Wednesday, November 28, 2018 - Updated: 2:54 pm
QUESTION: I always thought that all Arabs were Muslims, that Arabs and Muslims meant the same thing. But I have been told that there are lots of Christian Arabs. Is this correct?
ANSWER: Of the many current misconceptions in our culture, misunderstanding the meaning of the word “Arab” is rather common. The term “Arab” (and the people it describes) is far richer and more complex than most people think.
Most good encyclopedias will devote several pages to “Arabia,” “Arabian Philosophy,” “Arabic Language” and “Arabic Literature,” as well as the history of Arabs. Arabs (like Assyrians, and Hebrews) seemed to have emerged from a Semitic-speaking tribal people originating in the Arabian Peninsula. There existed among these tribes a vast array of cultures, customs, and religions. This was true from their origins, and remained so at the time of Christ.
The early growth of Christianity was deeply rooted in communities gathered round urban centers such as Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome. While holding to essentially the same fundamental beliefs and moral principles, each of these communities (local churches) developed their own customs, rubrics and liturgical language. This was also true of all those living throughout the Roman Empire, including the Arabs who became Christians (of whom there were very many).
Over the centuries, despite the rise of Islam (especially after Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D.), many of these Arab Christians continued to practice their faith under hardship and persecution. This continues, especially today. Among the major groups of Arab Christians are those known as Chaldeans.
While having a rich and varied history itself, this Christian community is organized around the spiritual leadership of the Chaldean patriarch of Babylon. Together with local churches in places as diverse as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, this community maintains a hierarchy united to Rome yet unique in its customs and liturgy. The liturgical language, liturgy and spirituality are adapted from that of the ancient Christians of Mesopotamia.
Another Christian community of Arab origin is the Maronites. While most Arab Christians relate their origin to an urban center, the Maronites trace their origin to an individual, St. Maron. He was a hermit who lived on a mountain near Qal’at Al-Modiq in Syria. He was renowned for leading an austere life of prayer and was soon joined by a number of disciples. After his death (around 410 A.D.), these disciples continued to live a monastic life patterned after that of St. Maron.
Their monastery, near the banks of the Orontes River in northern Syria, came to be situated on the main road from Antioch to Damascus. Its monks traveled throughout the countryside preaching spiritual renewal and founding several other monasteries. Gradually, the monks and the people of the region formed a cohesive religious and political unit united by faith, language, history and customs. In the course of time, they migrated to all parts of the globe.
Today, Arab Christians exist in many parts of the world. In the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of Catholic Arabs with their own Catholic eparchs (bishops). This growing number of Christians follow the Chaldean and Maronite traditions.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.