Conflict, Conquest and Conversion: Two Thousand Years of Christian Missions in the Middle East
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2012)
Eleanor Tejirian and Reeva Spector Simon have written a fascinating and useful book building on an earlier book they had edited, also published by Colombia University Press Altruism and Imperialism: Western Cultural and Religious Missions in the Middle East.(2002). There are bits of unlikely information that I did not know, as when in the 19th century the "Bible Belt" ran through western Massachusetts and Williams, Amherst, and Mount Holyoke were providing the missionaries for the Middle East - the Bob Jones and Oral Roberts Universities of their day. However, it is as a member of the FOR Task Force on the Middle East that I read the book closely and benefited from the helpful analysis of religious groups and institutions. The book will be of use to all those working on the tensions in the Middle East and seeking possible allies for mediation and peacebuilding.
The first two chapters cover the first 1500 years of Christianity in the Middle East up to the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks and the 1521 excommunication of Martin Luther and thus the rise of Protestantism - both to have an impact on events which follow.
However, it is in the first centuries of Christianity and in the four church councils - Nicaca (325), Constantinople (381), Ephasus (431 and again in 449), and Chalcedom (451) that created, in part through power, bribery and diplomacy, the dogmas still in place today in Western and to a somewhat lesser extent in Orthodox churches and pushed out the Nestorians, the Egyptian Copts, the Christian Gnostics, the Arianists, and monophysites of different alliances who then moved toward Persia, Armenia and to areas along the Silk Road.
While these church councils and debates about the nature of Jesus for many of us are dim memories, they continue to have their importance in the current divisions of Middle East churches. There have been Western criticisms of Middle East churches for their lack on interest in dialogue with Jews - the lack of interest usually explained by the existence of the modern state of Israel and its policies. However, the roots go much further back to the monophysite foundations of much Middle East thought - Jesus as only God - the Logos incarnated as presented in the Prologue to the Gospel of John - and not "true man-true God" as Western Christians hold. In the monophysite vision, Jesus might have been a Jew or seemed to be a Jew as he needed a body to function in the world, but prior Jewish history is of no theological importance. The stories of Abraham, the genealogy placing Jesus in the "house of David" has no real significance. Marion of Pontus, the Gnostic Bishop in Rome in the 140s edited a Gospel to stress the Logos aspect. He dropped the birth story and the genealogies. Jesus appears at the start with the Sermon on the Mount to stress the goodness of God, different from the Creator God present in the Jewish scriptures. Marion was later considered a "heretic", but his rejection of all theological significance to Jewish history remains a strong characteristic of the Middle East churches, regardless of Israeli politics. Marion's thought has influenced, indirectly, the non-Christian religion of the Yezidids of northern Iraq.
We find the Logos incarnation again in today's politics. For the Alawits in power in Syria and numerous in Turkey, Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad is the incarnation of the same Logos as was Jesus, thus the Alawits also celebrate Christmas, not as the birth of a prophet as Jesus is in orthodox Islam but as the first incarnation of the Logos, the "Word" of God who is incarnated again as Ali. (1)
Most of the book deals with the modern period and is crucial for understanding the divisions and institutions of today. Roman Catholic concern for the Middle East developed in the 1600s largely linked to French commercial interests pushed by the French monarchy. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was the main agent even after the French Revolution and its anti-clerical policies. The Jesuits placed their emphasis on education rather than conversion and created schools, some still important today. The Jesuits were aware of the need to have a political base among the population and so turned to Eastern churches, even if their theology was different. The arrangement was simple. The Jesuits said in effect "You believe what you want, but you say that the Pope is the head of the Church". Thus were created what are called the Uniate churches such as the Maronites of Lebanon. These are churches related to Rome with little Roman influence on their theology.
Protestant missions, primarily American and English, were different, taking their theology serious and wanting "converts". The movement began with the mid-eighteenth century Great Awakening preached by the New England minister Jonathan Edwards. The Awakening spread to England as America was still an English colony. The movement took root in England among those Protestants outside the Church of England - Methodists, Baptists and Nonconformists.
Cambridge, England, was the intellectual center of the movement with a mythical vision of England under divine protection, the bulwark against Rome, with a mission to send the light of the Gospel to people living in darkness and to bring the Jews into the Christian fold. In fact, to bring Jews into the fold was seen as the first priority, the rest would somehow follow. There was created in the early 1800s, the London Jews Society, and agents were sent to Berlin, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Warsaw and other European cities where there were large Jewish communities. However there were few conversions. Those who did convert, like the family of Karl Marx, did so for non-theological reasons Moreover, there was often social pressure of the wider Jewish community upon those who did convert.
With the lack of success in Europe, English attention turned to the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire where there were still Jewish communities. American interest followed, especially that of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) who preached that the Day of the Lord was near but that its advent needed the conversion of the Jews. This was the start to a current of thought now called "Christian Zionism", strong in the USA and not limited to Mormons.
Proselytization in the Middle East was exceedingly complex. As the authors note "Muslim opposition and the enforcement of regulations against apostasy as well as Jewish disinterest quickly forced the missionaries largely to abandon that goal and to substitute for it the attempt to 'improve' the state of the Eastern Christian churches or if that failed (as it did) to establish new Protestant churches that paralleled the ethnic-linguistic structures of the Eastern churches to serve their converts."
There were debates within missionary circles as to what policy to follow. "Throughout much of the nineteenth century, there had been tensions, particularly in the Protestant missionary enterprise, between evangelical efforts to convert Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians to Protestantism and the view that modernization -of ideas and lifestyle - must precede true conversion. This has been referred to as the 'Christ-culture dialectic', and it underlay the conflict between a focus on evangelistic preaching and conversion, on the one hand, and on education and economic development on the other."
In practice, the 'culture' approach has won out. There has been a secularization of the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and Robert College in Istanbul. There has been a growth of activity of non-governmental development organizations based in Europe and the USA without a specific religious coloring.
Recent conflicts have led to a departure of a good number of Christians from Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and it would seem, increasingly from Egypt. Nevertheless, local Christian churches and schools remain important parts of certain communities. It is useful to know their nature, their history in the context of the national history and their contacts with Western institutions. There are efforts to be made to work with these Christian churches in peacebuilding efforts. Conflict, Conquest and Conversion is a good guide to that history
(1) see Hans-Lukas Kieser "Some Remarks on Amevi Responses to the Missionaries in Eastern Anatolia" in Alturism and Imperialism (Middle East Institute, Columbia University, 2002)