The development of Christianity after the arrival of Islam

For centuries, Christianity was the main religion of the Middle East. The turning point came in the 7th century when Mohammed founded Islam. That did not mean a quick end to Christianity’s dominance. As late as the 11th century, a third of all Christians lived in Asia. It was not until the 14th century that the picture changed drastically. The church institutions largely collapsed. In the period 1200-1500, the number of Christians in Asia fell from 21 to 3.5 million. The mutual division of the churches also contributed to the decline. For centuries after the birth of Christ, Christianity was the dominant religion in the Middle East. In the 7th century, Mohammed started a new religion: Islam. Traditional historiography gives the impression that from then on, Islam rapidly overran the hitherto Christian world of the Near/Middle East. Soon it had become a Muslim world and the role of Christianity had been played out.

Phillip Jenkins

That image is incorrect, according to Philip Jenkins. As late as the 11th century, he states, a third of all Christians on earth lived in Asia. Even in the 13th century, Baghdad could easily have become the capital of a large Christian empire. It was not until the 14th century that the picture changed completely. Church authority was destroyed, its servants murdered or exiled. The church institutions collapsed. The Christian communities withered away. In Asia Minor, for example, in 1050 there were still 373 dioceses, the population was almost entirely Christian. 400 years later there were still 3 dioceses and 10-15% of the population was Christian. The number of Christians in Asia fell from 21 to 3.5 million in the period 1200-1500. And the downward trend has since continued in the Near/Middle East. Yet (often small) Christian communities have continued to exist to this day.

State Church

In the first centuries of its existence, Christianity was exposed to persecution. Yet the Church (the Kyriake, which literally means those who are the Lord’s) grew. However, from the beginning there were differences of opinion about how the message of that Lord, expressed in the Gospel and the letters of the Apostles, should be interpreted. In 313, Christianity became an officially permitted religion under Emperor Constantine, subsequently a privileged religion, and under his successors in 380 the state church. Since 313, the emperor (after Constantine: the emperors) had an interest in ensuring that there was peace and unity in the Church in order to promote the peace and unity of the empire. Disputes within the Church therefore had to be settled. Constantine therefore began to convene bishops from all over the empire in an ecumenical council to try to resolve problems in the Church.


This first happened in 325 with the Council of Nicaea (located in modern-day Turkey). What the Christian believed (or better: was expected to believe) was recorded in a number of rules, the Creed (Nicaea in this case). Later, in the period up to 787 alone, an ecumenical council was held six more times, including in Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). Anyone who accepted the rulings of a council was right in the doctrine. Anyone who did not was wrong and was excluded by the majority in a dispute that could concern a person, but also a church community as a whole. Excluded by what had become the official Church, but also by the state that supported that Church. That could have far-reaching consequences.

It will be clear that this course of events all too often did not promote the desired unity, but rather brought about various divisions and, in the long run, divisions within the divisions. Thus the Church fell apart into an almost unfathomable number of churches and denominations.

Churches of the East

Naturally, the divisions in the East were initially at the expense of the Byzantine Church. The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned the views of Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, originally a Syrian monk, regarding the human and divine nature of Christ (his followers were the Nestorians). Nestorius was now a heretic, left again for Persia, where the Church of the Nestorians flourished (they were zealous missionaries and founded communities as far away as India and China). In the period 9th – 14th centuries, the (originally Nestorian), East Syrian Assyrian) Church was the largest in the region.

The dogma of the God-man Christ With the Council of Ephesus, peace had not returned to the Church, the dogma of the God-man Christ continued to cause disputes. There were those who continued to adhere to the view of Cyril of Alexandria, who believed that the divine nature of Christ predominated. His followers sharpened this and proclaimed the doctrine that only one nature was important with regard to Christ: the divine. The Council of Chalcedon (451) condemned this position of the so-called Monophysites. They then broke ties with the majority of Chalcedon and thus with the state church, both in the East (Constantinople) and the West (Rome). They formed the beginning of the Monophysite national churches of Egypt (the Copts), Ethiopia, Armenia and also in Syria.

No heretics Usually the churches of the East do not want to be associated with a heretical past. This is how the Nestorians call themselves the Assyrian Apostolic Church of the East. And the Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches do not wish to be referred to as Monophysite. It becomes even more complicated when we consider that over time groups arose within those churches that considered themselves in communion with the Church of Rome. We distinguish:

  • the Maronite Church, created after the Council of Chalcedon,
  • the Chaldean Catholic Church, united with Rome in the 16th century,
  • the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which originated in the 18th century.

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