According to a stele found in the former imperial Chinese capital of Chang’an, the Emperor Taizong formally recognized monks of the Church of the East in 635. Constructed in January 781 during the reign of the Tang Dynasty, considered the zenith of Chinese culture and power, the Chinese and Syriac text etched on the stele also celebrates the accomplishments of the “luminous doctrine” (as Christianity was known) and refers to the numerous communities established throughout China.
In the middle of the 13th century, two monks of the Church of the East left their native Beijing for Jerusalem. But on account of war, Rabban Marcos and his mentor, Rabban Bar Sauma, never reached their destination. Perhaps of mixed Turkic and Mongolian ethnicity, the two were detoured to Baghdad where, in 1281, Rabban Marcos was elected catholicos-patriarch. He then named his travel companion and mentor to be his ambassador to Europe. Bar Sauma, who visited a number of royal courts and was received by Pope Nicholas IV, recorded his European travels in a book that observes the continent at a pivotal time.
Dynastic troubles and war would ultimately destroy the Church of the East in China. But in the 17th century, the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, reportedly encountered a faithful remnant of this once mighty community as he traveled through the Far East.
Monks of the Church of the East bolstered the Christian community founded by the Apostle Thomas along India’s southwest coast (now the state of Kerala), sending bishops to ordain priests and deacons and organize parishes as early as the fourth century. The head of the Church of the East in India, which had considerable autonomy, occupied a senior place in the church’s hierarchy and held the title of metropolitan and gate of all India. Real jurisdiction, however, was exercised by an Indian priest who was titled archdeacon of all India.
India’s Thomas Christians did not interpret their communion with the Church of the East as separate from communion with the universal church. The arrival of the Portuguese in 1498, however, challenged this point of view. Today, India’s Thomas Christians number almost nine million souls. But they are divided into six jurisdictions, including a tiny group that remains in full communion with the Church of the East.
At its height in the 14th century, the Church of the East spanned most of Asia and included some 30 metropolitan sees and more than 200 eparchies. But the church’s successes were short-lived.
Decline. The Church of the East’s long isolation from the rest of the Christian world quickly ended with the Crusades, which began in the late 11th century. The rise of Crusader states, the Latin Catholic capture of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1204 and increased trade between Asians and Europeans disrupted the well-defined and stratified roles of the region’s Muslim majority and its Christian and Jewish minorities.
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