Monday, June 19, 2023

Heading Toward the Grave

When Christian communities are destroyed, they rarely vanish entirely or immediately, and survivors often maintain a clandestine existence for many years afterward.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

The last Christian priests were expelled from Japan in 1650.  Tens of thousands of lay Christians perished; Christian loyalty could lead to death (as a personal note, if you haven’t done so, watch the movie “Silence”).  Japan remained a closed society for the next 200 years.  When Christian missionaries arrived, they were met with a surprise:

…in 1865, a Catholic priest received some surprising visitors.  Nervously, in constant fear of detection, fifteen elderly Japanese peasants wanted to ask him what he knew about the faith they had maintained secretly for so long.

They asked about God, Jesus, and the Blessed Virgin; upon seeing the Madonna and Child, they thought of Christmas.  This story is not unique, as such communities have been found – at times even centuries after the passing of Christian dominance – in China, Turkey, the Balkans, and elsewhere.  Further, remnants from these communities established churches in diaspora lands – this as early as the Syrians in the eighth century and the Greeks in the twelfth. 

Further, in a beloved center of the Shinto religion – the Suwa shrine in Nagasaki – one will find three sacred images, one of which was almost certainly inherited from a destroyed Catholic church that once stood nearby.  The figure is almost certainly a Spanish or Portuguese statue of the Madonna and Child.

Of course, the far more common story is that of takeover – mosques built over churches; churches built over pagan temples.  Back and forth, depending on which side won the last war.  You get the idea. 

Hagia Sophia is the most well-known example, but it is not alone.  The cathedral in Ani was converted to a mosque before it was retaken in 1214; the church of St. Athanasius in Alexandria became a mosque after the Arab conquest.  Cordoba offers many such stories and examples.  Budapest, Cyprus, the Balkans.  The Armenian Cathedral in Edessa remained a fire station until the 1990s, when it was then converted to a mosque.

Jenkins proceeds with an extensive examination of the relationship of Christianity – especially Eastern Christianity – and Islam.  The details of this are outside of the scope of my interest, but fit within his view that despite the overtaking of much of the Christian East by Muslims, the Christian faith influenced Muslim practices and perhaps even the Quran itself – more than commonly understood.

Yet, the momentum and pressure was the other way, of course.  Under Muslim rule, the Christians remained at best, second class citizens; at worst, persecuted until conversion or death.  In the eighteenth century, one Egyptian sheikh would write of the burdens that should be enforced on non-Muslims:

·       they should not be allowed to clothe themselves in costly fabric;

·       they should not be permitted to employ mounts like the Muslims, nor use saddles or stirrups;

·       while in public, they should not be allowed to portray themselves as if they are Muslim;

·       their dwellings should be less than ours, and their building lower;

·       they should walk single file, and step aside in narrow lanes…

Non-Muslims could not testify against Muslims; they could not retaliate or respond against insult.  In nineteenth-century Persia, the Nestorian was not allowed a place at the bazaar; he could not aspire to a trade higher than mason or carpenter.

“The absence of every mark of consideration toward them is obligatory for us…”

The enforcement of such edicts was not uniform, but the culture created was one of superiority of the Muslim over the non-Muslim.  The presence of a wealthy Christian always opened the possibility of reaction, with the Christian on the short end.

Language played a key role, with Arabic replacing all other vernaculars – Syriac, Coptic, Greek and Berber – in the world of politics and administration.  Christians would publish in Arabic, take Arab names, dress in a common manner.  On the one hand, an attempt to not stand out; on the other, raising the ire of the Muslims.

The long-term religious consequences for Christianity were grim.  The texts and liturgy of the faith were all available in languages that, though venerable, were clearly associated with fading cultures – literally the words of the very old.


In a Muslim-dominated world, it was difficult to avoid the sense that Islam had triumphed, and that victory was irreversible.

When the Muslims recall the Christian Crusades, they recall victories; as late as the eighteenth century, it was reasonable for a Muslim to consider that his world was the heart of civilization.  Christianity would be mocked for that which Jesus said would be, in the Beatitudes and elsewhere: a religion for losers.

Yet, I cannot conclude this post without the following, from Chesterton:

“Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

A wise word for our time as well.

1 comment:

  1. God the Father of Jesus the Christ, uncreated, self sustaining, indestructible, ever lasting, no beginning or end. He does not fight like most Kings. He has conquered sin and death.
    Calling things that are not as though they are.