The visit by Pope Francis to Egypt offers a fresh hope in a part of the world where that is in short supply for Christians. Schism has played its part in that sad story. It is usual to date the Schism between what became the Oriental Orthodox and the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox to Chalcedon 451 (hence my pseudonym here), but in practice the next century and a half was marked by attempts to mend the rift, and attempts to enforce the Chalcedonian definition by imperial armies; neither method worked. The effect was to weaken the Empire in the east, and in the seventh century that made it ripe for invasion by the forces of Islam; indeed, initially, for Egypt and Syria, the new rulers were preferable to the old because they did not persecute them for their Christology. But Christianity did not thrive under Islamic rule, and whilst the Christian communities were able to maintain a presence, they were subject to discrimination interspersed with sporadic vicious persecution. Areas such as Cappadocia and Alexandria which had been centres of Christianity, dwindled into intellectual backwaters, and lands which had once been Christian became ones in which the Faith survived only because of the tenacity and courage of those who refused to apostasise; here Egypt’s Copts remain the outstanding example of that bravery, and it is good that the Pope has just paid a deserved tribute to them.
If disunion paved the way for Christian decline in what we call the Middle East, then it did the same in Eastern Europe. The division between Orthodox Christianity and Latin Christianity which historians mark with the schism of 1054, had been happening for centuries, and the break in that year really just symbolised a reality. As the forces of Islam in the form of the Ottoman Empire, came to dominate the area between the Danube and Constantinople, there were many chances for Christendom to unite, but it failed to, and in 1453 the great Imperial capital fell, and, outside of Russia, Orthodoxy entered into a long period of captivity. If it changed but little across the next few centuries, that was because it needed all its energy just to survive.
Western Europe was fortunate that the next schism, the Reformation, did not lead to a third wave of Islamic conquests, but thanks to John Sobieski the armies of Europe drove the Ottomans back from the gates of Vienna in 1683, and for the next three hundred years it was the turn of Islam to watch the tide turn against it.
There is, however, little sign that Christians have learned much from a history of which many of them seem ignorant, even though the Bible warns us of what happens to a house divided among itself. We hear much from the political Right about the dangers of immigration, but little, usually, about one of the reasons politicians encourage it – namely the failure of Europeans to reproduce themselves, and the hedonism of Europeans when it comes to sexual mores. There is a reluctance to marry or to have children, the right (especially of women) to choose to abort their babies is one which even many Rightist parties support, although who they think is going to look after them in their old age or work in care homes for a pittance is unclear. If the Right wish to complain that Muslim immigrants take their faith more seriously than most Westerners, and care more about family life, they might stop for a moment and ponder why the same criticism, if such it be, cannot be aimed at themselves?
By their fruits shall ye know them? Well, we know what the fruits of sin are, and however much modern society dislike the word ‘sin’ and dismisses it, its consequences are plain enough. Without a real evangelisation, without a real turning away from sin, there is nothing that is going to turn this around. But with God, all things are possible.