chaldean Patriarch, Louis Raphaël Sako. He is essentially proposing to unify in one single Church the three Churches of Ancient Mesopotamia that have shared apostolic roots, namely, the Chaldean Church (Catholic and united with Rome), the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East (both of which are autocephalous and recognise their own patriarch as their sole, supreme authority). This would happen within the framework of a joint Synod of the three Churches and the three patriarchs’ willingness to renounce their own office and leave their place to the newly elected Patriarch. The new “ecclesiastical body” would be called the “Church of the East,” referring to the apostolic mother church from which all three stem, but it would not be autocephalous, since it would recognise the primatial authority of the bishop of Rome, the Catholic Church’s pope.

It should be noted that such proposal has been made precisely in the context created by the painful events of the last few decades: wars and political instability, in general, and the persecution of minorities, especially the Christians, in particular. Indeed, the persecutors are not distinguishing between Christians and Christians but are hitting them indiscriminately because they follow Christ, marking their houses with the Arabic letter “N” [nūn], the first letter of the word nasārā – “nazarene” i.e. Christian. According to the same Patriarch Sako, his proposal would reinforce the decimated Iraqi Christian community by forming a unitary protective and defensive bloc and thus allowing just and inviolable rights to be claimed in a more efficient way. But a first – negative – response has already arrived from the Assyrian bishop for the diocese of California, Mar Awa Royel, albeit communicated in the form of a personal, private reflection. He not only rejects such union, which he considers contrary to the genuine tradition of the Assyrian Church, but turns the proposal on its head, insofar as it ought to be the Chaldean Church that returns to its own traditions by distancing itself from Rome.


Ecumenism of Blood

Let us now come to the dialogue of love, which is the other pillar of ecumenism in view of the restoration of complete unity. Love’s ways are always attentive, solicitous, inventive and timely. During the recent dramas, the visits in solidarity and sharing with the victims made by the region’s bishops have multiplied. They have been carried out irrespective of ritual or denominational affiliations and have often been accompanied by concrete aid in the form of basic necessities. Many appeals in favour of a cessation of the hostilities, reconciliation, dialogue and the release of hostages and abducted persons have also been made jointly by senior representatives of the various Churches. There have been numerous, shared prayer celebrations attended by patriarchs, bishops, clergy and faithful from the various Churches imploring together the gift of peace and all the steps that lead to it.

The very many forms of aid and assistance offered to the suffering, persecuted Churches have not discriminated between people and communities. They have come from many Christian Churches, both local and international, and have benefited all the Christian communities (and those of the other minorities) in distress, without drawing distinctions.

Given that the present persecutions are placing the Christian communities in a situation of martyrdom, the same Churches have highlighted the martyrial existence of many of their sons and daughters, both now and in the past. The most shining example (one that is indeed unique and unrepeatable) is the canonization of one and a half million Armenian martyrs celebrated by the Armenian Church on 23-24 April 2015, on the occasion of the centenary of their genocide. Many Christian Churches participated and some of their most senior representatives were present. Bypassing every ambiguous diplomatic circumlocution, Pope Francis called that horrific slaughter “the first genocide of the twentieth century” and included the Syrians (both Orthodox and Catholic), the Assyrians, the Chaldeans and the Greek Orthodox as well in the remembrance of the Armenian martyrs. Following the same line, the same Pope has provided for the beatification of the Syrian Catholic Bishop Flavien Michel Melki, who was martyred in the same circumstances. The beatification took place in Beirut on 30 August 2015, through the papal delegate, Cardinal Angelo Amato. On 18 February 2015, the Coptic Church, too, declared the 21 believers decapitated by Islamic State militants in the area of Tripoli (Libya) to be martyrs. The Churches have also commemorated the Assyrian-Chaldean genocide of 1915-16.

Considering all this within the framework of Christian unity, the most recent Popes have coined new and very profound expressions. John Paul II spoke of a “common martyrology” (Ut unum sint, 84) and of “the common experience of martyrdom” (Orientale lumen, 18, 19 and 23). During his meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on 25 May 2014, Pope Francis touched on the theme of unity in martyrdom, stating,

When Christians of different confessions suffer together, side by side, and assist one another with fraternal charity, there is born an ecumenism of suffering, an ecumenism of blood, which proves particularly powerful not only for those situations in which it occurs, but also, by virtue of the communion of the saints, for the whole Church as well.[10]

It was in this perspective that right at the end of the Synod for the Middle East (on 26 October 2010), the bishops presented Pope Benedict with the following propositio (no. 29) to

Establish a common annual feast day for the Eastern Churches’ martyrs and ask every Eastern Church to draw up a list of its own martyrs, witnesses to the faith.

Such request was not adopted in Benedict XVI’s post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente; not a few bishops would like it to be reconsidered now, nevertheless, especially on account of the great ecumenical value that it would assume.

Please God that the dialogue of truth and the dialogue of love between the Churches may ever increasingly bring them towards the “dialogue of conversion” (Ut unum sint, 83) and lead to decisive and irreversible steps towards full communion.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Published in Italian in “Il Regno” 36 (1991), pp. 590-593.

[2] Historians record that up until 1948, the Middle Eastern Christians represented approximately 15% of the entire population in the region.

[3] One of the best and most exhaustive presentations remains that by Jean-Pierre Valognes, Vie et mort des chrétiens d’Orient. Des origines à nos jours, Fayard, Paris, 1994.

[4] Benedict XVI, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, n. 14.

[5] Saint John Paul II noted, “ […] it has become evident that the method to be followed towards full communion is the dialogue of truth, fostered and sustained by the dialogue of love.”

[6] The first four ecumenical councils took place in the following order: Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). The Assyrian Church of the East only recognises the first two councils, the Eastern Orthodox churches the first three and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion all four. The first two councils were principally dedicated to defining the Trinitarian dogma and led to the formulation of the Creed (the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed), whilst those of Ephesus and Chalcedon treated of Christology (Ed.)

[7] A complete, in-depth study of all the documents has been carried out by Antonio Olmi in Il consenso cristologico tra le chiese calcedonesi e non calcedonesi (1964-1996), Editrice Gregoriana, Rome, 2003. For a more concise analysis, see Pier Giorgio Gianazza, Temi di teologia orientale. Vol. 2, EDB, Bologna 2012, pp. 119-227.

[8] One example is Pastoral Agreement between the Greek-Orthodox and the Eastern Syriac Orthodox Patriarchates of Antioch signed in Balamand (Lebanon) on 12 November 1991. See Giovanni Cereti and James F. Puglisi (Eds.), Enchiridion Oecumenicum. 7. Documenti del dialogo teologico interconfessionale. Dialoghi internazionali 1995-2005, EDB, Bologna 2006, p. 2805.

[9] For the full text of the Aleppo Declaration entitled Towards a Common Date for Easter, see Giovanni Cereti and James F. Puglisi (Eds), Enchiridion Oecumenicum. 8. Documenti del dialogo teologico interconfessionale. Dialoghi locali 1995-2001, EDB, Bologna 2007, pp. 2492-2521.


To cite this article

Printed version:
Pier Giorgio Gianazza, “Arab Churches, Living Churches. But only if United”, Oasis, year XI, n. 22, November 2015, pp. 28-34.

Online version:
Pier Giorgio Gianazza, “Arab Churches, Living Churches. But only if United”, Oasis [online], published on 27th January 2016, URL: