The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, an Orthodox Christian organization that provides information about “ancient Christianity and its deep roots in Africa,” is holding a conference Aug. 26-28 in the Detroit area. In a story in the Observer & Eccentric newspaper about the upcoming conference, a reporter interviewed a woman by the name of Sharon Gomulka who had visited an Orthodox Church several years ago on the feast day of St. Moses the Black (or sometimes called The Ethiopian). She watched “as white worshippers kissed the image of a dark-skinned man.” They were reverencing the image of the saint.
“I didn’t realize it was his feast day and I didn’t know about venerating icons. I had a paradigm shift of the many Caucasian people kissing this black man,” Gomulka told the paper. “And I began to question what kind of church is this? Who are these people that color does not seem to truly matter?”
Well, they’re Christians as she later came to find out. Historian Christopher Dawson reminds us in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life (1960) that the Church’s origins in the Middle East and North Africa, and its expansion further East, points to its universal nature:
The Church itself, though it bears a Greek name Ecclesia, derived from the Greek civic assembly, and is ordered by the Roman spirit of authority and law, is the successor and heir of an Oriental people, set apart from all the peoples of the earth to be the bearer of a divine mission.
Similarly, the mind of the Church, as expressed in the authoritative tradition of the teaching of the Fathers, is neither Eastern nor Western but universal. It is expressed in Western languages — Greek and Latin — but it was in Africa and Asia rather than in Europe that it received its classical formulation. Greek theology was developed at Alexandria and Antioch and in Cappadocia, while Latin theology owes it terminology and its distinctive character to the African Fathers — Tertullian, Cyprian and above all St. Augustine.
While these men wrote in Latin, it was not the Latin of the Romans; it was a new form of Christian Latin which was developed, mainly in Tunisia, under strong Oriental influence.
Dawson’s reflections should not be taken as a mere historical curiosity. This history speaks to what the Church is, and has always been. All the more reason to be alarmed at the ongoing persecution of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East — communities that have in many case been continuously rooted in these lands since Apostolic times. The Christians in Kirkuk, Iraq, have been targets of bombers in recent weeks. “This is only happening because we are Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako. “Maybe the people responsible want to empty the city of Christians.”
Historian Philip Jenkins in books such as The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died (2008) has worked to deepen English-speaking Christians’ awareness of these ancient roots in places like Syria, India and China.
In a 2008 interview with BeliefNet.com, Jenkins was pessimistic about the hard-pressed Christian communities in the Middle East, whose populations are rapidly dwindling:
By far the largest change is in the Middle East, the region between Persia and Egypt. As recently as 1900, the Christian population of that whole region was almost ten percent, but today it is just a couple of percent, and falling fast. Particularly if climate change moves as rapidly as it some believe, the resulting tensions could reduce Christian numbers much further. Egypt would be the most worrying example here. Might that 1,400 year story come to an end in our lifetimes?
Europe is nothing like as serious an issue. The number of active or committed Christians certainly is declining, but the churches don’t face anything like what is happening in the Middle east. There is no plausible prospect of a Muslim regime anywhere in Western Europe, or of the recreation of the social order on the lines of Muslim law. Realistically, people of Muslim background will constitute a substantial minority of the European population, rather than a majority, and it is far from clear that most will define themselves primarily according to strict religious loyalties. European Christianity may be in anything but a healthy state, but Islam need not be its greatest cause for concern.
Matters are very different in other countries of Africa and Asia, where Muslims and Christians are in deep competition. We could imagine wars and persecutions that could uproot whole societies.
If there’s one thing that these Christian communities have experience with in the last 2,000 years, it’s wars and persecutions. Jenkins might be wrong about extinction, but there’s no question about decline. According to another estimate, the Middle East’s Christian population shrank from 20 percent to 10 percent during recent decades. Yet, the surest way to speed the decline, or realize extinction, is for the global Church to ignore the plight of their brothers and sisters in this part of the world.
More history from Jenkins, echoing Dawson:
During the first century or two of the Christian era, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia became the Christian centers that they would remain for many centuries. Christian art, literature, and music all originated in these lands, as did most of what would become the New Testament. Monasticism is an Egyptian invention.
By the time the Roman Empire granted the Christians toleration in the early fourth century, there was no question that the religion was predominantly associated with the eastern half of the empire, and indeed with territories beyond the eastern border. Of the five ancient patriarchates of the church, only one, Rome, clearly stood in the west. The others were at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – three on the Asian continent, one in Africa. If we can imagine a Christian center of gravity by around 500, we should still be thinking of Syria rather than Italy … Much early Christian history focuses on the Roman province known as Africa, roughly modern Tunisia. This was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the founders of Christian Latin literature.