Christianity in The Middle East and The Pope’s Visit to Iraq

A version of the article below was published some time ago in the Jewish World Review. I was  prompted to write something by the visit of Pope Francis to Iraq and historic meeting  with the Shi’a Marja , and Grand Ayatollah, Sayyid al Husseini  Al Sistani, who in the eyes of most Iraqi  Shi’a, is the highest ranking Ayatollah in the world wide Shi’a community. He was born an Iranian but has always been seen as the Iraqi claim to the highest Shi’a cleric. He also espouses the “quietist” version of Shi’a Islam, e.g. religious leaders should stay out of politics as opposed to the variety of Shiism espoused by the Iranian clerics.

It is illustrative of the basic Christian problem in the Islamic world that in Iraq, the vast majority of the Iraqi Christians who turned out to see the Pope are Chaldeans, who accept the authority of the Catholic Church and the Pope of Rome. the many other Christians of Iraq, called the Assyrians, follow the eastern Christian rite. They are Nestorians. They are mostly village people compared to the more sophisticated and urban Chaldeans. They have  had a particularly  sad history at the hands of the Iraqi government, politician-generals like Bakr Sidqi al Askari, who became a national hero by massacring  Assyrian civilians in the thirties.


Something of the Popes Visit is here.


I was discussing the sad plight of the Christians of the Middle East a few months ago with a Lebanese friend who recited a familiar reason for the near extinction of the Christian communities of the Middle East. The basic reason, he insisted, was the Church teaching on “turning the other cheek.” In the face of militant Islam of the Arab expansionist era, the aggressive Muslims overwhelmed passive Christian communities,  who assumed  dhimmi status, that of a second class citizen. Accordingly, they gradually assimilated or emigrated to non – Muslim lands. As the story goes, the battle of Yarmuk presaged the fate of the Christian Byzantine Empire and  from there on, Islamic success brought more successes with many Christian communities switching sides at critical times.  For example 12000 Christian warriors  switched sides at the battle of Yarmuk,  a Islamic victory which set in motion the eventual  diminution of Christians to Dhimmi status. ( according to google  “protected status,”  but in reality second class citizens with restricted political and social rights).

Below we see the splits that rendered the Christian church apart,  mostly on debates on the nature of Christ…. fully human, fully divine or God in There persons. many heresies ripped apart Christianity, gnosticism, monasticism, and Arianism. Hillaire Belloc  saw Islam as a Christian heresy

The slides below are from a class I presented at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School

The various factions of Christianity failed to unite at the councils of doctrine.
The Christian communities city continues to splinter and into the 19th century as Protestant missionaries came to the Islamic world. They failed to convert many Muslims but rather concentrated on converting Catholic Christians to Protestantism , adding further divisions within the Church.


The ill fated Crusades, ostensibly to regain the holy land from Islam, exemplified the basic deadly dichotomy of Christian East and West . “ Mutinous soldiers” of the fourth crusade (1204), ostensibly on the way to regain the holy land from  Muslims,  attacked and   sacked Constantinople, the Christian capitol of the Byzantine Empire. The lands of the longest lasting empire in history were divided up among the victors and subsequently  the Byzantine Empire was too weak to withstand the unceasing expansionism of the  Muslim Ottoman Empire.  The destruction of Constantinople by Christians of the West really defines the basic weakness of Christianity of both West and East; they were always divided and at each others throat.  The Christians have always been adept  at trying to ascertain how many angels dance on the head of a pin. It was said that the bishops of  Constantinople  were debating this issue as the Muslim warriors were at the gates of the City. The separation of the East and West church in 1054 came about principally over the issue of leadership, but the Western Church began to view the Eastern Church as idolatrous, providing a veneer of religious motivation for the sack of Constantinople.  After that the Christian community began to splinter into many communities, at times persecuting one another.  An example of this was the Greek Byzantine persecution of the adherents of the Latin Church driven into the mountains of Lebanon, now known as Maronites.

Pope Urban urging Christian knights of Europe to reclaim the Holy land from the infidels. Launching the first crusade in 1095.


In the modern era I observed up close the disintegration of the Christian communities and their pathetic efforts to survive in a world in which they are, at best, only tolerated. In every surge of Islamic fervor, such as the brutal Islamic State expulsion of Christians, they have been subject to depredations.

The Latin state set up by the Crusaders I 1095-1291.


One would think that the Christian communities, driven apart by divisive opinions on the nature of Christ, with complex and often obscure inscrutable theological arguments, would band together to maintain their survival, but they do not and never have. Moreover they tend not to feel any commonality with other non-Christian minorities in the Islamic world, such as the Jewish, Yezidi, and Sabeans, and have fought bloody wars with the Druze minority.

I found that many Eastern Christians had antipathy to Judaism  and Jews similar to that of the Muslims. This is, at least partially, a result of the often fruitless, but totally understandable, attempts of the Christian clergy to curry favor within their Muslim communities by finding some commonality. An egregious example of this happened in 2010 Baghdad when a number of Chaldean Catholic churches were attacked, and the Church leaders blamed Zionists.  This sort of pathetic attempts to avoid blaming Muslim extremists only makes them seem weaker and somewhat ridiculous. It was Ibn Khaldun who wrote that subjugated people under the yoke of tyranny tend to acquire characteristics of “ insincerity and trickery.” So it has become for Christians in the Arab world.

It was wonderful to see the Pope’s visit to Iraq but I do not think much will change and the Middle East will continue to empty of its original Christian peoples. Islamist triumphalists will continue to drive the few remaining Christians from their ancient homelands.

Two recent books, The Perils of Non Violent Islamism by Elham Manea and Unveiled by Yasmine Mohammed  detail the perfidious betrayal of  Christians in the Middle East by Western liberals and Leftists.  It is a suffocating story of arrogance and ignorance.



In Lebanon, the bloody civil war described by the media as a war between Christians and Muslims,  but in fact, most Armenian Christians and Greek Orthodox avoided taking part. At the end of the Lebanese civil war the Maronites were reduced to killing each other.  This war revealed another cleavage in the Christian community; an ethnic division added to the religious one, as Greek Orthodox consider themselves Arabs while the Egyptian Copts, Armenians, and Maronites do not.


Two other factors have also diminished the Christian communities of the Arab world. One is the proclivity to seek the protection of despots as shelter against Muslim hostility. Thus Christian communities have supported Saddam, Assad, and Mubarak. Of course when they go down, enmity for the Christians increase.


Secondly the Western powers have manipulated the Christians of the Middle East for their own purposes. The British used the Assyrian Christians in Iraq as an auxiliary force to maintain themselves in power, with tragic consequences for the Assyrian people as the British lost control. In the Levant the French sought to maintain a Maronite state to secure their empire after WWI but then greedily included the heavily Muslim Bekaa valley as part of Lebanon, which has had the sad result for the Christians losing their controlling status in Lebanon. Western Protestant missionaries came to the East, not to convert Muslims, but convert Eastern Christians to Protestantism, adding another dimension to their disunity.  Today as their numbers continue to dwindle., the   secular West has essentially lost interest in the plight of the Christians in the Near East.


Nothing so illustrates the disunity of the Christians more than the state of the most sacred of Christian sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Six Christian denominations claim residence, but unable to agree on who should maintain the key and open the Church, the Church elders depend on two Muslim families to do so.




About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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