EARLY EASTERN CHRITIAN GEOGRAPHY
By Brother John Samaha
The geographic areas where Eastern Christianity originated and developed
historically have been termed the Near East, the Middle East, and the Maghreb.
Today the expression Middle East will often be used to identify a cultural
region including the full sweep of Southwest Asia and North Africa.
Although the Maghreb, Africa north of the Sahara, is not generally considered
part of the Near East or Middle East, the history and Arab character of nations
like Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia place it logically, if not geographically,
in this purview or context. These countries relate closely to the sates
of the Middle East since they share much of the same history and culture
and problems. They are integral to the history of the early church
as it spread along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately
they share the decline of Christianity with the entire region as well.
In the Maghreb (Arab northern Africa), Algeria is the second largest country
on the African continent, while the smallest is Tunisia, where the ancient
city of Carthage was the gateway through which Christianity moved in the
third century. Among the early Christian leaders in this region were such
luminaries as Augustine, Cyprian, and Tertullian.
Originally the Christian populations of these countries were considerable.
Today they are relatively small across the entire area. And the Orthodox
and non-Chalcedonian Christians far outnumber the Catholic Christians.
Today population numbers and statistics are often estimates. Census
taking is infrequent and generally imprecise. Frequently percentages
are mentioned to facilitate broad comparisons and to signal certain trends.
Churches often lack the capacity to take an accurate account of the scattered
flocks. Seeking exact statistics may lead to disappointment.
Christian families tend to be smaller that their Muslim counterparts. For
Christians, even slight emigration can result in a serious loss in percentages.
Social scientists who study emigration trends agree that emigrants leave
the Middle East to seek educational and economic opportunities generally
are from the middle class. The historical Christian commitment to quality
education seems to encourage emigration.