The political role of the patriarch in the contemporary Middle East: an examination of the Coptic Orthodox and Maronite traditions
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The objective of this study is to analyse the contemporary political role of Christianity in the Middle East. This will be achieved by focusing on the office of the patriarch. In most of the Eastern Christian churches, the patriarch is widely accepted as the spiritual head of the community and, throughout the centuries, this authority has often been translated into temporal power. Although other communal actors have challenged the dominant position of the patriarch, this dual role as spiritual and civil leader provides resources which can be used to strengthen the claim to be the political representative at the expense of lay rivals. The case studies selected for this project - the Coptic Orthodox and the Maronite churches - share several key characteristics. Firstly, both evoke a distinct identity on the basis of faith yet are directly linked to a specific homeland - Egypt and Lebanon respectively. In contrast to spiritual leaders of communities which are not concentrated in one particular country, the Coptic Orthodox and Maronite patriarchs have the potential to become involved in national affairs if desired. Secondly, both communities have pressing if different concerns as indigenous Christians in a turbulent regional environment dominated by another religion - Islam. The vast majority of these relate to the position of the community in the homeland. Thirdly, both communities have recently experienced widespread expansion outside the traditional territory in the Middle East. This allows an examination of the impact this growth has had on both the church and community at home and abroad. Fourthly, since becoming the head of each church, Patriarch Shenouda III, Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa and Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East of the Maronites, have proven to be charismatic and influential figures in church and national affairs. They have clearly played significant parts in relations between the community and state in the decades since their election to office. Finally, the two case studies have been selected as they best represent the potential of Christian communities to have a political role in this region. While the Copts constitute only a small proportion (5-10% depending on the identity of the source) of the Egyptian population, they are still the largest Christian community in the Middle East, numbering around 5-6 million. In contrast, the Maronites are a small community in terms of size. It is estimated that there are no more than 600,000 Maronites in Lebanon. Yet within Lebanon, they still make up over 20% of the population, offering them a chance to have a significant impact on national affairs. This study proposes that the patriarch exercises a political role because of his position as the head of the community. The authority and tradition of the office is constantly invoked to reinforce this position. In the contemporary period, this can be attributed to the desire to fill the leadership vacuum which exists amongst Christians in the Middle East.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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