On his visit to the Middle East last January, Vice President Mike Pence planned to meet with local Christian leaders and to follow up on the promise he had made just a few months earlier to suffering Christian communities in Iraq and Syria: “help is on the way.” To his dismay, not a single Christian leader agreed to meet with him. The reason: the Trump administration’s announcement that it would relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Few instances in recent memory so starkly illustrate the gulf between American and Middle Eastern Christians as do the enthusiasm for the embassy move expressed by evangelical Christians in the U.S. versus the anger of their coreligionists in Arab lands. Underlying this difference in attitudes toward the Jewish state, moreover, are fundamentally different attitudes toward Jews themselves.
The major shifts that took place in Western churches’ relationship with Judaism—some in the wake of the Holocaust, others going all the way back to the Protestant Reformation—never occurred in the Eastern churches. Middle Eastern clergy do not speak of a “Judeo-Christian” tradition, or of a special relationship with the Jews, or even of a need to distance themselves and their flocks from historical anti-Semitism. Thus, the latest manifestation of Jewish-Christian harmony—Pope Francis’s 2013 Evangelii gaudium, in which he wrote that “the Church believes that Judaism, the faithful response of the Jewish people to God’s irrevocable covenant, is salvific for them, because God is faithful to His promises”—is simply unimaginable in the East. Even less imaginable are the motives and convictions that have led so many American evangelicals to support Israel.
For the most part, Middle Eastern Christianity has firmly rejected Nostra aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration condemning anti-Semitism and exculpating the Jewish people of collective responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. Instead, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, rife today in the Islamic world, find fertile ground among Middle Eastern Christians as well. Over recent years, an Egyptian Coptic priest could write of the dangers allegedly posed to his church by Jews and Zionist-controlled Freemasons; the bishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Lebanon, citing as evidence the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, could blame the Jews for the civil wars and violence sweeping the Arab world; and the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch in Iraq could trace a deadly 2003 terrorist attack to “a Zionist conspiracy against Islam.”
Conventional wisdom holds that behind such attitudes there lies the Arab-Israeli conflict—either because Middle Eastern Christians see themselves as Arabs and therefore will automatically side against Israel and the Jews or because, as a vulnerable religious minority, they fear provoking the animosity of their anti-Israel and frequently anti-Semitic Muslim overlords. But these explanations, while telling part of the story, by no means tell all of it. Not only are there deeper historical and theological factors at play, but attitudes toward Jews and Israel are at once more intricate and more contradictory than they might appear at first glance.
Any examination of this topic is complicated by the multicolored mosaic that is Middle Eastern Christianity. While the Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations do have a presence in the Middle East, most Christians in the region belong to one of the dozens of Orthodox native churches that broke off from European Christianity as a result of theological debates in the 5th century or the Great East-West Schism of 1054.
Broadly speaking, we can discern three major groupings. The Oriental Orthodox churches—an example is the Coptic church that predominates in Egypt—are in communion with each other but not with the major European churches. Then come the Eastern Orthodox churches of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Finally, and smallest in number, there are the Eastern Catholic churches, of which the most important is the Maronite church in Lebanon.
Nor do the native churches break down neatly along geographical lines. Syrian Christians are divided between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Oriental Syriac Church, while most Iraqi Christians are either Catholic Chaldeans or Assyrians. Notably, Maronite, Coptic, and Assyrian Christians don’t consider themselves Arabs, even if Arabic is their primary language, in contrast to many Syrian, Israeli, and Palestinian Christians who do so identify themselves.
Historically speaking, however, certain common patterns do emerge early on in the relationship between Middle Eastern Christians and the Jews. Church Fathers like Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Jerome, and Saint Ephrem the Syrian penned tirades blaming Jews for the crucifixion or more broadly damning them as heretics. Although this was a common motif in both the East and the West, a regional issue was also at play in the East, where a larger Jewish presence gave rise to competitive animosities.
The tension was perhaps the clearest in Alexandria, home to a substantial Jewish community. There, continued inter-communal clashes ultimately led to Pope Cyril of Alexandria’s expulsion of Jews from the city in 415. Such Christian-Jewish rivalry should also be seen against the background of a still larger struggle between the Church and civil authorities. Thus, one response of Christians to Emperor Julian the Apostate’s support for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem was to turn their ire against local Jews.
Even more complex relationships developed after the 7th-century Islamic conquests, when both Jews and Christians became vulnerable minorities. Under Islam, both groups were viewed as dhimmis, tolerated but made subject to a complex system of discriminatory policies including a special tax (jizya), distinctive clothing, and prohibitions on riding horses and carrying weapons. Somewhat offsetting this harsh pattern of discrimination was the need of various caliphs and local rulers for the talents of individual Jews and Christians who rose to high-level positions in Muslim governments. Unfortunately, the scarcity of such opportunities only encouraged the sense of inter-communal competition.
To take a single example: a relatively tolerant Fatimid caliph, al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah (969-973), hosted religious disputations in which his vizier, a converted Jew named Yacoub ibn Kalas, would clash with the Coptic bishop Severus ibn al-Muqaffa. In one such debate, ibn Kalas cited Matthew 17:20—“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move”—challenging his Christian interlocutor to prove the truth of it. Miraculously, according to traditional Coptic historiography, the mountain did indeed move, thus saving the Coptic community from the dire and perhaps fatal consequences it might otherwise have suffered.
Setting aside the historicity of this detail, it is noteworthy that Coptic accounts attribute the vizier’s anti-Christian animus not to his adopted religion of Islam but precisely to his Jewishness. In this regard, they typify the portrayal in Eastern church histories of the struggle between Christian and Jewish communities over the scraps tossed them by their Muslim rulers.
Alongside the historical and social factors instrumental in shaping Christian attitudes, theology has long played a part as well. To this day, a central element in the teaching of Middle Eastern churches has been replacement theology: the concept—formally abrogated, as we have seen, both by the modern Catholic Church and by many Protestant theologians—that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people. In 1977, on a visit to the United States, the Coptic pope Shenouda III was reportedly interrogated on this very point during a private visit with President Jimmy Carter. As he would later relate in sermons about his meeting with the American president, the pope’s reply was swift and dispositive: “If they are God’s chosen people, who are we?”
Replacement theology has also found expression in practice, as in the widespread persistence of circumcision, a ritual rejected by early Christians but maintained by the Coptic church and its daughter church in Ethiopia. Although Islamic influence can likewise be detected here, the Coptic church’s view of itself as the new Israel is a salient factor as well.
Which is not to say that all Eastern Christian theology is anti-Jewish. Like some evangelicals elsewhere, some Middle East Christians believe that the Jewish people’s return to the Holy Land marks the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and that the rebuilding of the Temple will play a role in the Second Coming. The late Coptic bishop Gregorius—despite his antagonism to the state of Israel as such—was a prominent exponent of this view.
In the late 19th century, a new factor came to affect Middle Eastern Christians’ view of Jews: the importation of European anti-Semitism. As Bernard Lewis points out in Semites and Anti-Semites, Muslims, unlike Christians, had never seen Judaism as a major threat or rival. It was not Muslims, then, but Levantine Christians who first brought modern anti-Semitism to the region, decades before the mufti of Jerusalem or the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood began incorporating Nazi propaganda into their writings. Nabil al-Hajj, the author of the very first anti-Semitic book to appear in Arabic, The Secrets of the Jews Unmasked (1893), was a Levantine Christian. So, too, was Father Antun Yassin, who produced the first translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Arabic in the 1920s.
The views of Hajj, Yassin, and others were heavily influenced by the writings and preaching of Catholic missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially when, during the Dreyfus Affair, a great deal of specifically French clerical anti-Semitism rose to the surface. Another key influence originated in tsarist Russia, where both the government and the Russian Orthodox Church took a keen proprietary interest in Ottoman Orthodox Christians. With its own long history of anti-Semitism, the Russian Orthodox Church was particularly preoccupied with Jews at this point, and disseminated its ideas about them among its new Ottoman wards. Fortunately, thanks to theological divisions, no relationship of this kind was forged with the Copts or members of other Oriental churches.
Finally we come to the often-cited role of the Arab-Israel conflict. Middle Eastern Christians are inundated with the same relentlessly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic narratives—received from home, school, and the media—as are their Muslim compatriots. Dissent from this worldview can result in social ostracism or even physical danger. And if that is true for rank-and-file Christians, it is even truer for their religious leaders, who, seeing themselves as responsible for their communities’ well-being, fear putting their followers at risk should they ever deviate from the official line or from popular consensus.
The Coptic Pope Shenouda, well aware of these circumstances, famously justified his decision to ban pilgrimages to the Holy Land by saying, “Copts will not become the traitors of the Arab world.” And that was in Egypt, which has diplomatic relations with Israel. To put it more bluntly, in the Middle East’s current political environment, being seen as pro-Israel is the equivalent of a death warrant.
In the Holy Land itself, the tensions are even more palpable. Both Christian Israelis and Christian Palestinians are deeply affected by the conflict, whose impact is not limited to the political grand stage but manifests itself in daily encounters with the Israeli government or with individual Israelis. One recent example is the legal dispute over church revenue in Jerusalem; another, extending beyond Israel’s borders, is the dispute between Copts and the Israeli government over the Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, control of which is claimed by both the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.
Yet on this front, too, Middle Eastern Christian views are neither totally monolithic nor uniformly hostile. Father Gabriel Nadaf has led a movement among Israeli Christians to reject Arab identity—his followers call themselves Arameans—and embrace military service and a sense of pride in their country. For some Christians outside of Israel, moreover, hatred of Palestinians trumps hatred of Israel and Jews—an attitude shared even by some Muslims. In Egypt, President Anwar Sadat’s decision in the late 1970s to make peace with Israel coincided with an official media campaign against Palestinian Arabs, portraying them as undeserving of support, as traitors to their own cause, and as a source of Egypt’s economic failures. Similarly, many Maronite Christians look upon Palestinians, who fought against them during the Lebanese civil war, with unremitting hostility.
And that brings us to a larger point: many Middle Eastern Christians were never comfortable with the Arab/Islamic nature of the conflict with Israel, for the simple reason that they don’t consider themselves Arabs, let alone Muslims, and it has not escaped their attention that an Arab/Islamic identity has often been forced upon them. The rise in our time of Islamism, and the threat it poses for the future of Christians in the Middle East, has led many to see Israel as the proverbial enemy of their enemy.
For some, indeed, such comradeship goes beyond perceived common interest to a sense of community with Jews as fellow religious minorities in the Middle East as a whole. In the 1940s, Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in Egypt targeting Jewish properties or marching against Jews and Zionism often chanted “today is Saturday, tomorrow will be Sunday, O Christians!” The meaning of that threat is easy enough to decipher, and so is its seriousness; in recent years, it has been carried out with systematic barbarity across the Middle East by the legions of Islamic State.