Daniel Blackman is a freelance writer, photographer, and media consultant based in London, UK. He writes news, features, and interviews for print and online Catholic (and some non-Catholic) news outlets. He has a BA in theology and an MA specializing in systematic theology and ethics.
Muslims with Christian roots
Many Muslims in Syria, Lebanon, and Jerusalem openly admit that they are of Christian descent, according to the leader of the Melkite Catholic Church.
Gregorios III, Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem, made the comment in his Christmas letter to the bishops, clergy, and laity of the Melkite community, on 15 December.
“The lesson that should be drawn from the fact of ancient Christianity’s disappearance from the Arabian Peninsula is not bitterness, hatred, aversion and estrangement, despite everything, including Muslim persecution of Christians at various stages, especially in the period of certain caliphs and governors,” he said.
“Despite that, Muslims and Christians have remained together in the same regions. Moreover, many Muslims whom I know personally in Syria, Lebanon and Jerusalem, openly admit that they are of Christian descent.
“Their ancestors were Christian, which means that we are of the same stock. Indeed, it is well-known that Christians remained in the majority in the Middle East until the thirteenth century. Thus the influence and values of Christmas can still be seen in Muslim society.”
The Melkite Church is historically associated with the See of Antioch, where the faithful were first called ‘Christian.’ Antioch traces its history and line of bishops back to St. Peter, the first pope, who travelled there and ordained a bishop to oversee the Church.
The medieval Liber Pontificalis claims St. Peter lived in Antioch as its bishop for seven years, making it the first papal diocese.
With the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, the Melkite patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem became part of the Islamic world.
According to Syrian Melkite priest and scholar, Monsignor Joseph Nasrallah (1911-1993), Christians did not initially undergo violent persecution once Islam established itself as ruler, but they did live under a regime of subjection as Dhimmis – non Muslims granted safety under Islamic law but required to pay a special tax.
Excluded from public civic leadership, the Melkites turned towards other professions, especially medicine.
The meeting of Islamic Arabic culture and Melkite Christianity resulted in some unique developments, such as the regular use of Arabic in the Melkite liturgy, and the translation of the Gospels and works of Greek philosophy into Arabic.
On the other hand, Muslims found themselves borrowing the Melkite prayer prostrations for their own Islamic prayers, and Roman and Byzantine architectural styles were used in the construction of Mosques. No doubt, Christian converts to Islam in the early centuries introduced Byzantine culture and thinking that shaped Islam in its infancy.
One scholar, writing under the pseudonym ‘Christoph Luxenberg,’ is pioneering scholarship about the Syro-Aramaic roots and interpretation of the Koran.
Melkites urged to keep Christ in the Middle East
Gregorios, who has lead the Melkite community since 2000, also used his letter to urge Christians not to flee their homeland, telling them they have a special mission as children of the cradle of Christianity.
“If Christians emigrate, it is as though Christ were leaving his country and homeland. Were Christian presence to disappear from Christ’s homeland, that would mean Christ’s presence disappearing from his own country,” he said.
“We might then wonder whether Christ was really born in this region that was his homeland, and if there were no longer a single Christian citizen there, and traces of Jesus’ followers had disappeared from his homeland, we would be entitled to conclude that Jesus had not been born in this region, and that his very existence was a myth and not a truth.”
There are over 1.6 million Melkites worldwide. According to 2013 figures by the Holy See, there are more than 425,000 Melkite Catholics in Lebanon, 235,000 in Syria, 27,600 in Jordan, and 80,000 in Israel and Palestine.
Further abroad, there are 433,000 in Brazil, 302,800 in Argentina, 25,400 in Venezuela, 4,700 in Mexico, 25,000 in the United States, 33,000 in Canada, and 52,000 in Australia.
In a 2015 interview with Aid to the Church in Need, he revealed that at least 450,000 of Syria’s Christians were internally displaced or living as refugees, with 40,000 in Germany and 50,000 in Sweden.
In his Christmas letter, the patriarch announced that he was committed to providing pastoral support for Melkites who have more recently moved to Germany, Sweden, Holland, and Poland, but urged those in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and occupied territories, and Jordan to remain.
“Why are you afraid of life’s difficulties, crises and misfortunes in your country? Is life anywhere in this world without pain, illness and crises? Is your life far from your homeland, cradle of Christianity, really less difficult than your life here in your homeland? Everywhere else, there are problems, illnesses, crises and all sorts of difficulties.
“That is why, despite our complete understanding of the reasons for your planning to emigrate, we shall not stop calling on you to try to stay and overcome your fear, misgivings, dangers of war and harsh conditions of your life. Wherever you go, you will be taking the Christmas mission.”
The word ‘Melkite’ comes from the Syriac ‘malko’ meaning ‘kings men,’ as these Catholics followed Byzantine emperor Marcian in following the teachings about Jesus set down at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.
The Melkite Church is one of 23 eastern sui iuris churches, with its own code of canon law, history, liturgy, theology, and spirituality.
They have been in full communion with the See of Rome since 1729, following the Great Eastern Schism which began in 1054.
Praising the Melkite and other Churches of the East, Pope Leo XII wrote in his 1894 encyclical Orientalium Dignitas:
“The Churches of the East are worthy of the glory and reverence that they hold throughout the whole of Christendom in virtue of those extremely ancient, singular memorials that they have bequeathed to us. For it was in that part of the world that the first actions for the redemption of the human race began, in accord with the all-kind plan of God.”