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Catholic Church in Asia

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Christianity spread from Western Asia to China between the 1st to the 14th century CE, and further to Eastern Asia from the 16th century with the European Age of Discovery.

The Catholic Church in Asia has its roots in the very inception of Christianity, which originated in the western part of the Asian continent in the area of the Levant, at the beginning of the 1st millennium CE.

According to tradition, the Christian movement was started by Jesus Christ, and then spread through the missionary work of his Apostles. Christianity first expanded in the Levant, taking roots in the major cities, such as Jerusalem and Antioch.

Early spread in Asia

Western Asia


Christianity spread through the Levant from the 1st century CE. One of the key centers of Christianity became the city of Antioch, previous capital of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. It was evangelized perhaps by Peter the Apostle, according to the tradition upon which the Antiochene patriarchate still rests its claim for primacy (cf. Acts xi.), and certainly by Barnabas and Paul. Its converts were the first to be called Christians (Acts 11:26). They multiplied exceedingly, and by the time of Theodosius were reckoned by Chrysostom at about 100,000 people. Between 252 and 300, ten assemblies of the church were held at Antioch and it became the seat of one of the four original patriarchates, along with Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome (see Pentarchy).

During the 4th century, Antioch was one of the three most important cities in the eastern Roman empire (along with Alexandria and Constantinople), which led to it being recognized as the seat of one of the five early Christian patriarchates (see Pentarchy).


In Armenia, Christianity was preached by two of Jesus' twelve apostles - Thaddaeus and Bartholomew - between 40-60 CE. Because of these two founding apostles, the official name of the Armenian Church is Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in 301. The Church of Caucasian Albania was established in 313, after Caucasian Albania (located in what is now Azerbaijan) became a Christian state. In Georgia, Christianity was first preached by the Apostles Simon and Andrew in the first century, and became the state religion of Kartli (Iberia) in 327, making Georgia the second oldest Christian country after Armenia. The final conversion of Georgia to Christianity in 327 is credited to St. Nino of Cappadocia.[1]

Parthian Empire

Christianity further spread eastward under the Parthian Empire, which displayed a high tolerance of religious matters.[2] According to tradition, Christian prozelitism in Central Asia, starting with Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau, was put under the responsibility of Saint Thomas the Apostle, and started in the first century CE.[3] Saint Thomas is also credited with the estalishment of Christianity in India.

The Christians of Mesopotamia and Iran were organized under several bishops, of whom at least one is known by name, and were present at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.[4]

Expansion to Central Asia

The spread of Christianity in Central Asia seems to have been facilitated by the great diffusion of Greek in the region (Seleucid Empire, Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Indo-Greek Kingdom), as well as Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. The spread of the Jews in Asia since the deportation from Babylone and the capture of Jerusalem by Titus also seems to have been a contributing factor.[4]

The earliest known references to Christian communities in Central Asia is from a writing by Bar Daisan around 196 CE: "Nor do our sisters among the Gilanians and Bactrians have any intercourse with strangers".[2]

The Sasanians also proved rather tolerant of the Christian faith until the persecution by the Zoroastrian priest Kartir under Bahram II (276−93 CE). Further persecutions seems to have taken place under Shapur II (310-379) and Yazdegerd II (438-457), with 338 events having brought significant damage to the faith.[4]

India (1st century CE)


According to tradition, the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares was proselitized by St Thomas, who continued on to southern India.

As soon as the first century CE, the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares, ruling in northwestern India, is connected to St Thomas in early Christian traditions embodied in the Acts of Thomas. In that miracle-filled romance Thomas was sold in Syria to Habban, an envoy of Gondophares, and travelled in slavery by sea to India, was presented to Gondophares to undertake the erection of the building the king required:

According to the lot, therefore, India fell unto Judas Thomas… And while he thus spake and thought, it chanced that there was there a certain merchant come from India whose name was Abbanes, sent from the King Gundaphorus, and having commandment from him to buy a carpenter and bring him unto him." Acts of Thomas, I, 1−2.

Now when the apostle was come into the cities of India with Abbanes the merchant, Abbanes went to salute the king Gundaphorus, and reported to him of the carpenter whom he had brought with him. And the king was glad, and commanded him to come in to him." Acts of Thomas I, 17[5].

Thomas instead spent all the king's money on alms, and as a consequence was imprisoned by him. Allegedly, Gondophares ultimately rehabilitated Thomas and recognized the validity of Christianity.

Passing on to the realm of another king, named in the Syrian versions as "Mazdai" (thought to refer to the Kushan king Vasudeva I), he allegedly suffered martyrdom before being redeemed. St Thomas thereafter went to Kerala and baptized the natives, whose descendants form the Saint Thomas Christians.[6]

Expansion of Nestorianism (431-1360 CE)

The eastern development of Christianity was effectively cut off from the west by the 431 Council of Ephesus, in which the Syrian bishop Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople since 428, was deposed and banished. Eastern Christianity then seceded to form the Church of the East, colloquially known as the Nestorian Church.

East-West rapprochement

Following the 1054 East-West Schism, various efforts, over several centuries, were made at reuniting eastern and western Christianity, with the objective of putting both under the rule of the Pope.

Armenian Church


The Armenian king Hetoum II, as a Franciscan monk.

In 1198, a Union was proclaimed between Rome and the Armenian Church by the Armenian catholicos of Sis Grigor VI Apirat. This was not followed in deads however, as the local clergy and populace was strongly opposed to such a union. Again in 1441, the Armenian Catholicos of Sis Grigor IX Musabekiants proclaimed the union of the Armenian and Latin churches at the Council of Florence, but this was countered by an Armenian schism under Kirakos I Virapetsi, which installed the Catholicos see at Edjmiatzin, and maginalized Sis.[7]

Numerous Roman Catholic missions were also sent to Cilician Armenia to help with rapprochement. The Franciscans were put in charge of this missions. John of Monte Corvino himself arrived in Cilician Armenia in 1288.[8] The Armenian king Hethoum II would himself become a Franciscan monk upon his abdication, as well as the well-known historians Nerses Balients, who was a member of the "Unitarian" mouvement advocating unification with the Latin Church.

Nestorian Church


Debate between Catholics (left) and Oriental Christians (right) in the 13th century. Acre, circa 1290.

During the time of east-west rapprochement between the Christians and the Mongols (Franco-Mongol alliance), the Nestorians under Mongol rule also took numerous steps to unite with the Latin church. The Nestorian monk Rabban bar Sauma was sent to the Pope and to Western courts to explain the situation of the Nestorian faith in the East, and to offer an alliance with the Mongol Ilkhanate.

In 1302, the Nestorian Catholicos Mar Yahballaha III sent a profession of faith to Pope, thereby formilizing his conversion to Roman Catholicism. His move was however strongly opposed by the local Nestorian clergy, as he recognized in a 1304 letter to the Pope.[9] These efforts would end with the waning of Mongol power in Persia, its progressive adoption of Islam, and its disappearance as a political power in the 14th century.

Byzantine church

Various efforts were also made by the Byzantine Church to unite with Rome. In 1272, John of Montecorvino was commissioned in by the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos to Pope Gregory X, to negotiate for the reunion of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The objective was to drive a wedge between the pope and supporters of the Latin Empire, who had views on reconquering Constantinople. A tenuous union between the Greek and Latin churches was signed at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. Michael VIII's concession was met with determined opposition at home, and prisons filled with many opponents to the union. At the same time the unionist controversy helped drive Byzantium's Orthodox neighbors Serbia and Bulgaria into the camp of Michael VIII's opponents. For a while the diplomatic intent of the union worked out in the West, but in the end Pope Martin IV, an ally of Charles of Anjou, excommunicated Michael VIII.

Catholic missions in the Ilkhanate

Dominicans were sent to the Ilkhanid Persian realm in order to further organize contacts and prozelitize Roman Catholicism. Numerous Dominican missionaries to the Ilkhanate are known, such as Jacques d'Arles-sur-Tech, or Ricoldo of Montecroce.

Around the year 1300, there were numerous Dominican and Franciscan convents in the Mongol empire of the Il-Khan in Persia. About ten cities had such institutions: Tabriz, Maragha, Sultaniye, Tifflis, Erzurum and a few others. In order to coordinate their action, the Pope established an archibishop in the new capital of Sultaniye in 1318 in the person of Francon de Pérouse, assisted by six bishops, replaced in 1330 by archibishop Jean de Cor.[10] In his letters to the Mongol ruler in 1321 and 1322, the Pope still expressed his hope that the Mongol ruler would convert to Christianity. Between 500 to 1000 converts in each city were numbered by Jean of Sultaniye.[11]

Medieval Catholic missions to Mongol China


Niccolo and Maffeo Polo remitting a letter from Kubilai to Pope Gregory X in 1271.

In 1271, the Marco Polo brothers brought an invitation from Kublai Khan to the pope imploring him that a hundred teachers of science and religion be sent to reinforce the Nestorian Christianity already present in his vast empire. The great Mongol leader concluded:

So shall I be baptized, and when I am baptized, all my barons and lords will be baptized, and their subjects will receive baptism and so there will be more Christians here than in your own countries”.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

This came to nought due to the hostility of influential Nestorians within the largely Mongol court. When in 1253 the Franciscan William of Rubruck arrived at Karakorum, the western Mongol capital, and sought permission to serve its people in the name of Christ, he was forbidden to engage in missionary work or remain in the country, and he had to return home.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

Fortunately, the Eastern Court under the more immediate rule of Kublai Khan was eager to secure Western assistance in its rule over the Chinese. In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV sent the Franciscan John of Monte Corvino to China by way of India, thus bypassing Karakorum. Although the great khan had already died by the time John arrived (1294), the court at Khanbaliq received him graciously and encouraged him to settle there. John was China’s first Roman Catholic missionary, and he was significantly successful. He laboured largely in the Mongol tongue, translated the New testament and Psalms, built a central church, and within a few years (by 1305) could report six thousand baptized converts. He also established a lay training school of 150students. But the work was not easy. Although often opposed by the Nestorians who had over the years increasingly filtered back into China’s cities, the Franciscan mission continued to grow. Other priests joined him and centers were established in the coastal provinces of Kiangsu (Yangchow), Chekiang (Hangchow) and Fukien (Zaitun).

Odoryk z Pordenone

Odoric of Pordenone.

One of John’s most vigorous younger missionaries was Odorico da Pordenone (1265-1331), who arrived in Khanbaliq by way of India in 1326 and whose subsequent sixteen years of unremitting journeys throughout China, preaching the gospel in the vernacular, resulted in over twenty thousand converts.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] (Some scholars reported that by 1381 the total number of communicants exceeded a hundred thousand[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]).

Following the death of Monte Corvino, an embassy to the French Pope Benedict XII in Avignon was sent by Toghun Temür, the last Mongol emperor in China (Yuan dynasty), in 1336. The embassy was led by a Genoese in the service of the Mongol emperor, Andrea di Nascio, and accompanied by another Genoese, Andalò di Savignone.[12] These letters from the Mongol ruler represented that they had been eight years (since Monte Corvino's death) without a spiritual guide, and earnestly desired one. The pope replied to the letters, and appointed four ecclesiastics as his legates to the khan's court. In 1338, a total of 50 ecclesiastics were sent by the Pope to Peking, among them John of Marignolli. In 1353 John returned to Avignon, and delivered a letter from the great khan to Pope Innocent VI.

In the mid-14th century, the Chinese rose up and drove out the Mongols from China however, thereby launching the Ming Dynasty (1368). By 1369 all Christians, whether Roman Catholic or Syro-Oriental, were expelled by the Ming Dynasty. With the end of Mongol rule in the 14th century, Christianity almost disappeared in mainland Asia.

European voyages of exploration

The European voyages of exploration in the 16th century would create new opportunities for Christian prozelitism.

Catholicism in the Philippines

Hasekura in Rome

At the end of the 16th century, Hasekura Tsunenaga led a mission to the Pope and was baptized a Christian.

Magellan's arrival in Cebu represents the first attempt by Spain to convert Filipinos to Roman Catholicism. The story goes that Magellan met with Chief Humabon of the island of Cebu, who had an ill grandson. Magellan (or one of his men) was able to cure or help this young boy, and in gratitude Chief Humabon allowed 800 of his followers to be 'baptized' Christian in a mass baptism. Later, Chief Lapu Lapu of Mactan Island killed Magellan and routed the ill-fated Spanish expedition. This resistance to Western intrusion makes this story an important part of the nationalist history of the Philippines. Many historians have claimed that the Philippines peacefully 'accepted' Spanish rule; the reality is that many insurgencies and rebellions continued on small scales in different places through the Hispanic colonial period.

After Magellan, the Spanish later sent the explorer Legaspi to the Philippines, and he conquered a Muslim Filipino settlement in Manila in 1570. Islam had been present in the southern Philippines since some time between the 10th and 12th century. It slowly spread north throughout the archipelago, particularly in coastal areas.

Catholicism in Japan

Starting from around 1545, Japan welcome Western influence and Catholic priests, led by Saint Francis Xavier, to the point where Christianity became widely influential in Japan. When Japanese rulers realized that the new religion was challenging their established order, the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi almost extirpated Christianity from the Archipelago.

Jesuits in China

Jesuites en chine

Jesuits in China

The history of the missions of the Jesuits in China in the early modern era stands as one of the notable events in the early history of relations between China and the Western world, as well as a prominent example of relations between two cultures and belief systems in the pre-modern age. The missionary efforts and other work of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits between the 16th and 17th century played a significant role in introducing Western knowledge, science, and culture to China. Their work laid much of the foundation for much of Christian culture in Chinese society today. Members of the Jesuit delegation to China were perhaps the most influential Christian missionaries in that country between the earliest period of the religion up until the 19th century, when significant numbers of Catholic and Protestant missions developed.

The first attempt by Jesuits to reach China was made in 1552 by St. Francis Xavier, Spanish priest and missionary and founding member of the Society. Xavier, however, died the same year on the Chinese island of Shangchuan, without having reached the mainland. Three decades later, in 1582, led by several figures including the prominent Italian Matteo Ricci, Jesuits once again initiated mission work in China, ultimately introducing Western science, mathematics, astronomy, and visual arts to the imperial court, and carrying on significant inter-cultural and philosophical dialogue with Chinese scholars, particularly representatives of Confucianism. At the time of their peak influence, members of the Jesuit delegation were considered some of the emperor's most valued and trusted advisors, holding numerous prestigious posts in the imperial government. Many Chinese, including notable former Confucian scholars, adopted Christianity and became priests and members of the Society of Jesus.

Between the 18th and mid-19th century, nearly all Western missionaries in China were forced to conduct their teaching and other activities covertly.

Independently-formed Catholic movements (Korea)


The history of Catholicism in Korea began in 1784 when Lee Seung-hoon was baptized while in China under Christian name of Peter. He later returned home with various religious texts and baptized many of his fellow countrymen. The Church in Korea survived without any formal missionary priests until clergy from France (the Paris Foreign Missions Society) arrived in 1836 for the ministry.[13]

During the 19th century, Catholic Church suffered persecution by the government of Joseon Dynasty, chiefly for the religion's refusal to carry out ancestral worship, which it perceived to be a form of idolatry, but which the State prescribed as a cornerstone of culture. Despite the century-long persecution that produced thousands of martyrs - 103 of whom were canonized by Pope John Paul II in May 1984, including the first Korean priest, St. Andrew Dae-gun Kim, who was ordained in 1845 and martyred in 1846 - the Church in Korea expanded. The Apostolic Vicariate of Korea was formed in 1831, and after the expansion of Church structure for next century, the current structure of three Metropolitan Provinces each with an Archdiocese and several suffragen Dioceses was established in 1962.

Currently Deokwon (덕원) in North Korea is the See of the only territorial abbey outside Europe. The abbey has been vacant for more than 50 years until Fr. Francis Ri was appointed the abbot in 2005. The abbey was never united with or changed into a diocese presumably due to the lack of effective church activity in the area since the division of Korea at the end of World War II.

Catholic Church in Asia today

Catholicism is to this day is the majority faith in the Philippines and East Timor, and exists as a minority faith in most other Asian countries. There is also a significantly large Roman Catholic community in South Korea.


  2. 2.0 2.1 Foltz, p. 65.
  3. Roux, L'Asie Centrale, p.216
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Roux, p.216
  5. Acts of Thomas.
  6. James, M. R. (1966) "The Acts of Thomas" in The Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 365−77; 434−8. Oxford.
  7. Mahé, p.71-72
  8. Luisetto, p.98
  9. Luisetto, p.99-100
  10. Roux, ‘’Histoire de l’Empire Mongol’’, p.439
  11. Roux, p.440
  12. Jackson, p.314
  13. The Liturgy of the Hours Supplement (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1992), pp. 17-18.


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