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Eastern Christianity

Eastern Christianity

During the early history of Christianity five cities became particularly important for the church: Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. Antioch was one of the first cities to be evangelised by Christian missionaries and it was there that the followers of Christ acquired the name Christian (Acts 11:26). The church in Alexandria was, according to tradition, founded by Mark the Evangelist. Constantinople, founded on the ancient city of Byzantium, became the capital of the new pro-Christian empire under Constantine. Jerusalem was at the heart of Christ's ministry and the place of his crucifixion, burial, resurrection and ascension. And it was in Rome that St Paul was martyred under Nero and where, tradition claims, the apostle Peter was martyred.

The stature of these cities, combined with their cultural and political importance for the empire, made them obvious candidates as administrative centres for the church following the edict of toleration of 313. In 325 the Christian emperor, Constantine, called the Council of Nicaea with the purpose of resolving the dispute between the Arian and Orthodox Christians on the divine status of the Son. It was at Nicaea that Antioch, Alexandria and Rome were singled out as the three great centres of the Christian world. The second ecumenical council, held in Constantinople in 381, made Constantinople a patriarchate and assigned to it second place in importance after Rome. The third ecumenical council, held at Ephesus, made the island of Cyprus autocephalous (that is, self-governing). The fourth ecumenical council, held at Chalcedon, made Jerusalem a patriarchate. The order of the patriarchates in terms of importance were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, each of which had jurisdiction over large parts of the empire.

With the exception of Rome, which became separated from the eastern church in 1054, all of these areas fell under the dominion of Islam as it spread rapidly westwards. Within fifteen years after the death of Muhammad (632) Muslim armies had taken Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, thus placing the patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem under Muslim control.

In all these regions the strength of the church declined under the impact of the presence of Islam. The patriarchate of Antioch - which had already been considerably weakened as a result of the separation of the monophysite Syrian Orthodox Church and the Nestorian Church from the Catholic Church in the 5th century - was further weakened when the Arab Islamic rulers moved the capital of Syria from Antioch to Damascus, a decision which forced the patriarch to transfer his residence to Damascus, where he continues to reside today.

In 637 Jerusalem fell to the invading Arab armies. Relations between Muslims and Christians were relatively good until the crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries. In 1099 the crusaders from western Europe captured Jerusalem and massacred the Muslim and Jewish population of the city. A Latin kingdom was established in Palestine and the Greek patriarch was expelled from Jerusalem and forced to reside in Cyprus. In 1187 the crusaders were expelled from Palestine, and Jerusalem came once again under Muslim control. The renewed Muslim presence enabled the return of the Greek patriarch to Jerusalem. Since then the city has been overseen by rival Latin and Greek patriarchs.

The patriarchate of Alexandria, like that of Antioch, had been considerably weakened by the separation of the Egyptian copts from the mainstream church in the 4th century. When the Arab armies arrived at the gates of Alexandria the city surrendered to them without a fight. The patriarchate went into severe decline from the 16th century when the Ottoman Turks invaded Egypt and placed the Alexandrian patriarchate under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Between the 16th and 19th centuries Alexandria and, with it, the Christian church in Egypt was allowed to decline. Evangelism in Africa has strengthened the position of the Alexandrian patriarch in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The history of the patriarchate of Constantinople has been one of great spiritual prestige as well oppression at the hands of its political rivals. Between the 8th and 11th centuries the patriarchate saw its jurisdiction spread westwards into southern Italy and northwards into Russia. The patriarchate was, however, greatly weakened by the events of the fourth crusade when, in 1204, Constantinople was conquered, sacked and a Latin patriarch was temporarily placed over the city. The sacking of Constantinople made the city more vulnerable to the advancing Muslim Ottoman empire. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman armies. With the fall of Constantinople came the end of the imperial lineage as the last Byzantine emperor died in battle defending the city walls.

The fall of the city signalled the end of the independence of the patriarchate of Constantinople. Henceforth Islam was to be the protector of Christian Orthodoxy rather than the Byzantine emperor. The power of the Constantinopolitan patriarch was enhanced as he was made both the political and spiritual ruler of the Christian peoples within the Ottoman empire. Such rule, however, was effected over a people that, while offered official protection, were also regarded and treated as second class citizens. Christians were required to pay heavier taxes than the Muslims, to wear a distinctive dress, were disallowed from undertaking missionary work, from establishing new churches, from marrying Muslim women or serving in the army.

This situation prevailed four hundred and fifty years until the Ottoman empire was pushed out of south-eastern Europe in the 19th century and defeated at the end of the first world war. As regions such as Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania were liberated so they were able to establish their own churches which were independent of Constantinople. To these was added the Orthodox Church of Albania, which became autocephalous in 1937.

An important consequence of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was that centre of Eastern Orthodoxy shifted from Constantinople to Russia. A mission had been sent to Russia as early as the 860s, but it was not until the baptism of Vladimir, the ruler of Kieve, in 988 that that Christianity became firmly established in the region. In 1448 the Russian church became independent of Constantinople, and became a patriarchate in 1589.

The Russian church was weakened by a schismatic dispute in the 17th century. Patriarch Nikon of Moscow wanted to reform the Russian service books, which contained a number of errors, so that the errors were corrected and the service books conformed more closely to those of the Greek church. A large number of Russians rejected these reforms. They came to be known as the Old Believers on account of their commitment to the former ritauls of the church. Although brutally persecuted by both church and state, the Old Believers have survived and remain active to the present day.

A number of other churches have emerged from within Russian orthodoxy, usually due to missionary activities or to the establishment of new states in areas formally under the control of Russia. Following the Russian revolution in 1917, the Orthodox church in Finland placed itself within the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Orthodox church in Georgia, which had been annexed by Russia in 1811, regained its independence after the revolution of 1917. The Orthodox Chuch of Poland came into existence in 1924 when the state of Poland was established following the end of the first world war. Missionary activities at the beginning of the 18th century brought Eastern Orthodoxy to China. The small numbers of believers in China were greatly enlarged following the Russian revolution which caused hundreds of thousands of Russians to flee to China. The church in China became independent of its Russian mother church in 1957. Eastern Orthodoxy was brought to North America in the 18th century when Alaska was owned by Russia. Ties between the Orthodox community in America and Russia were broken after the 1917 revolution; in 1970 the Orthodox Church in America was granted autocephalous status. Eastern Orthodoxy was transplanted onto Japanese soil when the first Russian diplomatic mission was established there in 1853. In 1970 the church became independent of the church in Moscow.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its influence over Eastern Europe, new autonomous churches came into existence. Ukraine's declaration of independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union enabled the Orthodox church there to become independent of Moscow. Similarly, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern Europe the church in Czecholsovakia, which had officially been autocephalous since 1951, was able to establish itself as fully independent. The separation of Czechoslovakia into two distinct states in 1993 meant that the church had to rename itself the Orthodox Church of Czech and Slovak Lands.

Finally, something should be said about the Uniate churches. The majority of these churches are former Eastern Orthodox churches that have entered into union with the Church of Rome. They are churches which, while using the same rites as the Eastern Orthodox churches, are in fact in communion with Rome and consider themselves to be within the jurisdiction of Rome. Among the largest and most important of these are the Maronites of Lebanon; the Melkites, who exist mainly in Syria; and the Ukrainian Uniate Church.

The history and theology of the Melkites is rather complex. Following the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which led to a split in the eastern church over the question of how the person of Christ should be defined, those Christians in Syria who remained loyal to the Byzantine Church came to be called Melkites. (Those who broke away from the mainstream church in Syria formed the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch.) In the 18th century a split took place within the Melkite Church between those who wanted to remain under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople and those who wished to place themselves within the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church. This latter group is known as the Melkite Catholic Church. This church, while identifying itself as Catholic continues to use the Byzantine rite.

No less complicated is the history of the Maronite Church. The Maronites trace their origins to a group of Christians who gathered around fourth century monk, St Maron. Following the Muslim invasions of Syria and the surrounding regions, the Maronites took refuge in the remote mountains of Lebanon, where they began to develop their own distinct identity. Contact with the Latin crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries led the Maronites to affirm their union with Rome. The Maronites remain a strong group within the Lebanon and play a major role in Lebanese politics.

Finally, the Ukrainian Uniate Church was established in 1596 by the Union of Brest Litovsk, which brought the Orthodox metropolitan province of Kiev into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The church was suppressed by the Russian government in 1945, leaving Ukrainian Uniates with the option of either joining the Russian Orthodox Church or going underground. In 1989 Ukrainian Uniates were given legal protection by the Soviet government. Allowed to recover the churches that had been confiscated and handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Uniates enjoyed a rapid resurgence so that by 1991 there 5 million faithful worshipping in over 2000 churches.


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