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Christianity in Asia

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

Christianity 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 AD.

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

Christianity by Country

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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, the Armenian Church was founded by two of Jesus' twelve apostles -Thaddaeus and Bartholomew- who preached Christianity in Armenia 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. 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 proselytism 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 establishment 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.[3]

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 AD: "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 AD). 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)

File:Nasrani Evolution.jpg


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

According to Eusebius' record, Thomas and Bartholomew were assigned to Parthia (modern Iran) and India. The Didache (dating from the end of the first century) states, “India and all countries condering it, even to the farthest seas...received the apostolic ordinances from Judas Thomas (same as the Apostle Thomas), who was a guide and ruler in the church which he built.” Moreover, there is a wealth of confirmatory information in the Syriac writings, liturgical books, and calendars of the Church of the East, not to mention the writings of the Fathers, the calendars, the sacramentaries, and the martyrologies of the Roman, Greek and Ethiopian churches.[5][6] Since trade routes from the East were wide open at the time and were used by early missionaries, there are no circumstantial reasons why Thomas could not have visited India in the first century. And his visit is the most plausible explanation for the early appearance of the church there.

An early third-century Syriac work known as the Acts of Thomas[5] connects the apostle's Indian ministry with two kings, one in the north and the other in the south. According to one of the legends in the Acts, Thomas was at first reluctant to accept this mission, but the Lord appeared to him in a night vision and said, “Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.”But the Apostle still demurred, do the Lord overruled the stubborn disciple by ordering circumstances so compelling that he was forced to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes, to his native place in northwest India, where he found himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares. The apostle's ministry resulted in many conversions throughout the kingdom, including the king and his brother.[5]

Critical historians treated this legend as an idle tale and denied the historicity of King Gundaphorus until modern archeology established him as an important figure in North India in the latter half of the first century. Many coins of his reign have turned up in Afghanistan, the Punjab, and the Indus Valley. Remains of some of his buildings , influenced by Greek architecture, indicate that he was a great builder. Interestingly enough, according to the legend, Thomas was a skilled carpenter and was bidden to build a palace for the king. However, the Apostle decided to teach the king a lesson by devoting the royal grant to acts of charity and thereby laying up treasure for the heavenly abode. Although little is known of the immediate growth of the church, Bar-Daisan (AD 154-223) reports that in his time there were Christian tribes in North India which claimed to have been converted by Thomas and to have books and relics to prove it.[5] But at least by the time of the establishment of the Second Persian Empire (AD 226), there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India, Afghanistan and Baluchistan, with laymen and clergy alike engaging in missionary activity.[5]

The apocryphal Acts of Thomas (3rd century) identifies his second mission in India with a kingdom ruled by King Mahadwa, one of the rulers of a first-century dynasty in southern India. It is most significant that, aside from a small remnant of the Church of the East in Kurdistan, the only other church to maintain a distinctive identity is the Mar Thoma or “Church of Thomas” congregations along the Malabar Coast of Kerala State in southwest India. According to the most ancient tradition of this church, Thomas evangelized this area and then crossed to the Coromandel Coast of southeast India, where, after carrying out a second mission, he suffered martyrdom near Madras. Throughout the period under review, the church in India was under the jurisdiction of Edessa, which was then under the Mesopotamian patriarchate at Seleucia-Ctesiphon and later at Baghdad and Mosul. Historian Vincent A. Smith says, "It must be admitted that a personal visit of the Apostle Thomas to South India was easily feasible in the traditional belief that he came by way of Socotra, where an ancient Christian settlement undoubtedly existed. I am now satisfied that the Christian church of South India is extremely ancient...''[5]

Although there was a lively trade between the Near East and India via Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, the most direct route to India in the first century was via Alexandria and the Red Sea, taking advantage of the Monsoon winds, which could carry ships directly to and from the Malabar coast. The discovery of large hoards of Roman coins of first-century Caesars and the remains of Roman trading posts testify to the frequency of that trade. in addition, thriving Jewish colonies were to be found at the various trading centers, thereby furnishing obvious bases for the apostolic witness.

Piecing together the various traditions, one may conclude that Thomas left northwest India when invasion threatened and traveled by vessel to the Malabar coast, possibly visiting southeast Arabia and Socotra enroute and landing at the former flourishing port of Muziris on an island near Cochin (c. AD 51-52). From there he is said to have preached the gospel throughout the Malabar coast, though the various churches he founded were located mainly on the Periyar River and its tributaries and along the coast, where there were Jewish colonies. he reputedly preached to all classes of people and had about seventeen thousand converts, including members of the four principal castes. Later, stone crosses were erected at the places where churches were founded, and they became pilgrimage centres. In accordance with apostolic custom thomas ordained teachers and leaders or elders, who were reported to be the earliest ministry of the Malabar church.

Thomas next proceeded overland to the Coromandel coast and ministered in what is now the Madras area, where a local king and many people were converted. One tradition related that he went from there to China via Malacca and, after spending some time there, returned to the Madras area (Breviary of the Mar Thoma Church in Malabar). Apparently his renewed ministry outraged the Brahmins, who were fearful lest Christianity undermined their social structure, based on the caste system. So according to the Syriac version of the Acts of Thomas, Masdai, the local king at Mylapore, after questioning the apostle condemned him to death about the year AD 72. Anxious to avoid popular excitement, “for many had believed in our Lord, including some of the nobles,”the king ordered Thomas conducted to a nearby mountain, where, after being allowed to pray, he was then stoned and stabbed to death with a lance wielded by an angry Brahmin. A number of Christians were also persecuted at the same time; when they refused to apostatize, their property was confiscated, so some sixty-four families eventually fled to malabar and joined that Christian community.[5][7]

Expansion of Assyrian Christianity (431-1360 AD)

In 410 the Sassanid emperor summoned the Persian church leaders to the Synod of Seleucia. His purpose was to make the Catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon minority leader of his people and personally responsible for their good conduct throughout the Persian empire. The synod accepted the emperor's wish.

In 424 the bishops of Persia met in council under the leadership of Catholicos Dadiso and determined that there would be no reference of their disciplinary or theological problems to any other power, especially not to any church council in the Roman Empire. The formal separation from the See of Antioch and the western Syrian Church under the Roman (Byzantine) Emperors, occurred at this synod in 424.

Nestorian misnomer

Because of its independence, there were no representatives of the Persian Church at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, and of course they did not feel bound in any way whatsoever by any decisions of that or any subsequent church councils in the Roman Empire.

It was the Council of Ephesus which decided the question of the title of the mother of Jesus and lead to the condemnation of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. The theological nicety of ‘Theotokos’ as her title rather than ‘Christotokos’, was irrelevant to the Persian Christians and those further east. They were Greek terms, and the Persian Church used Syriac, not Greek.

Later European church historians decided to categorize the Persian Church as the "Nestorian Church", an historically inaccurate, theologically incorrect, and heresiologically motivated insult. The present head of the Assyrian Church of the East, Catholicos Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, explicitly rejected the term Nestorian, on the occasion of his consecration in 1976. In 1988, Anglican Church leaders publicly repudiated the use of this label for the Assyrian Church of the East.

Expansion to Sogdiana and eastern Central Asia

Proselytism combined with sporadic Sassanian persecutions to encourage the spread of Christinity to the east. Since the Edict of Milan (313) Christianity was considered as state religion of the Roman Empire, and therefore considered as a political threat by the Sassanians. They are known to have exiled Christian communities to the east, such as a community of Orthodox Melchites who were installed in Romagyri near Tashkent, or a community of Jacobites, who were sent to Yarkand in the Xinjiang at the doorstep of China.[8] The Hephthalites are known to have been open somewhat to Christianity since 498, and they requested the Assyrian Catholicos to establis a diocesan bishop in their lands in 549.[9]

Christianity continued its eastward development. By 650, there were 20 Assyrian dioceses east of the Oxus river.[10] The development of Islam started to cut off Asian Christianity from the western Christians, but eastern expansion of the faith continued nonetheless. Relations with Islam were good enough for the Catholicos to leave Seleucia-Ctesiphon to set up his seat in Baghdad upon the establishment of the Abbassids in 750.

From the 7th century onward, the nomadic Turks of Central Asia started to convert to Assyrian Christianity. Mass conversions are recorded in 781−2 and later in 1007, when 200,000 Turks and Mongols reportedly became Christians. [11] The Turkish Kipchaks are also known to have converted to Christianity at the suggestion of the Georgians as they allied in their conflicts against the Muslims. A great number were baptized at the request of the Georgian king David II. From 1120, there was a Kipchak national Christian church and an important clergy.[12]

Assyrian Christianity in China

File:Stone 1-1-.jpg

Christianity is thought to have been introduced into China during the Tang Dynasty, but it has also been suggested that the Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon created a metropolitan see in China in 411. It came through representatives of the Assyrian Church of the East. Christians Bactrians under Alopen are known to have arrived in 635, were they received an Imperial Edict allowing for the establishment of a church.[13]

In China, the religion was known as Dàqín Jǐngjiào (大秦景教), or the Luminous Religion of the Romans (大秦 Dàqín designates Rome and the Near East). They initially entered China more as traders than as professional missionaries. The Christians were largely of Hebrew extraction, tracing their lineage to those who did not return to Palestine following the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. During the early centuries of Christian expansion, they considered the message of Jesus a fulfillment of their Jewish faith. Eventually, the Assyrian Christian intermarried with other Syriac-speaking peoples east of the Euphrates and spread their faith throughout Turkestan, Mongolia, China and Japan. Some records indicate that Jacobite Christians also visited China during this period, but their impact was minimal. A stone stele (the Nestorian Stele) erected at the Tang capital of Chang-an in 781 and rediscovered in the 17th century describes flourishing communities of Christians throughout China, but beyond this and few other fragmentary records relatively little is known of their history.

Christianity died off in China following the interdiction of foreign cults promulgated in 845.[13]

Christianity among the Mongols

Assyrian Christianity among the Mongols


Assyrian Christian tombstone with inscriptions in Uyghur, found in Issyk Kul, dated 1312.

Overall, Mongols were highly tolerant of most religions, and typically sponsored several at the same time. They had been proselytized by Assyrian Christian since about the 7th century.[14] William of Rubruck was shocked to discover that there were, indeed, Christians at the Mongol court. He categorised them as schismatic Nestorians. Assyrian Christians had long been active along the Silk Road. Their existence in Tang China is testified by the "Nestorian monument", a stele still to be seen in the forest of Stelae in Xi'an. [15] Many Mongol tribes, such as the Kerait, who were a semi-nomadic people of Turkish origin, and inhabited the country round the Orkhon river in modern Outer Mongolia also became Christian. Early in the eleventh century their ruler converted to Assyrian Christianity, together with most of his subjects; and the conversion brought the Keraits into touch with the Uighur Turks, amongst whom were many Assyrian Christians. [16]. The Naiman, the Merkit, and to a large extent the Kara Khitan, were also Assyrian Christian. In 1196, Genghis Khan succeeded in the unification under his authority of all the Mongol tribes, some of which had been converted to Assyrian Christianity. [17]

The founder of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan (1162-1227) was a shamanist, but was tolerant of other religions. The Assyrian Christians of Central Asia were generally highly favorable towards him.[18] His sons were married to Christian princesses of the Kerait clan,[18] such as Sorghaghtani Beki[19] and Doquz Khatan. This remarkable lady was a Kerait princess, the granddaughter of Toghrul Khan and cousin, therefore of Hulagu's mother. She was a passionate Assyrian Christian, who made no secret of her dislike of Islam and her eagerness to help Christians of every sect. [20] She held considerable influence at the court of the Khan.

Under the rule of Genghis's grandson Möngke Khan (1205-1259), son of Sorghaghtani, the main religious influence was that of the Assyrian Christians, to whom Mongka showed especial favour in memory of his mother Sorghaqtani, who had always remained loyal to her faith.[21]

Roman Catholic missions to the Mongols

The 13th century saw attempts at forming a Franco-Mongol alliance, as envoys were sent back and forth between Western Europe and the Mongols. Initially, the Mongols had the impression that the Pope was the leader of the Europeans, and sent him messages insisting that he submit Europe to Mongol authority, in return for which the Mongols would assist in returning Jerusalem to the Crusaders. The various Popes tended to respond with messages insisting that the Mongols convert to Christianity, and accept baptism.


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

In 1268, Marco Polo's father and uncle returned from China with an invitation from Kublai Khan to the pope imploring him that a hundred teachers of science and religion be sent to reinforce the Christianity already present in his vast empire. However, this came to naught due to the hostility of influential Assyrian Christians 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]

The Eastern Court under the rule of Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China, was eager to secure Western assistance in its own rule over the Chinese. In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV sent the Franciscan John of Monte Corvino to China by way of India, thereby passing 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 150 students. Other priests joined him and centers were established in the coastal provinces of Kiangsu (Yangchow), Chekiang (Hangchow) and Fukien (Zaitun).

Following the death of Monte Corvino, an embassy to the French Pope Benedict XII in Avignon was sent by Toghun Temür in 1336, requesting a new spiritual guide. The pope replied by appointing four ecclesiastics as his legates to the khan's court. In 1338, a total of 50 ecclesiastics were sent by the Pope to Peking, such as John of Marignolli.

However, the Yuan Dynasty in China was in decline, and in the mid-14th century, the Yuan Dynasty was overthrown by the Ming Dynasty founded by the native Chinese in 1368. By 1369 all Christians, whether Roman Catholic or Assyrian or Syriac Orthodox, were expelled.

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 proselytism.

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 welcomed 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 revival of the Christianity in the 16th century 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 advisers, 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.

Christianity in Asia today

Today, Christianity is the predominant faith in two Asian countries, the Philippines and East Timor, and also in four others that are partially in Asia: Armenia, Cyprus, Georgia and Russia. In South Korea, while the largest proportion of the population is irreligious, Christianity represents the most widespread religion, closely followed by Buddhism.

Christianity exists as a minority faith in most other Asian countries, the most significant minorities being found in Lebanon, Syria, and Kazakhstan. Small Christian communities are present in the Sinosphere (which encompasses both Mainland China and Taiwan), Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Uzbekistan.


  2. 2.0 2.1 Foltz, p. 65.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Roux, L'Asie Centrale, p.216
  4. 4.0 4.1 Roux, p.216
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 A.E. Medlycott, India and The Apostle Thomas, pp.18-71 M.R. James, Apocryphal New Testament, pp.364-436 A.E. Medlycott, India and The Apostle Thomas, pp.1-17, 213-97 Eusebius, History, chapter 4:30 J.N. Farquhar, The Apostle Thomas in North India, chapter 4:30 V.A. Smith, Early History of India, p.235 L.W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas, p.49-59
  7. James, M. R. (1966) "The Acts of Thomas" in The Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 365−77; 434−8. Oxford.
  8. Roux, L'Asie Centrale, p.217
  9. Roux, L'Asie Centrale, p.218
  10. Foltz, p. 68
  11. Foltz, p. 70
  12. Roux, L'Asie Centrale, p.242
  13. 13.0 13.1 Roux, p.220
  14. "The Silk Road", Francis Wood, p. 118
  15. Foltz "Religions of the Silk Road", pp. 90−150.
  16. Runciman, p. 238
  17. "Les Croisades, origines et conséquences", p. 74
  18. 18.0 18.1 Runciman, p.246
  19. "Sorghaqtani, a Kerait by birth and, like all her race, a devout [Assyrian] Christian", Runciman, p. 293
  20. Runciman, p. 299
  21. Runciman, p. 296


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