Syria Table of Contents

The Christian communities of Syria, which comprise about 8 percent of the population, spring from two great traditions. Because both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were introduced by missionaries, a small number of Syrians are members of Western denominations. The vast majority, however, belong to the Eastern communions, which have existed in Syria since the earliest days of Christianity. The main Eastern groups are the autonomous Orthodox churches; the Uniate churches, which are in communion with Rome; and the independent Nestorian church. Even though each group forms a separate community, Christians nevertheless cooperate increasingly, largely because of their fear of the Muslim majority.

The schisms that brought about the many sects resulted from political and doctrinal disagreements. The doctrine most commonly at issue was the nature of Christ. In 431, the Nestorians broke away because of their belief in the dual character of Christ, i.e., that he had two separate but equal natures, the human Jesus and the divine Christ. Therefore, Mary was not the mother of God but only of the man Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon, representing the mainstream of Christianity, in 451 confirmed the dual nature of Christ in one person; Mary was therefore the mother of a single person, mystically and simultaneously both human and divine.

The Monophysites, another schismatic group, taught that Christ's divinity overpowered his humanity, resulting in a single divine nature. They were the precursors of the present-day Syrian and Armenian Orthodox churches. The Monothelites, precursors of the modern Maronites, tried to evolve a compromise by postulating that Christ had two natures, human and divine, but a single will.

By the thirteenth century, Eastern or Greek Christianity had irrevocably separated from Western or Latin Christianity. In the following centuries, however, especially during the crusades, some offshoots of the Eastern churches accepted the authority of the pope in Rome and entered into communion with Roman Catholic Christianity. Today called the Uniate churches, they retain a distinctive language and liturgy.

The largest Christian denomination in Syria is the Greek Orthodox church, also known as the Melkite church. The appellation "Greek" refers to the language of liturgy, not to the ethnic origin of the members. Arabic is also used. The Syrian Orthodox, or Jacobite, church, whose liturgy is in Syriac, split off from the main body of orthodoxy over the Monophysite heresy.

The Armenian Orthodox, or Jacobite, church is the second largest Syrian Christian group. It uses an Armenian liturgy and its doctrine is Monophysite.

Of the Uniate churches, the oldest is the Maronite, with ties to Rome dating to the twelfth century. This group originally held to the Monothelite heresy, but in 1215 renounced it. The liturgy is in Syriac.

Among the Uniate churches, the largest is the Syrian Catholic church, a Uniate offshoot of the Syrian Orthodox church, which uses the same liturgy as the Maronites and has a similar background. The Greek Catholic church is a Uniate offshoot of the Greek Orthodox and, like it, uses Greek and Arabic. In contrast to the Uniate Chaldean Catholics who derive from the Nestorian church, the Nestorians, descendants of the ancient Nestorian schismatics, are in communion with no other church and have their own very ancient liturgy.

With the exception of the Armenians, most Christians are Arab, sharing the pride of Muslims in the Islamic-Arabic tradition and in Syria's special role in that tradition. Many Christians, particularly the Eastern Orthodox, have joined in the Arab nationalist movement and some are changing their Westernized names to Arabic ones. More Syrian Arab Christians participate in proportion to their number in political and administrative affairs than do Muslims. Especially among the young, relations between Christians and Muslims are improving.

There are several social differences between Christians and Muslims. For example, Syrian Christians are more highly urbanized than Muslims;many live either in or around Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, or Latakia, and there are relatively fewer of them in the lower income groups. Proportionately more Christians than Muslims are educated beyond the primary level, and there are relatively more of them in white-collar and professional occupations. The education that Christians receive has differed in kind from that of Muslims in the sense that many more Christian children have attended Western-oriented foreign and private schools.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress