Lost in America

Christianity Today
March 26 2004

Lost in America
Arab Christians in the U.S. have a rich heritage and a shaky future.
by Elesha Coffman |

The very Rev. Mouris Amsih spent more than 300 hours flying on
Continental Airlines last year, traveling between Syriac Orthodox
churches in Villa Park, Illinois; Indianapolis; and Corpus Christi,
Texas. Airline personnel came to recognize him, but they never quite
figured him out. “They would say to me, Shalom!” Mouris says. “They
think I am a rabbi. Usually, I just say Shalom back to them. I do
speak the language of Jesus, Aramaic.”

Continental employees are not the only people to mistake the Syrian
native’s identity. He was studying at a Catholic college in the
United States during the 9/11 terrorist strikes. “The next day,” he
recalls, “students started asking me, ‘Father, are you Muslim?’ They
called me father and asked if I was Muslim! I wear a big cross every
day. I told them, ‘Muslims don’t believe in the Cross. If I am
Muslim, I don’t wear a cross.’ Students don’t have a big vision of
the differences between Christianity and Islam.”

As the differences between these two religions grow sharper in many
Americans’ minds, the existence of Christians with Arab faces remains
mysterious. Yet 70 percent of Arab immigrants to the United States
are Christians. Even those of us who have heard this statistic once,
twice, or 10 times struggle to comprehend it. Arab American
Christians never appear on the news, have no voice in the academy,
never figure in the plotlines of The West Wing or Law & Order. Who
are these Christians, why have they come here, and how do they
experience America?

How many?
Identifying and counting Arab Christians is difficult. The religions
of immigrants to this country, even those who cite persecution as a
reason for their immigration, have not been recorded consistently or
reliably. The U.S. Bureau of the Census only collected information on
religion from 1900 to 1936, and it relied on information from
religious bodies themselves.

It is difficult to find even ballpark estimates of Arabs in America.
Recent estimates range from 2 to 3 million, of whom 1.4 to 2.1
million would be Christians. In lieu of hard immigration or census
data, membership statistics for the American branches of Middle
Eastern churches seem to be the next best option. But these numbers
are tricky as well, for three reasons.

First, not all Arab Christian immigrants hail from historically
Middle Eastern churches. Naim S. Aweida of Boulder, Colorado,
exemplifies this complication. When he was born, in Haifa in 1928,
his family had been Anglican for two generations, converted by
19th-century missionaries. When he married Aida, a Greek Orthodox
girl from Nablus, she became Anglican, too. The couple has lived in
the United States since 1967.

Second, many Arab Christians switch churches when they come to
America. For example, when several hundred Lebanese Maronite
Christians settled in North Carolina in the early 20th century, they
found no Maronite church to attend. Instead, because the Maronite
Church is in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, the immigrants
joined Catholic congregations. Now there are two Maronite churches in
North Carolina, but many Lebanese believers choose to remain
Catholic – to the chagrin of others in their ethnic community.

Third, Middle Eastern churches that establish themselves in the
United States attract non-Arab members. The Antiochian Orthodox
Church leads this trend. Says Father Bill Caldaroni, pastor of Holy
Trinity Antiochian Orthodox Church in Warrenville, Illinois, “My
parish is made up almost entirely of converts to Orthodoxy with names
like Caldaroni, Adams, Morrison, Jager, Thiel. We have only one Arab
in our midst.” Ethnic shifts have affected other churches, too,
though not so dramatically.

Despite these complications, looking at Middle Eastern churches in
the United States is a good way to begin to understand Arab American
Christians. The investigation also opens many forgotten chapters in
church history.

Foreign names, forgotten roots
Antiochian Orthodox, Assyrian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite,
Syriac Orthodox – these names sound foreign and ancient. They are.
These Middle Eastern churches all trace their origins to the earliest
years of Christianity. Copts claim that the Apostle Mark began their
church in Egypt, while Syriac Orthodox believe they possess records
of correspondence between King Abgar of Edessa and Jesus himself.
Though these traditions may sound exaggerated to Protestants, they
convey the deep sense of rootedness at the heart of Arab

Strong roots have enabled Arab Christians to hold fast through a
remarkably turbulent history. First came persecution under the Roman
Empire. Then came major church councils, at which some Middle Eastern
churches (notably the Assyrian, Coptic, and Syriac Orthodox) broke
with what would become the Roman and Eastern Orthodox mainstream.
Believers whose representatives sparred over doctrine at councils
sometimes fought each other afterward, usually with economic and
social pressure but sometimes with weapons.

In the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam swept across two-thirds of
what had been the Christian world. Initially, some Christians were
not concerned. Being treated like second-class citizens in Muslim
society had advantages over being treated like heretics by mainstream
overlords. Churches generally stood unmolested, and select Christians
gained prestige as physicians, scholars, and government ministers.

Eventually, though, Islam exacted a steep toll. Middle Eastern
churches grew more isolated from the Christian mainstream and from
each other. Their worship languages, mainly Coptic and Syriac, were
smothered by Arabic. Christians were not allowed to evangelize, and
their numbers dropped through conversion, attrition, and sporadic

The 20th century, though, probably saw more disruption of the
religious balance in the Middle East than any preceding century.
Persistent violence, among Arab nations as well as between them and
Israel, has destabilized the region politically, socially,
economically, and religiously. Destabilization has hit those in the
most precarious position – Christians – hardest.

Ten to twelve million Copts remain in Egypt, where they have some
political power and legal protection. In all other Arab nations (and
the area of Palestine), far more Christians have left than have
stayed. Lebanon, for example, has retained 1.5 million of its
Christians, while 6 million Christians of Lebanese descent live
elsewhere. Even 1.5 million Christians is a larger population than
can be found in the rest of the Arab world. Of course, as late as the
1960s, Lebanon had a Christian majority.

The first wave of Arab emigration occured from 1880 to 1920. Most of
these people left their homes to find better educational or economic
opportunities. Others sought religious freedom, or to escape

During World War I, Arab Christians in what was then known as Syria
were attacked on all sides as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Nearby,
millions of Armenians, mostly Christians, perished in the century’s
first genocide.

Extra Scrutiny
More recently, persecution has again become the main reason for
leaving the Middle East.

Arab Christians undoubtedly enjoy more freedom and economic
opportunity in America than in the Middle East. But just as the
situation back home is not as unremittingly bad as one might expect,
the situation here is not as overwhelmingly good.

Like all immigrants, Arab Christians struggle to get all of their
paperwork in order, to find jobs and housing, to communicate in a
second language, and to establish social connections. They face extra
scrutiny because they are Arab, which for some Americans means Muslim
and potential terrorist. Yet in another sense they are invisible,
because they are not Muslim. The American Arab Anti-Defamation League
does not speak for them, and neither, it seems, does anyone else.

Occasionally Arab American churches try to speak for themselves. One
of the more vocal is the Assyrian Church of the East, which can
afford to make pronouncements because its patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV,
resides far outside the reach of Muslim authorities – in Morton Grove,
Illinois. He temporarily moved his headquarters there, from the
ancient Persian capital of Ctesiphon, in 1980.

The Assyrian Church would like to play an active role in
reconstructing its homeland, Iraq, and instituting protections for
ethnic and religious minorities. To this end, Dinkha called a meeting
of Chicago-area Assyrians on May 15, 2003. The meeting included
delegates from the Assyrian National Congress, the Assyrian
Democratic Party, the Assyrian American League, and many other
organizations, but its press release prompted no reporting.

At the opposite end of the outspokenness spectrum are American Copts.
Their leader, Pope Shenouda III, resides in Cairo, and he strongly
discourages members of his flock in the “lands of migration” from
making political statements. If Copts abroad disparage Egypt’s
Muslim-dominated government, the Copts back home might pay.

The government has cracked down before. Egyptian president Anwar
Sadat placed Shenouda under house arrest for four years in the 1980s
to quell local hostilities between Muslims and Christians. Westerners
scarcely noticed the incarceration. Shenouda has cultivated stronger
ties outside Egypt since then, but he remains anxious about conflict
with authorities.

Separation from the homeland is spiritually wrenching. The Maronites,
who are among the most acculturated Arab American Christians, feel
this tension acutely. Many Maronites today are second-, third-, or
even fourth-generation Americans. Maronite churches have been
established here long enough to develop an identity separate from the
church in Lebanon.

Rosanne Solomon, who attended the summer 2003 Maronite Patriarchal
Synod in Lebanon as a lay delegate, likens the American Maronite
church to a time capsule. She feels that Americans have kept beliefs
and practices that Christians in Lebanon have abandoned. “We’re more
Maronite than they are,” she told a November 2003 meeting of the
National Apostolate of Maronites in Durham, North Carolina.

America: Two Views
How Maronite, or Coptic, or Chaldean, or otherwise traditional Arab
American Christians remain is one question. How American they become
is another. Father Mouris raves about “this blessed country.” He
extols the freedom for Christians, clergy and lay, to participate in
government and influence society. He likewise appreciates America’s
technological and educational resources, as well as the people who
have made them possible.

Such blessings “came from the hard-working of the people,” he says.
“All of them, they work like the bees, working hard to make honey.
Now we see America is good honey.”

Father Joseph Thomas, an American-born priest of the Basilian
Salvatorian Order who is working to establish a Maronite parish in
Raleigh, North Carolina, sees America differently. He worries that
the country’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks is eroding democracy and
taking an unseen toll on Arab Americans.

“A lot of people just go along with whatever developments take place
in our legal system, but meanwhile, people who don’t look right are
really suffering from a very truncated vision of democracy,” he says.
“My [Lebanese] grandfather owned a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia.
If he were living today, he might be very much fearful of what might
be done to him or said to him. But in World War II, he used to feed
any serviceman who came in with his army uniform on the house.

“People don’t realize that when Muslims or Arabic Christians – just on
the basis of ethnicity, name, or looks – are being tagged by government
officials, even though we ourselves don’t experience it, our American
identity, everything we knew to be American, is poisoned.”

Arab Christians remain a small minority in America, but their numbers
continue to rise. The Antiochian Orthodox, Assyrian, Chaldean,
Coptic, Maronite, Melkite, and Syriac Orthodox traditions already
encompass more than 400 churches in America, spread across nearly
every state. Penetrating the American state of mind regarding all
matters Middle Eastern will take considerably more time.

Elesha Coffman is the former managing editor of Christian History and
a doctoral student at Duke University.