The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities
From Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East
© 1998 Oxford University Press
Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press
3. The Age of Disputed Identity (the Eastern Roman Empire)
When the Eastern Christian Churches formed, in the wake of the missionary campaigns which passed through the region of the Middle East after the death of Christ, they established themselves as distinct geopolitical centres. Their theological disputes, which characterized Eastern Christianity, actually portray the complex geography of interests and influences which grew up in the region.
From the third century to the seventh, the date of the Arab conquest, Christianity dominated a region extending from Egypt to Mesopotamia in the East, including Palestine, Syria, and Western Asia. To the South, in Arabia, Christianity spread among a small number of Arab tribes.
Three Patriarchates dominated Eastern Christianity: Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, which recognized each other in communion with Rome. After the split of the Roman Empire in 395, Constantinople became the most important Patriarchate. The councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), of Ephesus (431), and of Chalcedon (451), which established Christian dogma, were held under the authority of the Roman Emperor. However, the last two councils were to cause the separation of the Eastern Churches. The decisions of the Ephesian Council, which condemned Nestorius, and those of the Chalcedon Council, sparked the reaction both of the Churches of the Sassanid Empire and of the Monophysites. This marked the beginning of Constantinople's persecution of the Monophysites.
The theological disputes were a thin veil for cultural clashes (between Greeks, Copts, and Syro-Arameans), as well as for the rivalry and antagonism between Alexandria and Constantinople, thus mainly between Egyptians and Greeks. Antioch was divided into two camps on each side of the argument. From the second half of the fifth century the Chalcedonian Churches split from the non-Chalcedonian Churches (Coptic, Jacobite, and Armenian), a division which was to sour the climate of Eastern Christianity.
In Alexandria as in Antioch (whose hierarchy sided with Constantinople) Monophysitism became the national ideology and expressed the rejection of Constantinople's influence. It became a fierce fight between the Emperor, who had to apply the decisions of the Council, and the southern provinces of his empire. The Emperor's persecution of the Monophysites gave an indirect advantage to the Muslim conquest. When the Muslim armies invaded Egypt, Syria, and later Persia (where the Nestorians were exposed to Sassanid oppression), the people welcomed them as liberators.