In 635, an East Syrian missionary team, under Alouben, reached Chang’an (now Xian), the T’ang capital of China. The emperor financed the construction of the first Christian church in China. Other churches and monasteries came up in due course. Several Christian works were published, among them “Jesus-Messiah Sutra.” A certain Bishop Adam was known for his proficiency in the Chinese language, and even Buddhist missionaries came to consult him. It is said that he helped a group of Indian and Japanese Buddhist monks to translate seven volumes of Buddhist Sutras into Chinese.
This offers us a very early example of interfaith cooperation. Undoubtedly, Christian monks had to interact with Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Manicheans, Taoists, Confucians, Hindus, Muslims, and leaders of tribal religions among the Turks, Huns, Mongols, during their peregrinations. There was much mutual borrowing. We find certain Buddhist and Taoist expressions being used to articulate Christian teachings. And the Christian community continued to grow.
Within a century of the death of Muhammad (632), half of the world’s Christians were under Muslim political rule. Christian leaders had little choice but develop the skill for dialogue. Caliph Mahdi of the Abbasid Dynasty, invited the Persian Patriarch Timothy I for a debate on Christology and the Christian understanding of Muhammad. Both approached the question with absolute seriousness and mutual respect. Indian Emperor Akbar was to attempt similar interreligious dialogue in later times. Living and working with people of many religious persuasions is nothing new for Asian Christians. But they never failed to witness to the Gospel.
By 1000, Christianity had reached the Kerait Turks in Mongolia and probably Korea and Japan. However, with the fall of the tolerant T’ang Dynasty, Christian fortunes waned. Yet, the East Syrian monks continued to serve as a mighty force for evangelization. They did what the Irish monks did in the West, whose “Peregrinatio pro Christo” took the faith to new areas and new ethnic groups. The Syrian monks also offered medical, pastoral and educational assistance to Christian communities and to the neighborhood, much like what the religious do today in different parts of Asia.
John of Monte Corvino, a papal delegate, claims to have baptized 6,000 persons by 1305 among the Turks. Then there were the tolerant Mongols who had established a short-lived empire stretching from the Pacific to the Polish borders, a veritable Eurasian empire. During their rule in China, the Franciscans led several missionary expeditions to that country: in 1313, 1322 and 1342. But this venture came to an end in 1369 with the overthrow of the Mongols. Scholars have speculated how different Asia’s history would have been if the Mongols had accepted Christianity instead of Islam during those crucial years.
It must be admitted that, in the last few centuries, during the colonial period, the national rivalries among imperial powers played an undue role in determining the fortunes of the infant Christian communities. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the Church in Asia today (except for the oriental Churches) is the fruit of the apostolic labors of the very many generous missionaries of this period. Unfortunately, there is a school of thought that is far too critical of this most dynamic era of Mission history, alleging that the evangelization efforts in those days were too closely associated with imperialism. This is an unfair way of looking at things.
Despite insurmountable difficulties, those heroic souls penetrated the most inaccessible places, confronted the most unwelcoming rulers, transcended immense cultural barriers, announced the Gospel, built up communities, put languages into writing, provided literature to linguistic groups, pursued ethnological studies, presented unknown communities to the wider world, created interest in anthropological reflections, intervened in behalf of oppressed communities, offered services in the field of health and education setting up impressive institutions, pressed for social reforms, introduced entire societies to modernity, and planted ideas into the hearts of people to guide their society to freedom and offer leadership in the Church and in the wider society. They initiated theological reflection in different cultural contexts, with an edifying measure of self-criticism that laid the foundation of today’s missiological thinking. We ought to be proud of these and other accomplishments. If the Church in Asia has emerged today as a force to reckon with, the credit is greatly due to these valiant men and women.
The history of the expansion of Christianity in Asia shows us the need to enter into the world of other communities with respect; to communicate with people in a way intelligible within a local culture; and recognize the Gospel values already present in that culture, and thus continue the tradition of Origen, Justin, Cyril and Methodius. At the bottom line, this means listening attentively to cultures in order to notice the presence of God and activity of the Spirit, to discover the hidden treasure of Christ in cultural patterns and values, and to call cultures to their deepest identity through the message of the Gospel.
Archdiocese of Guwahat, India