Christians in the Caliphal Empires

Giovanni Sale, SJ

 Giovanni Sale, SJ / Church Life / 1 March 2021

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In order to understand the challenges Christian communities in the Middle East face, it is necessary to understand the ways in which, through centuries of history, Islam institutionally organized its relations with the different religions – in particular with Christianity – across its vast territories. This is a problem that Islam had to face very early on, because the prophet Muhammad, in organizing the nascent Muslim community, also had to legislate regarding the relations to be maintained with the Jews and Christians who had lived for centuries in the Arabian peninsula, even before the beginning of the “great conquest” that changed forever the face of the southern shore of the Mediterranean and the regions of the ancient Fertile Crescent.

Eastern Christians before the Muslim conquest

First of all, one must avoid an overly irenic and linear reading of the history of ancient Christianity in the Middle Eastern and Maghreb regions and must consider, as is often done, the Islam of the origins – strongly motivated on a religious and political level to expand outside the Arabian peninsula – as a destructive and always oppressive force against Christianity and Christians. In fact, Eastern Christianity had long since been divided into different confessions of faith, on the basis of theological disputes with strong political significance. This fact certainly favored the Muslim conquest of these territories, beginning in the 7th century, and divisions among Christians largely continued in these regions after Islamic domination.

Even in our day, these internal divisions within Christianity in regions where it is markedly in the minority “often make it difficult to consistently defend the identity and interests of the Christian minority in the face of the religious majority or the state,”[1] which often calls itself “Islamic.” The most striking case is that of the Holy Places, where rivalries and divisions between Christian denominations and churches are sadly visible, despite the ecumenical dialogue started between them in recent decades.

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