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from issue no. 12 - 2010

From Mesopotamia to China

How faith in Jesus Christ came through Central Asia to China in the first millennium, thanks to a Church unknown to most people

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Marco Polo’s surprise when he came across Christians in the far off lands of China is matched today by that of the majority of Christians in the West when they hear of the existence of Christian communities surviving from very early times to the east of the Roman Empire, in the boundless territories of Central Asia, from Persia to India and China. These communities are somewhat hastily described as Nestorian because at the time of the Council of Ephesus (431), which condemned Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, they remained faithful to the theological tradition of Antioch, from where Nestorius came, against the radicalisation of the Alexandrian theological current (with foresight since, it must be said, it was leading to Monophysite distortions). But also because, even before the Council of Ephesus, they aimed to distance themselves from the Roman State Church. From the beginning of the third century, in fact, these Christians had their own patriarch ( katholikos) based in Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the Tigris, whose autonomy stemmed from the need to show the independence of these Christians from the Roman Empire, which was for centuries the enemy par excellence of the Persian world. Rather than a split at the level of dogma, in other words, their autonomy aimed to avoid misunderstanding and persecution.
The cradle of this Syro-Eastern Church (a more fitting description than “Nestorian”, as suggested) was the north-west area of Mesopotamia, the borderland between the Roman and the Persian empires. Christian communities linked to the Church of Antioch settled in this area in the first half of the second century and soon spread to the east. As we know from the Acts of the Apostles the Church of Antioch was pluralist in character and open to the pagan world.
In the fourth century, when the Persians had occupied the area of the Mesopotamian once subject to Rome, the Christian communities of eastern Persia increased because of deportations, which also involved Mesopotamian Christians. Despite some periods of persecution in the fourth and fifth centuries, these communities thrived not only within the Persian empire but also to the east of it.
The city of Herat, which unfortunately continues to get mentioned in the media because of the presence there of the Italian contingent in Afghanistan, was an archiepiscopal see from 585. And other cities and regions along the Silk Road with mythical and exotic-sounding names held flourishing Christian communities. Merv, present-day Mary in Turkmenistan, considered the gateway to Asia, was a bishopric and rich in monasteries in the fourth century. Samarkand and Tashkent in Uzbekistan, the region beyond the Oxus River (now Amu Darya), were the site of encounter with Sogdians, nomadic merchants, through whom, in turn, Christianity reached the Far East. Theirs, in fact, was the language of trade and commerce throughout Central Asia, and became the means of communication which in the late sixth century, enabled Christianity to reach some Turko-Mongolian tribes of the Altai and then, spreading from the oasis of Turfan, Chinese territory as far as the imperial capital of Chang’an.
At present the heirs of the Syro-Eastern tradition, united by Syriac as liturgical language, include the Chaldean Catholics of Iraq and Iran (about 700,000 in all), who since 1553, under the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldees (Baghdad), have been in full communion with Rome, and the smaller Assyrian Church of the East (less than 300,000 faithful), once known as “Nestorian”, not in full communion with Rome. Nevertheless on 11 November 1994 they signed a joint declaration with Rome with regard to their common profession of faith in Jesus Christ and more recently (20 July 2001) guidelines for admission to the Eucharist which help to bring about a growing communion between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. The nearly four million Syro-Malabars on the west coast of India can also be considered as belonging to the Syro-Eastern tradition.
Without wanting to be didactic, it may be worth, for once, offering a simple bibliography, because these topics and places lie well beyond our usual horizon and one risks getting lost. First, a quick overview of the situation of the Churches of the East can be found in Ronald Roberson’s The Eastern Christian Churches. A Brief Survey now in its seventh edition (2008), which includes an extensive bibliography. And if you want a historical handbook in Italian on the theme, one can suggest the 3 volumes by Georgio Fedalto Le Chiese d’Oriente [The Eastern Churches] or Le Chiese d’Oriente. Identità, patrimonio e quadro storico generale [The Churches of the East. Identity, heritage and general historical framework] by Filippo Carcione, both published in the mid-’nineties. More specifically concerned with the history linking apostolic Antioch with China, one can look at the book La via radiosa per l’Oriente [The shining path to the East] by Matteo Nicolini-Zani, 2006. “It is not indeed possible to isolate the Christianity that flourished in China in the first millennium from its Middle Eastern origins and its path of expansion through Central Asia” (p. 20). Then recently (2008), the Atti di Mar Mari [Acts of Mar Mari] edited by Ilaria Ramelli, were published (together with extensive bibliography), recounting the history of the first evangelization of Mesopotamia by Mari, a disciple in turn of one of the seventy disciples of the Lord. Finally we can suggest Cardinal Etchegary’s book Vers les chrétiens en Chine, vus par une grenouille au fond d’un puits (2005) [Towards the Christians in China, seen by a frog from the bottom of a well] in which he writes about his four journeys to China.

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