Growing up in New York City and attending Catholic schools in Brooklyn, I was always surrounded by a large number of Italian Americans. Being from families that had recently immigrated to the United States, these young people still maintained a strong connection to their heritage and Catholic identity. Our interactions and solid friendships were almost natural since culturally, we had so much in common. Considering the heavy Italian influence on my life and the Syrian-Lebanese Christian home in which I was raised, the culture of my upbringing was quintessentially Mediterranean. I did not see much of a difference between my parents and the parents of my non-Arab friends. They looked the same, spoke with similar accents, cooked similar foods, and were always loving and hospitable.
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As a result, I was always taken by surprise when one of my Italian classmates would say: “Hey Dekki!” (as I was called as a youngster), “Aren’t you Arab or something? Doesn’t that mean you’re Muzlim?” Although many of our friends were in fact Arab Muslims, I could not understand why these fellow Mediterraneans could not grasp that I was a Catholic just like they were. Did they not see the large gold cross dangling around my neck? Were they blind to the fact that I prayed the same prayers as they did while in school? Were they that asleep during church services that they forgot I was there? To a child coming from a family of immigrants, surrounded by other youth with immigrant parents, and grappling with his place in America, I never quite understood the implications of the ignorance of my peers. But now that I am an adult, I see the big picture of this endemic ignorance, an ignorance of the larger world that is amplified by a media machine churning out sensational garbage about my beloved, but embattled, Middle East.
Ignorance on the streets of US cities helps exacerbate the problems in the Middle East because an uninformed populace is more easily swayed by the powers that be. As recent history has shown, it was an ignorant population drugged with fear that stood silently as the US government launched its “War on (of?) Terror” and began its expansion of the police state. It was an ignorant population that cheered the bombing of Baghdad at the start of an invasion based on lies, greed, and an imperialist foreign policy. Ignorance is a disease that plagues far too many people. Westerners, with easy access to an abundance of information, are especially guilty when their ignorance overcomes them. Thus, I hope to create a primer, a very rough guide to the diversity of the Middle East. I want to focus specifically on the Christians of the Levant as a way to respond to those misunderstandings from my childhood. Hopefully, this can serve as a good starting point for people to continue to explore the rich diversity of the Middle East.
The best place to begin a discussion of Levantine Christians is the city of Antioch. This was the place where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” The New Testament passage in Acts 11:26 says: “And they (the Apostles of Jesus) taught such a great multitude, that it was at Antioch that the disciples were first known by the name of Christian.” It was from this city (and Jerusalem as well) that the foundations of Levantine Christianity, in fact all of Christianity, were laid. As the faith spread, the importance of Antioch increased as one of the primary holy cities (the others were Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome). The Bishop of Antioch took part in the major ecumenical councils that cemented the doctrine of the Church. The schisms that wrought the once unified Church, coupled with invasion by the Arabs, Turks, and others, led to a weakening of Antioch as a central city in Christianity. Nevertheless, the flock of the Antiochian Church remained strong in its faith and it continues to play an influential role in the political, economic, and social developments of the Levant.
Although the history of the people of the Church of Antioch would require books upon books of information to be considered even somewhat comprehensive, it is time to leave history aside and focus on the people. The Church of Antioch is itself split into Catholic and Orthodox branches. The Catholic Churches of Antioch include the Maronite Catholic Church, the Melkite Catholic Church, and the Syrian Catholic Church. The Orthodox Churches of Antioch are the Antiochian Orthodox Church (Greek Orthodox) and the Syrian Orthodox Church. Each Church represents a Catholic and Orthodox version of the other, except for the Maronite Church, which has always been in communion with the See of Rome. The traditions of the Melkite Catholic and Antiochian Orthodox Churches, although once firmly Antiochian like their sister churches, have been Hellenized by the Byzantine Empire. As a result, these churches, although Antiochian in history, with full Patriarchs of Antioch, are considered Byzantine churches, like the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches in places like Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries.
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This means that the liturgical language of these churches (the language in which liturgy is traditionally celebrated notwithstanding the vernacular language of the people) is Greek, not Syriac or Aramaic. In terms of geography and regional influence, the Maronite Church is surely the most politically powerful. Lebanon’s Constitution requires that the President of the Republic be a Maronite Catholic. Also, the Maronite Patriarch, currently Bechara Boutros al-Rai, holds great authority as a regional Christian leader and within the realm of Lebanese politics. For better or for worse, this often causes polarization among the fickle Maronite political groups in Lebanon.
These churches have significant diaspora communities outside the Middle East. Around the world, there are millions of Levantine Christians who belong to these churches and who have established strong and prosperous communities in places like the United States, Canada, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, etc. These immigrants and their children have assimilated quite well into their new home countries, but still have powerful spiritual, familial, political, and emotional connections to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.
Interestingly, the churches these communities have established attract a considerable number of non-Middle Eastern worshippers. That is because these churches maintain traditions, rituals, and prayers that were passed down from those very first Christians in Antioch almost 2000 years ago. In a time when Christianity is suffering an identity crisis, those who hunger for spiritual fulfillment have always looked east, especially to religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. But the churches of Antioch, as well as the other Eastern Christian churches, offer westerners from Christian backgrounds a religious experience unlike that which is provided by the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. Therefore, it seems that the modern significance of these tiny, yet ancient churches, cannot be disregarded. They provide westerners with a lens into the Middle East, and can play a unifying role, bridging cultures, religions, and people in a time when far too many believe that the myriad peoples of this world are hopelessly divided.
So to those Italian Americans with whom I shared my childhood, I hope you read this and begin to truly understand the world from which my family came. To others who read this, I challenge you to let this be the first step to understanding the depth of the Middle East’s diversity. Once you have had your fill of the Levant, learn about the Christians of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Arabia; then read about the various Islamic groups that emerged from the Sunni-Shia split; finally, expand your knowledge of the region’s religious and ethnic groups that are neither Abrahamic nor Arab, namely the Zoroastrians and the Baha’i. Dive headfirst into the rich and beautiful story of the Middle East and allow it to shape your views on the region today. Once one truly grasps the confessional and ethnic complexity of the Middle East, he or she can begin to comprehend the many dangerous problems that face our region.
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