The Glory of Eastern Christianity
The story of the triumph of the early church over the Roman Empire continues to inspire Christians today. How can we not marvel at the courage of the martyrs who calmly faced the lions? The religion of the weak and poor literally conquered the empire – symbolized by the conversion of none other than Emperor Constantine himself. Surely Tertullian was right when he declared that the martyrs’ blood is the seed of the church.
Unfortunately, it is not always the case that the church triumphs over hostile powers. Political persecution can destroy the church and cause a Christian populace to abandon the faith. A case in point is the political destruction the Syria-Persian-Central Asian Church (referred to in this article as the Eastern Church or Eastern Christianity). The story of its destruction is both tragic and salutary.
At its height, Eastern Christianity was glorious. During the 8th century, the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy had under his jurisdiction eighty-five bishops and nineteen metropolitans that stretched from the Caspian Sea to Yemen (a metropolitan comes under the jurisdiction of clergy ranked between an Archibishop and the Pope/Patriarch). As early as the 6th century, Edessa (Syria) was the organization centre for two Patriarchs and eighty-nine bishops. In comparison, at around 800 AD, England had only two metropolitans.
Eastern Christianity was well known for its desert hermits, but we should not miss the fact that it was also a flourishing intellectual movement. It was Syrian Christian scholars who translated the best texts of Greek philosophy and Latin technology that laid the foundations on which Islamic science and philosophy later bloomed.
Eastern Christianity initiated a vigorous missionary enterprise unmatched until modern times.
Missionaries were sent to Central Asia, reaching the Turks, Uygurs and the Mongols and later the Chinese. By the 7th century there were already twenty bishops in Kashgar and Samarkand. The church itself was model of multiculturalism and racial diversity, as evidenced by Christian documents and inscriptions written in Turkish, Syriac, Chinese and Indian dialects. In far away China, Christianity was referred to as the religion of Jingjiao, ‘the luminous teaching” from the distant land of Daqin (or Syria), and regarded as a faith that was “mysterious, wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception, establishing essentials, for the salvation of creatures and the beneﬁt of man.”
Faith Destroyed by Persecution
How then, did this glorious movement end up as a pale shadow of its former self, existing precariously at the margin of Eastern lands under the looming mosque? We need to retell the story of centuries of unrelenting pressure on and persecution of the Eastern Church that led to its near destruction – beginning with benign toleration to persecution, then violent attacks and finally brutal massacres and widespread destruction.
Islam swiftly conquered vast swathes of Christian lands shortly after its meteoric rise in the 7th century. Initially, Christians welcomed their Muslim conquerors as deliverers from the oppression of the Roman (actually Byzantine) Christians. The Muslims in turn tolerated the Christians as the People of the Book, albeit as a subordinate social class. It suited the Muslims to practice tolerance towards their conquered subjects since the Muslims were still a minority group at that time. But gradually, the proportion of Muslims grew and they began to treat their Christian subjects harshly. By 690 AD, the jizyah, a poll tax symbolic of submission to Islam, was imposed on Christians. In 722 AD, Caliph Yazid II banned the display of Christian images in public and prohibited Christian proselytization with the threat of dismemberment of limbs.
In the early centuries of Muslim conquest there was no systematic implementation of violent persecution; but by the 9th century, many churches and monasteries were burned and monks killed in Egypt. Most significantly, the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the great symbol of Christianity in the Middle East, was destroyed in 1099 by Caliph Hakim.
Over time, Muslim rulers came up with new wide-ranging policies designed to humiliate Christians. Christians were now called Dhimmis, which stressed their inferior status in Muslim society. Dhimmis were required to wear distinctive clothing that included blue turbans. They were not allowed to display the cross on their houses or churches since it was regarded as a symbol of infidelity. They were prohibited from praying or reading the Bible aloud at home or in churches, lest Muslims heard their prayers. Dhimmis were not allowed to hold public celebrations and they were to make their way to church quietly. Muslim authorities were encouraged to humiliate Dhimmis when they came to pay the jizyah. This they did by slapping them on the neck and chasing them out from the office (after collecting the protection money). Dhimmis were also not allowed to testify against Muslims in legal disputes.
In the 18th century, an Egyptian sheikh ordered that the following restrictions be imposed on the Dhimmis:
They should not be allowed to clothe themselves in costly fabrics which have been cut in the modes which are forbidden to them, in order that they may not offend the sensibilities of poor Muslims. . . .They must under no circumstance ride horses because of the noble character of this animal. . . . The absence of every mark of consideration toward them is obligatory for us; we ought never to give them the place of honor in an assembly when a Muslim is present. This is in order to humble them and to honor the true believers. . . . It is no longer permitted them to put themselves, with respect to their houses, on an equal footing with the dwellings of their Muslim neighbors, and still less to build their buildings higher.
These unrelenting pressures naturally debilitated the Eastern Church, but worse was yet to come. Between 1290 and 1330, the Eucharist was banned, a large number of churches were closed down and destroyed, and both bishops and priests were imprisoned. Even the patriarch Yaballaha III was tortured.
It was the Mongol rulers who delivered the coup de grace to the Eastern Church especially after Timur converted to Islam. Timur made it his trademark to massacre entire city populations and assemble the victims’ heads into giant pyramids. It was reported that he piled up a pyramid of 90,000 skulls in the ruins of Baghdad. Similar massacres were carried out from Damascus to Tikrit and Mosul. The Eastern Church was utterly decimated and never recovered from this horrendous onslaught. Philip Jenkins described the inexorable decline and rot that set upon the beleaguered Church:
The Syrian churches survived as inward-looking quasi-tribal bodies within the Near East. Succession to the Nestorian patriarchate became hereditary, passing from uncle to nephew. Intellectual activity declined to nothing, at least in comparison with the glorious past. Many clergy were illiterate, and the church texts that do survive are often deeply imbued with superstition and folk magic.
The final destruction of the Eastern Church came when the Turks massacred them in the 1915 Armenian Genocide. News reports gave accounts of horrific atrocities being committed against helpless Christians: “…men had horse shoes nailed to their feet; women were gang-raped… the roads and the Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles, and those who survive are doomed to certain death. It is a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people.” An estimated one million to one-and-a-half million Armenians and Assyrian Christians perished in this pogrom. Not surprisingly only those who fled (or migrated) survived as the broken Armenian Church in diaspora. By the 20th century, the number of Christians in the Middle East had declined from 10% to 3% of the population.
While it is natural to highlight the violent physical attacks against Christians we should not miss the psychological debilitation that they suffered under these inhumane conditions. It was also the case that many Christians opted for the easy (and safer) way out by assimilating into the dominant religion. In 775AD, one contemporary witness, Tur Abdin, lamented on the weakness of Christians:
Without blows or torture, people slipped towards apostasy with great eagerness, in groups of twenty, thirty, one hundred, two hundred or three hundred without any compulsion. . . .
They used to come down to Harran, to governors, and apostasize to Islam.
Wherein lay the appeal of Islam at this time? On the one hand, conversion was tempting since it allowed converts to escape from persecution and the burdens imposed on them. But it is also the case that subject people tend to be assimilated into the ways of their conquerors. As the 14th century scholar Ibn Khaldun observed, “The vanquished always want to imitate the victor in his distinctive marks, his dress, his occupation, and all his other conditions and customs.” Converting to Islam meant becoming a member of a global empire. Unfortunately, the long term consequence is the extinction of the minority community.
It is easy to become pessimistic after reading this litany of disaster that struck the Eastern Church. Indeed, many churches perished, but it is also significant that a small group of churches survive, albeit under a bleak existence. One such group is the Copts in Egypt who survived 1400 years of violent oppression. It has been suggested that Coptic Christians survived by learning to express their faith in a manner which may seem innocuous to outsiders but nonetheless was effective in strengthening the faith of believers, especially through its liturgy.
Nevertheless, Christians should strive for greater freedom if not success in their witness. Perhaps the formula for such a success comes from a combination of lessons learned from two ancient churches in the Middle East, i.e., the Coptic Church and the Iraqi/Persian Church.
The Copts can claim to be the original inhabitants of Egypt and therefore legitimize the existence for their churches even in a society dominated by Islam. But because the Coptic Church is largely a rural church or made up of the urban underclass, it is relegated to a marginal existence in society. In contrast, the Iraqi/Persian church comprised people from the business and professional class. Undoubtedly, they exercised an influence disproportionate to their numbers especially in the early years when the Muslims were still the minority. But without grassroots followers, their influence proved short-lived. Worldly affluence and success meant that they had more to lose and they succumbed to the temptation to convert to Islam so that they could enjoy privileged status along with the Muslim rulers. Not surprisingly, the church declined to the point that it became practically insignificant in Persia.
Perhaps these observations show us that the Church today is able to move beyond survival mode and flourish if it can successfully combine the strengths of both the Coptic and the Iraqi/Persian churches. Herein lies salutary lessons for the Malaysian Church – it will flourish only if there is a synergy between the East Malaysian native/Bumiputera Christians (representing the Coptic spirit) and the West Malaysian professional Christians from among the immigrant races.
Laurence Browne notes that Eastern Christians did not apostasize in the face of threats against their lives, at least not until the Muslim Mongols arrived on the scene. Neither did they apostasize because they were persuaded by the truth of Islamic teachings since there is fuller truth to be found in the Bible. Instead, the thing that turned Christians to Islam was “the common acceptance by Muslims and Christians alike of the error that the favour of God is shown by worldly success.” That is to say, the vision of the might of the Muslim Empire had the same over-awing effect that the golden calf had on the Jews who abandoned Moses – they bowed down and worshipped. Browne concluded, “In the same way these Christians accepted the false idea of the supremacy of worldly might… So they were allowed to join themselves to a system in which religion and worldly empire were one.”
It is probable that these Christians had already apostasized before the advent of Islam and that Islam was merely the catalyst that crystallized and revealed their apostasy. This is not unlike a giant tree that comes crashing down in the storm because it roots have rotted. Browne added, “[Christians] no longer worshipped Christ as Lord. They denied the Sun of Righteousness, but God in his mercy, rather than leave them in total darkness gave them the light of a narrow crescent moon.”
That is to say, the day will come when God in his providence will reveal openly that this system of empire and religion symbolized by the looming mosque, will be a spent force. There will be a fresh outpouring of the Spirit to empower anew the small and oppressed but stubbornly faithful churches in Eastern lands for the task of Christian mission. Perhaps in the cunning of divine providence, the slivers of truth that Islam had earlier assimilated from Christianity will eventually form the bridge that will facilitate the sharing of the full truth of the Gospel.
Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity. Harper 2008.
Browne, Eclipse of Christianity in Asia. Cambridge Uni. Press 1933.