Chapter 9: In the Shadows of History

East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia
by T.V. Philip

Chapter 9: In the Shadows of History

By AD 1500, the story of Asian Christianity, after a millennium and a half of heroic efforts and phenomenal expansion almost came to an end in several countries; so much so, the historians speak of the eclipse of Christianity in Asia. (See L. E. Browne, The Eclipse of Christianity, 1967.) "Like a sun in eclipse, Christianity in Asia moved so abruptly, yet so imperceptibly, from its peak of expansion down into the shadows of history, that it is difficult to pin point any precise moment at which progress turned into decline. (S.H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 471.) According to Moffett the definitive turning point was AD 1294 in East Asia and AD 1295 in West Asia. "In the space of one year the emperor Kublai Khan, protector of the church in China died, and in Persia the Ilkhan Ghazan announced his conversion to Islam. ... In the next one hundred years the religious tolerance of Mongol imperial rule gave way to a new destructive wave of widespread Mongolian ferocities fueled by conquering Muslim zeal, and the shattered remnants of Asian Christianity were left isolated in ever smaller pockets of desperation. (Ibid.) The decline of Christianity in Asia was not an isolated event which happened all of a sudden. The grounds were being prepared for it and the reasons were complex.

Various historians have suggested various reasons for the ‘eclipse of Christianity’ in Asia. According to K.S. Latourette the invaders who emerged from Central Asia in successive waves became Moslems rather than Christians, the break up of the Mongol Empire which showed religious tolerance, the religious persecution under Timur or Tamerlane (1336-1405), the rise of Ottoman Turks, and the condition in western Europe were some of them. "Beset by an advancing Islam in the East, having lost the larger proportion of its wide-flung communities in Asia, and suffering from corruption and indifference in the church which represented it in the west, in AD 1500 Christianity did not seem to face a promising future. The coming centuries might well have appeared to belong to Islam. (K. S. Latourette, op.cit., vol. 2., pp. 341-342.)

Moffett suggests eight reasons: Geographical isolation, chronic numerical weakness, persecution, the encounter with formidable Asian religions, ethnic introversion, dependence upon the state, the church’s own internal divisions, and the theological factor. (Moffett. op.cit., p. 503 ff.) The reasons suggested by Moffett are of varying importance. While some reasons such as geographical isolation, numerical weakness and persecution were important reasons, some others were of less importance. The disappearance of St. Thomas Christian communities in North India in the face of Muslim or Roman Catholic pressures were to some extent due to their numerical smallness and geographical isolation from one another.

It is true that Asian religions created strong social, intellectual and religious barriers against conversion to Christianity. In fact, with the exception of Japan, the majority of the Christians in Asia have come from among the tribal or depressed classes in Asian society. Christianity was not able to make any serious inroad into Hinduism or Buddhism or Confucianism. It is also true that some of the Asian religions, at times, for example, Zoroastrianism in Persia, were instrumental in the persecution of Christians. But these religions on the whole were tolerant of Christianity and were not the main obstacle for the survival of Christianity. Only when Christianity sided with the foreign political powers Asian religions became hostile.

Moffett points out that Asia never produced a Constantine. Then he asks: Was that the pivotal difference between Asian and European history? It never emerged from politically dependent minority status under absolute non-Christian monarchies. In Asia, Christianity never won more than a temporary touch of imperial favour. "Instead, for most of their first fifteen hundred years the Asian churches were compelled to rely on the fitful tolerance of non-Christian rulers whose power of life or death over their subjects was unlimited. Dependence upon political power is always perilous to religious integrity and it is not an unfamiliar phenomenon in Western church history. But in Asia, where dependence was extreme, the damage was extreme." (Ibid.. pp. 505-506.)

It is true that one of the serious reasons for the decline of Christianity in Asia was the religious minority status of the Christians under non-Christian rulers. The melet system of the Sassanids and the socially harassed and separated ghettos (dhimmas) of the Muslim caliphates were a serious threat to the survival of Christianity. But does the answer to the problem lie in creating a Christian state under ‘Constantine’? In Europe, Christianity depended upon the political power both for its expansion and protection. In the sixteenth century, when the Roman Catholic missionaries came to Asia, they tried very hard to convert the political rulers first, though they did not succeed.

Moffett further states that in the opinion of some western scholars, another reason for the weakness and final disappearance of Asian Christianity was the inferior intellectual character of its theologians. Asians did not produce theologians of the stature of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian or Augustine.

History does not prove that under Christian rulers, Christians will not be persecuted, or a Christian state will guarantee the presence of Christianity. History also does not show that the intellectual quality of its theologians will guarantee the survival of Christianity. The history of the Church in North Africa illustrates these points.

North Africa, before the eighth century, was part of the Roman empire, guarded and guided by Christian emperors since the beginning of the fourth century. There was an alliance between Church and State, and Church and Latin culture. In the fourth century, under Christian emperors, the position which the Catholic church occupied in society was enviable. The church gained numerous benefits from the state and the church in turn supported the state. Yet, during the Donatist controversy, the Christian emperors persecuted the Donatist Christians. The persecuted Christians were forced to ask: What has the emperor to do with the church?

North Africa was one of the territories under the Roman Empire where Christianity took its deepest roots in the third and the fourth centuries. It was a province of the Roman Empire and was ruled by Christian emperors. The church in North Africa was the church of Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine. Their works embody the teachings and traditions of the western church. Tertullian was an original theologian and a prolific writer. He was the first church father to inaugurate writing in Latin. "Though never canonized, he must be regarded as one of the most illustrious ante-Nicene Fathers of the church. Subsequent generations continued to build on his illuminating trinitarianism and Christology after his death about AD 220. (Aziz. S. Atiya, op.cit.. p. 430.) Cyprian followed the foot steps of Tertullian. His writings on the church and its unity influenced the development of western ecclesiology. For him, the church is the indispensable ark of salvation and there is no salvation outside the church. The church is a single whole and its unity is expressed through the authority of the bishops. African Christianity reached its peak in the emergence of Augustine of Hippo (340-430). His life and work became one of the greatest land marks in the development of western theology. It is often said that the reading of Augustine belongs to the discovery of western intellectual and spiritual ancestry. It was he who in the fourth century gave western civilization the formative ideas which guided it for centuries. Again it has been said that just as western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, western theology is a series of foot notes to Augustine. In the medieval period Anselm and Thomas Aquinas acknowledged their dependence on Augustine. In the period of the Protestant Reformation Luther and Calvin reaffirmed Augustinian conceptions of God and human nature and the utter dependence of human beings on the Grace of God.

North Africa had a long history of Christian tradition and had Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine as their theological fathers. It was a church protected and supported by Christian emperors in a Christian state. In spite of all these, from the eighth century, North Africa has been lost to Latinity and Christendom alike. All efforts to win back from the Muslims, either by crusades or by missionary efforts, have been unsuccessful. It is true that the Asians have not produced a Constantine nor an Augustine. But the very church of Constantine and Augustine in North Africa could not survive the Muslim invasion.

The reasons, for the decline of Christianity in Asia, are very complex and it varies from country to country. Among a number of interrelated causes, we mention four which had immediate bearings on the decline of Christianity in Asia by the end of the fifteenth century; -- the political situation under which the churches in Asia found themselves; the foreigness of the church; the decline in spiritual life in the church; and the Latinizing activities of the Roman Catholic missionaries.

Political Situation: Christianity Under Islam

Christianity in Asia had a different history from that in Europe. In Europe once Christianity became the state religion, paganism lost its secular support and the tendency was for people to become adherents of Christianity. In the Justinian code, compiled a century before the time of Prophet Mohammad, it was enacted that the heathens were to be baptized if they wanted to enjoy the common rights of citizens. It is said that the law was so administered that seventy thousand people were added to the church in Asia Minor. In Asia, the course of Christianity had been completely different. Christianity never enjoyed the status of a state religion. It was always a minority community living under the various disabilities and often isolated from one another by vast distances. From time to time it was persecuted.

In the third century, when the Sassanians came to power, Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the Persian empire and this led, from time to time, to the persecution of minorities including Christians. The violent persecution under Sapor II lasted for forty years. There were also periodic persecutions in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Christians in the Persian empire were organized as a separate minority community called melet within the larger community as a state within a state. In the melet system Christians were allowed to manage their own affairs, subject to the laws of the state. But they had no political power outside their community. They were subjected to special taxation such as land tax and poll tax. Yet Christianity survived these disabilities and persecution under the Persian rule and made considerable progress. But the advent of the Arabs opened a new chapter in the history of Persian Christians.

The long and indecisive war between Rome and Persia weakened both empires and prepared the way for the relatively easy Arab conquest and the expansion of Islam. The Muslim invaders seized Seleucia-Ctesiphon in AD 637 and subsequently the whole empire succumbed to their armies. By AD 652 the Arabs became the sole rulers of Persia. Their empire extended from the shores of the Mediterranean and Red seas to Oxus and the Indus, and from the Indian Ocean to the Caucasus and the Caspian. The empire is usually described as Caliphate. The first four Caliphs, the immediate successors of Mohammed are known as Perfect or Orthodox Caliphs (632-661). They were followed by thirteen Caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty (661-749) with their capital at Damascus. After that, there were thirty seven Caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) and their capital was at Baghdad (the city of peace) on the bank of the river Tigris.

The Arab conquest of Persia brought about great upheaval in the empire but it did not adversely affect the Christians much; they were not persecuted or massacred. In fact, there is evidence to show that the Christians welcomed the Arabs as liberators from Zoroastrian oppression. This does not mean that the Christians had no political disputes under the Muslim rule. But the Christians under Islamic protection were far more better off than they had been under the Byzantine or Persian rule. No attempt was made in the early decades of Islam to convert Christians to Islam. The Arabs levied a land tax and a poll tax in the same way as the Persians. On the other hand, the Christians as a whole seemed to enjoy more favour with the Muslims than other conquered communities. They shared with the Jews and Zoroastrians as dhimmis or protected subjects. But the Christians were treated more favorably as they were the people of the Book. It is said that Mohammed himself had given certain privileges to the Nestorians which the Caliphs affirmed.

The Arabs were very appreciative of the intellectual attainments of the Christians and used them in the administration of the empire. Christians furnished the state with accountants and clerks; physicians, teachers and interpreters. The great teachers of the early Abbasid period were Nestorians. The great Academy of learning called the House of Wisdom founded in AD 830 was staffed essentially by the Nestorians. Scholars who mastered Syriac, Greek and Arabic, and who were commissioned to translate the scientific and philosophical works of Greece were Nestorian Christians. During the first three centuries of Arab rule, the Nestorian church was at the peak of its growth and expansion.

The favored position of the Christians began to decline by the end of the seventh century. Melet or dhimmi was a system that separated minority religious groups from the social, political and military mainstream of the empire’s life. As the Arabs consolidated their control over conquered people and as the number of Muslims increased, the disabilities under dhimmi began to increase. Non-Muslims paid special taxes, and as time went on, the taxes grew heavier, the social discrimination became more oppressive, and a system of Christian disabilities developed in the official and legal circles. The Covenant of Omar describes the disabilities as it developed in the ninth century. A dhimmi was bound by the contract of his position to revere the Muslim’s Holy scripture, refrain from uttering a falsehood against the Prophet Mohammed, and never to speak against Islam. Furthermore, he was forbidden to approach a Muslim woman for marriage or illicit intent; to try to apostate a Muslim or harm his property or person, and to assist an enemy of Islam or harbor a spy. All these obligations were to be kept. There were others which were commendable and included the use of a distinctive dress, prohibition from erecting buildings higher than those of the Muslims, from using church bells, from drinking wine and displaying a cross or a pig in public, from pomp and lamentation in burial offices, and from horse riding. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., pp. 269-272.)

By the middle of the eighth century the Christian communities and their leaders had come to recognize that the official Muslim toleration which had seemed so attractive a century earlier was in fact a rigid prison from which there is no escape other than apostasy or flight. The dhimmi system, while allowing the Christians to keep their religion, churches and property, and live according to the common law of their religion, condemned them, in effect, to a slow but almost inevitable decline and death. They were not allowed to build new churches. As the succeeding Caliphs became less tolerant, many of the old churches were converted to mosques, the most famous example being the conversion of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Damascus into a mosque. (Robert Benton Bretts, Christians in the Arab East, London, SPCK, 1972 pp. 7-10.) The Christians were prevented from seeking new members from even among non-Muslims, and apostasy from Islam was punishable by death. Tax pressures became more and more severe on the Christians. Such social, economic, political and religious disabilities made conversion to Islam very attractive. When the newly converted non-Arabs were allowed to enlist in the army and therefore become eligible for pension and support, it was an added attraction for the Christians to become Muslims. Christians and Jews were further crippled in any defence of themselves before the law by a Muslim judicial ruling that their testimony could not be received in the court against the Muslims since the Koran says that the Christians had corrupted their scripture and are therefore unworthy. In such circumstances of discrimination and disabilities, ordinary Christians found it expedient to convert to Islam. It was through pressures, not necessarily by active persecution, Islam mainly found converts among the Christians in the days of the Caliphate. A large number of Nestorian Christians in Persia, Arabia, Central Asia and North India turned Muslims. The smallness of the Christian groups in many places, and their geographical isolation from one another helped the process of conversion to Islam. However, persecution also played a major role in later centuries.

From the middle of the ninth century the Caliphate began to decline and several countries which were under Caliphate rule became independent. The weakening of the Caliphate rule helped the rise to power of the Seljuk Turks, who were also Muslims, in the tenth century. They took Baghdad in AD 1050. Though they recognized Abbasid caliphs as nominal heads of state, the real power was in their hands. The military victories of Seljuk Turks alarmed the Byzantine emperors for the safety of Constantinople which eventually led to the Crusades. The crusades began with the call of Pope Urban II in AD 1095, which led to a senseless episode in the history of the church. As Browne observes, "Turks and Franks met as enemies, and two centuries later parted as enemies; and the enmity extended from them to the indigenous Muslims and Christians, who from this time onwards showed a mutual hostility far more marked than before. (Browne, op.cit., p. 146.) This was the state of affairs when, in the thirteenth century, the Mongols began to extend their power. Mongol Hulegu captured Baghdad in AD 1258. The Mongols were tolerant of Christians and Buddhists, and Christianity spread rapidly in Central Asia and China. The history of the church in Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was very much tied up with the rise of the Mongol power under Hulegu, Kublai and Timur the Great (Tamerlane). The first two were brothers, sons of the Nestorian princes Sorkaktani. Tamerlane was an outsider and not of Mongol blood. Hulegu and Kublai protected the Christians, but Tamerlane destroyed them. (Moffett, op.cit. p. 276.)

The Mongol ruler of Persia (Ilkhan), Ghazan (1295-1304) be-came a Muslim and under him, Christians, Jews and Buddhists were persecuted and their places of worship were destroyed. During the early period of Mongol rule, Christians were favored in the empire, but now after a lapse of seventy years, Islam again became the state religion in Persia. Bar Hebraeus, in his chronography describes the conditions of the Christians thus:

No Christian dared to appear in the streets (or market), but the women went out and came in and bought and sold, because they could not be distinguished from the Arab women, and could not be identified as Christians, though those who were recognized as Christians were disgraced, and slapped, and beaten and mocked. (Quoted by Moffett. Ibid., p. 476.)

Persecutions of Christians continued under the succeeding Ilkhans. By the 1340s the power of the Mongols began to decline. Then Timur the Great (1336-1405) captured power. Born in Central Asia near Samarkhand, he was to revive an Islamic Caliphate and boasted that he would make Samarkhand the capital of Asia. He was a great and brutal conqueror. Between AD 1380 and 1393, he captured Central Asia, Persia, Egypt and Northern India. He seized Baghdad with the whole of Mesopotamia in AD 1393. In some places he wiped out the whole cities he conquered. It is recorded that in Persia he left a pyramid of seventy thousand human skulls on the ruins of Isfahan and another ninety thousand on the ruins of Baghdad. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., p. 276.) In India he ordered a hundred thousand prisoners killed to free his soldiers for the advance to Delhi. Amidst these misfortunes both Muslims and Christians suffered. Christians were no longer in favour; on the contrary they were persecuted on account of their religion.

Thus with the rise of Islam as a political power in the Middle East and Central Asia, the whole history of Christianity in Asia began to take a different turn. By the end of the ninth century, during the Caliphate period, all vestiges of Nestorian Christianity were stamped out of Arabia. Similarly the decline of Christianity which began with the early Caliphate in Persia was greatly accelerated with the ruthless persecution of Christians by Tamerlane. By the end of his life, Christianity in Persia, Central Asia and North India was greatly reduced in number and vitality and the once great Nestorian church, lay in ruins.

By the end of the fifteenth century, in the Mediterranean world, Islam was dominant in all the ancient centres of civilization except Italy, Spain and Southern France. It controlled Mesopotamia and Persia. It was strong in Central Asia and was represented by communities in India and China. Muslim merchants were in possession of most of the trade between the Far East and the West, and Islam was spreading along the sea routes to the Malay Peninsula and the islands of the east. (K. S. Latourette, op.cit., p. 340.)

Foreigness of the Church

When the Ming dynasty took control of China in AD 1369 from the tolerant Mongols, a wave of merciless persecution of ‘alien’ religions began. It ended in the total extinction of Christianity in China by the turn of the century, while Tamerlane simultaneously carried out the same destructive mission in Central Asia. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., p.265.)

A number of historians speak of the foreigness of the Nestorian church in China and point out that it was because of this that the church in China was persecuted and thus disappeared. Speaking of the persecution of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity in the ninth century China, L.E. Browne strongly asserts that the major reason for the failure of Christianity in China must be placed in the fact that it was predominantly a foreign church. "Now if a church is felt to be foreign it has not really entered the hearts of the people and made itself at home in the land. (L.E. Browne, op.cit., pp. 99-100.) It is true that the Chinese considered Buddhism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism as foreign religions.

The persecutions in the ninth century were primarily against Buddhism and not against Christianity as such. But Christianity and Zoroastrianism were also persecuted and their monasteries suppressed because they were regarded as heretical forms of Buddhism and therefore came under the edict of the emperor against foreign religions. The Buddhists were persecuted in the ninth century primarily because of economic reasons and not simply for cultural reasons. By the ninth century, Buddhism in China had changed much and adapted very much to Chinese society. They had modified their ideas and remolded their institutions to better fit Chinese society. It was the economic reasons which were upper most in the persecution.

The rich holdings of the great Buddhist monasteries presented the Chinese with the only true church problem it ever faced. Monasteries were built by rulers or prosperous individuals and tended to accumulate more riches through further gifts of land or treasure from pious believers. They also expanded their holdings through usury and the various other legal or illegal methods by which the great families amassed their holdings. Thus they constituted in the eyes of the rulers a fiscal menace to the state, removing land and men from the tax registers. The idea therefore developed that the number of monasteries and monks and the size of the holdings should be limited. This was paralleled by the concept that, if Buddhism were indeed of value to society, it should not only be regulated by the state but also supported by it as a sort of spiritual branch of the administration. Nothing could have been further from the original role of Indian Buddhism. (John K. Fairbank, op.cit., pp. 108-109.)

Occasionally the effort to regulate the Buddhist church resulted in persecution. Many Chinese resented Buddhism as a foreign religion and detested some of its social practice such as self-mutilation and cremation as well as celibacy of the monks which were felt to threaten the family continuity and violate ancestral traditions. The jealousy of the Taoist priests was also sometimes a contributory factor. "But the chief reason for Buddhist persecution was the financial need of the government. Persecutions were chiefly efforts to return the land and the monks of the monasteries to the tax registers and seize their gilt-bronze images and other wealth for the imperial treasury. Individual believers were not seriously bothered." (Ibid., p. 109.)

The situation in the time of the Ming dynasty in the fourteenth century was different but at that time also Christianity was considered foreign. It was persecuted specifically because it was a foreign religion. In what sense was it foreign? Moffett is right when he says that the early Christian communities of Asia, though they were themselves Asian and for centuries were planted by Asian missionaries, nevertheless found it difficult to break through the barriers of their own ethnic differences and take root in the other social fabric of other Asian peoples. (Moffett, op.cit., p. 508.) In China, Christians tried to accommodate themselves to Chinese culture and develop a Chinese literature and theology. It also tried to develop indigenous leadership in the church. Yet they were considered foreign.

Christianity was favored under the Mongols and it was under them that Christianity spread in China a second time. Mongols were aliens who seized power in China. For the Chinese, they were barbarians. The Mongols differed from their subjects in very striking ways -- culturally and socially. Later Chinese chronicles described the Mongols as primitive savages capable only of destruction. In the face of Chinese hostility, the Mongols employed many foreigners, particularly Muslims and Nestorian Christians in the administration of government. "You see the Great Khan had not succeeded to the domain of Cathay by hereditary right, but held it by conquest; and thus, having no confidence in the natives, he put all authority into the hands of Tartars, Saracens or Christians, who were attached to his household and devoted to his service, and were foreigners in Cathay." (Marco Polo quoted by John K. Fairbank & others, op.cit., p.168.) The ‘Scholar class’ in China was antagonized by Mongol patronage of foreign religions. Mongols exempted from taxation, the religious establishments, like the Confucian temples, of the Buddhist, Taoist and Nestorian faiths. The Mongols did not specially favour the scholar class and their interests. Instead they maintained a cosmopolitan regime under which the Chinese bureaucratic class was given little scope. (Ibid., p. 169)

At the demise of Mongolian empire, the Ming dynasty came to power (1368-1444). From then on, till the beginning of the twentieth century, China followed traditional ways. During the Ming period, the leaders of Chinese society were devoted to tradition. They turned back for inspiration to the great ages of Han, T’ang and Sung. This turning back was also accompanied by a hostility to Mongols. Alien rule had inspired hostility toward alien things in general. Gradually this view hardened into a lack of interest in anything beyond the pale of Chinese civilization. This turning away from the outside world was accompanied by a growing introspection within Chinese life. (Ibid., p.178.)

The Ming rule was a revival of Chinese rule, the animating spirit had been to return to the pre-Mongol institutions of the Tang and Sung. It was a revival of Confucianism. This revival of everything Chinese resulted in hatred for the Mongols who were foreign rulers and persecution of them and their supporters namely Muslims and the Nestorian Christians. During the Ting period, ‘foreign’ meant not simply alien culture, but it also meant ‘alien rule’ over China. Foreigners were those who unlawfully usurped political power and their allies. Christians were persecuted and were practically exterminated from China by the end of the fourteenth century, not only because they were not in the mainstream of Chinese culture, but mainly because the Christians were supported by an alien political power and they in turn supported that political power. The history of the Chinese church during the Ch’ing period shows that the Chinese were always suspicious of religions which were supported by foreign powers within or outside China.

The Proselytizing Activities of the Roman Catholic Missionaries

A third reason for the demise of Nestorian Christianity was the proselytizing activities of the Roman Catholic missionaries. The Crusades (1095-1291) formed one of the most striking features of European history. As originally conceived, the Crusades were not intended as instruments for spreading Christianity or regaining the population lost to Islam. Pope Urban II declared the objective of the Crusades to be the rescue of the holy places in Palestine, the defense of the Christians of the East against the Muslims, and the rolling back of the tide of Muhammedan conquest. But in reality the different Crusades had different objectives. The fourth Crusade was directed against Constantinople. Instead of defending Eastern Christians it destroyed them. Crusades were preached against the Slays, against the Muslims in Spain, against the Albigenses, and against the various enemies of the Pope. The Crusades accentuated the bitterness between Muslims and Christians. A number of places in Palestine and Syria came under the domain of the Latin church.

Franciscans and Dominicans were the chief missionary agents of the Roman church at this time and one of the main objectives of the Roman Catholic missions in the Orient was the union of the various Christian bodies of these regions under the authority of the Pope.

The success of the efforts of the Latin Christians to draw the churches of the East into communion with Rome varied both with the time and with the particular church. More than once the Greek and the Roman churches seemed to have been brought together. More than once in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries progress appeared to be made toward ending the schism between the Armenians and Rome From practically all the Eastern churches groups were won. Usually these became Uniates, bodies which preserved their ancient rites and customs but which recognized the primacy of the Pope and in creed conformed with Rome. Only in the case of the Maronites, however, did an entire church come over. From the other churches only minorities were gained. (K. S Latourette, op.cit., vol.II, p.327.)

Among the Nestorians, the Patriarchate became a hereditary institution, the office being passed on from uncle to nephew. During the course of the fifteenth century, there developed, among the people, opposition to this method of succession. When the Patriarch Shim’un bar Mama died in AD 1551. some of the bishops supported by a section of the Nestorian community wished to elect a candidate other than his own nephew Shim’un Denha. They elected one John Sulaka Patriarch which resulted in a schism. With the instigation and help of Franciscan missionaries, Sulaka went to Rome and Pope Julius m (1550-1555) ordained him as the patriarch which divided the Nestorian community even to this day. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., p. 397.)

During the Crusades, there were a number of diplomatic contacts between Western Christendom, the Mongols, and Islam, seeking each other’s help. After AD 1241, the papacy sent a series of Franciscan monks on diplomatic and evangelical missions to Persia, Mongolia, and China, evidently to explore the possibility of obtaining Mongol help against the Muslims. One of those envoys was John of Montecorvino who succeeded in establishing a Roman Catholic mission in Peking at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

John of Montecorvino, on his way to China, stopped in India in AD 1291 and stayed there thirteen months. He visited the tomb of St. Thomas near Madras, where he wrote, he baptized about a hundred people. But a later visitor to the tomb, Odoric of Pordenone in AD 1324, found no Roman Catholics there but only the Nestorian Christians. When John wrote that he baptized about hundred people, he might have meant that he tried to make the Nestorian Christians Roman Catholics; they might have gone back to Nestorianism by AD 1324.

John of Montecorvino was the first Roman Catholic missionary to reach China. By the year AD 1305 he could report that he had made as many as six thousand converts, and if not for the opposition of the Nestorians, he would have baptized more than thirty thousand. This is an amazing success story. How did he achieve this? In one of his letters he wrote thus:

A certain king of that region, of the school of Nestorian Christians, who was of the race of that great king who was called Prester John of India, attached himself to me the first year of my coming hither and, being converted by me to the truth of the true Catholic faith, took the lesser orders and wearing the sacred vestments served me as I celebrated; so that the other Nestorians accused him of apostasy. Nevertheless he brought over a great part of his people to the true Catholic faith, and built a beautiful church on a scale of magnificence to the honour of our God, of the Holy Trinity. and of the Lord Pope, and of my name, calling it the Roman church. And this king departed to the Lord six years ago, a true Christian, leaving a son and heir in the cradle who is now nine years old. But the brothers of the same king George, since they were perfidious persons in the errors of Nestorius, subverted after the king’s death all whom he had converted, leading them back to their former schism. (A. C. Moule, op.cit., p. 173 ff.)

The above letter of John makes very clear the Romanizing activity of John and why the Nestorians were furious with him. When the news of John’s success in China was heard in Europe, Pope Clement V was very pleased and appointed John as the first Archbishop of Peking in AD 1303.

After John Montecorvino’s visit to India at the end of the thirteenth century, the next Roman Catholic visitor was a French Dominican, Jordanus. Just before his arrival, four Dominicans who stopped in Thana, near Bombay, were murdered by Muslims. It shows how difficult it was to preach to and convert the Muslims and Hindus. Jordanus went about the region of Gujarat preaching and baptizing -ninety were baptized in one town, twenty in another, and thirty-five in the third. In his Mirabilia Descripta he wrote that since his arrival in India about ten thousand persons had been won over to the Catholic faith. He was very appreciative of the quality of the Christians.

There is no better land or fairer nor people so honest, no victuals so good and savory, dress so handsome or manners so noble as here in our own Christendom; and above all, we have the true faith, though ill it be kept. For as God is my witness, ten times better (Christians) and more charitable with all are those who are converted by the Preaching and Minor Friars to our faith than our own folk here, an experience has taught me. (Quoted by Mundadan, op.cit., p. 134.)

Jordanus does not tell us how he was able to communicate with the people without knowing their language and the previous religious affiliation of the people whom he converted, whom he found very exemplary. But he tells the difficulty he encountered among the people with whom he worked.

To whom shall I speak of my sufferings? The pirates have seized me on the high seas; the Muslims have cast me into prison. I was accused, and was maligned. And behold it is a long time since, like a criminal, I have been prohibited from wearing the habit of my order. I have endured hunger and thirst, heat and cold, wrath and curses, illness and destitution, accusations by false brethren; ... I suffered more than what I can describe. (Ibid., p. l33.)

Stephen Neill suggests that the people whom he converted might have beep St. Thomas Christians. (Stephen Neill op.cit., p.73.) Gujarat was one of those places in North India where St. Thomas Christians were found. It is also probable that some of his troubles came because of the opposition of the St. Thomas Christians. The ‘false accusers’ might have been the St. Thomas Christians. In a letter to Europe Jordanus mentions that he was deeply troubled by a ‘horrible schism among the people in reference to me.’ "‘This veiled report of disagreement in the Christian community over his ministry suggests a possible rift between the older St. Thomas Christians and the incoming Roman Catholics, much as it occurred in Peking when Montecorvino, about the same time, found Nestorians already well established there under Kublai Khan." (Moffett, op.cit.. p. 500.)

After thirteen months in India, Jordanus returned to Italy. when in AD 1328, Pope John XXII consecrated him as bishop of Quilon (Kerala, India) with a double mission. He was to convert the Muslims and reunite the Nestorians (Nazarenes) with the ‘true church’. Pope sent with him a letter to the head of the Nazrani Christians, commending him to them and inviting them to abjure their schisms and enter the unity of the Catholic Church.

It was the official policy of Rome to proselytize the St. Thomas Christians. It was not the pastoral concern which attracted the medieval Latin missionaries to St. Thomas Christians, (Mundadan. op.cit.. p. l43.) but a deliberate policy of bringing the St. Thomas Christians under Rome. While Tamerlane was persecuting the Asian Christians ruthlessly, at the same time and in a parallel movement, the Latin missionaries were proselytizing the ancient Asian Christians and both were destroying them.

Decay of Spiritual Life in the Church

A fourth reason for the rapid demise of the Nestorian church, especially in Persia, on the onslaught of Islam was the element of decay within the church itself. During the period of the Caliphate the church in Persia was growing in wealth and worldliness with disastrous consequences. When the Caliphs built their capital at Baghdad, the church also moved the Patriarchate to Baghdad. As to its effect on the life of the church Atiya observes:

As head of one of the richest and most influential communities in the Islamic empire, his [Patriarch’s] position in the central administration became one of relative importance, sometimes through favour with the caliphs themselves and sometimes through bribery and gifts. Spiritually, however, the patriarchal leadership was on the decline at a time when the church had reached the furthest limits of its extension in Asia. The patriarchs were beginning to look like civil servants as much as ecclesiastical dignitaries and were occasionally dispatched on diplomatic missions to Constantinople and Rome. The patriarchal throne was coveted by ambitious candidates who were ready to buy episcopal votes for large sums. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit, p. 272.)

It is interesting to note that the situation of the church in Persia was very similar to that in North Africa before the Islamic invasion. The North African Catholic church expressed its catholicity in keeping its relation with Rome and its policies. In the fourth century, under Christian emperors, the position which the Catholic church occupied in society was enviable. The church gained numerous benefits from the state. W.H.C. Frend observes:

As the church expanded in wealth and numbers, offices and auxiliary duties multiplied. Clerics in a variety of minor orders were needed. The bishop of a large see was now a great officer of the state, paid 720 solidi a year like a provincial governor and expected as Gregory of Nazianus complained during his short tenure of the see of Constantinople (380-381) to rival the consuls, the generals, the governors, the most illustrious commanders, to eat well and dress splendidly. (W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church,, p. 250.)

As the church grew in wealth and power, the Nestorian patriarchal office in Persia was coveted by many. There is a story about the election of Timothy I as Nestorian patriarch in the eighth century. He laid out at the disposal of his electors heavy sacks to be opened after his success, presumably full of money. Timothy won the election, and when his supporters opened the sacks they found them full of stones. He defended himself by saying, "The priesthood is not to be purchased for money." They could not replace him by his rival since his election was already ratified by the Persian state. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., p. 272.) The church became a prey to rivalry for the patriarchal throne, and this led to prolonged vacancies. Often it was won in the end by the highest bidder.

Nestorians were after political power and influence. When the Mongols under Hulegu captured Baghdad in AD 1258, he was welcomed by the Christians. In the brutal massacre of the population that followed, only the Christians were spared, as they were a favored group. Their privileged position turned them arrogant toward Muslims. About this Magrizi, a Muslim historian of the fifteenth century wrote,

They produced a diploma of [Hulegu] guaranteeing express protection and free exercise of their religion. They drank wine freely in the month of Ramazan and spilt it in the open streets, on the clothes of the Mussulmans and the doors of the Mosques. When they traversed the streets, they compelled the merchants Co rise and ill-treated those who refused. ..; When the Mussulmans complained they were treated with indignity by the governor appointed by [Hulegu] and several of them were by his orders bastinaded. He [Hulegu] visited the Christian church and paid deference to their clergy. (Howorth, History of Mongols, quoted by Moffett, op.cit., p. 424.)

The political advantage enjoyed by the church because of their support of the Mongol rule was short lived and the situation very soon turned against them. The Mongols were defeated in their battle against the Egyptians in Al) 1260. Browne suggests that Perhaps’ because of this defeat the Mongols first began to think seriously of accepting Islam. "The Christians of Damascus now suffered the fruits of the arrogant behaviour they had shown to Muslims during the few months of Mongol occupation of the city. Many Christians were slain, and others were enslaved." (L. E. Browne, op.cit., p. 154.)

The enemies of the church are often inside and not outside the church.