Christianity in Asia

Christianity spread from Western Asia to China between the 1st to the 14th century AD, and further to Eastern Asia from the 16th century with the European Age of Discovery

Christianity in Asia has its roots in the very inception of Christianity, which originated from the life and teachings of Jesus in 1st century Roman Judea. Christianity then spread through the missionary work of his apostles, first in the Levant and taking roots in the major cities such as Jerusalem and Antioch. According to tradition, further eastward expansion occurred via the preaching of Thomas the Apostle, who established Christianity in the Parthian Empire (Iran) and India. The very First Ecumenical Council was held in the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor (325). The first nations to adopt Christianity as a state religion were Armenia in 301 and Georgia in 327. By the 4th century, Christianity became the dominant religion in all Asian provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire.

After the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Nestorian Schism, the Nestorian Christianity developed. Nestorians began converting Mongols around the 7th century, and Nestorian Christianity was probably introduced into China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Mongols tended to be tolerant of multiple religions, with several Mongol tribes being primarily Christian, and under the leadership of Genghis Khan's grandson, the great khan Möngke, Christianity was a small religious influence of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century.

The Fourth Ecumenical Council was held in Asian city of Chalcedon (451). Christological controversies and disputes that surrounded the Council and its aftermath gradually resulted in division between pro-Chalcedonian (Eastern Orthodox) and anti-Chalcedonian (Oriental Orthodox) Christianity.[1]

Father Jordanus Catalani, a French Dominican missionary, followed in 1321-22. He reported to Rome, apparently from somewhere on the west coast of India, that he had given Christian burial to four martyred monks. Jordanus is known for his 1329 "Mirabilia" describing the marvels of the East: he furnished the best account of Indian regions and the Christians, the products, climate, manners, customs, fauna and flori given by any European in the Middle Ages - superior even to Marco Polo's.The Roman Catholic Diocese of Quilon or Kollam is the first Catholic diocese in Asia, India in the state of Kerala. First erected on 9 August 1329 and re-erected on 1 September 1886.In 1329 Pope John XXII (in captivity at Avignon) erected Quilon as the first Diocese in the whole of Indies as suffragan to the Archdiocese of Sultany in Persia through the decree "Romanus Pontifix" dated 9 August 1329. By a separate Bull "Venerabili Fratri Jordano", the same Pope, on 21 August 1329 appointed the French Dominican friar Jordanus Catalani de Severac as the first Bishop of Quilon. (Copies of the Orders and the related letters issued by Pope John XXII to Bishop Jordanus Catalani and to the diocese of Quilon are documented and preserved in the diocesan archives). Around that same time, there was some effort to reunite Eastern and Western Christianity. There were also numerous missionary efforts from Europe to Asia, primarily by Franciscan, Dominican, or Jesuit missionaries. In the 16th century, Spain began to convert Filipinos. In the 18th century, Catholicism developed more or less independently in Korea.

At present, Christianity continues to be the majority religion in the Philippines, East Timor, Armenia, Georgia, Cyprus and Russia. It has significant minority populations in South Korea, Taiwan, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Israel, Palestine (including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and several other countries in Asia with a total Christian population of more than 295 million.[2]

Early spread in Asia

Western Asia


A 6th century Nestorian church, St. John the Arab, in the Assyrian village of Geramon.

Christianity spread through the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean) from the 1st century AD. One of the key centers of Christianity became the city of Antioch, previous capital of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, located in today what is modern Turkey. Antioch was evangelized perhaps by Peter the Apostle, according to the tradition upon which the Antiochene patriarchate still rests its claim for primacy,[3] and certainly by Barnabas and Paul. Its converts were the first to be called Christians.[4] They multiplied rapidly, and by the time of Theodosius (347–395) were reckoned by Chrysostom (347–407), Archbishop of Constantinople, at about 100,000 people. Between 252 and 300, ten assemblies of the church were held at Antioch and it became the seat of one of the original five patriarchates, along with Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome.


Saint Nino (290–338) is credited with establishing Christianity as a state religion in Georgia.

Armenia and Georgia were the first nations to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in 301 and 326 respectively.

Christianity had been preached in Armenia by two of Jesus' twelve apostlesThaddaeus and Bartholomew — between 40-60 AD. Because of these two founding apostles, the official name of the Armenian Church is Armenian Apostolic Church, and it is considered to be the world's oldest national church. The Church of Caucasian Albania was established in 313, after Caucasian Albania (located in what is now Azerbaijan) became a Christian state.

In Georgia, Christianity was first preached by the apostles Simon and Andrew in the first century. It became the state religion of Kartli, Iberia (the area of Georgia's capital) in 326. The conversion of Georgia to Christianity is credited to the efforts of Saint Nino of Cappadocia (290–338).[5]

Parthian Empire

Christianity further spread eastward under the Parthian Empire, which displayed a high tolerance of religious matters.[6] According to tradition, Christian proselytism in Central Asia, starting with Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau, was put under the responsibility of Saint Thomas the Apostle, and started in the first century AD.[7] Saint Thomas is also credited with the establishment of Christianity in India. The Christians of Mesopotamia and Iran were organized under several bishops, and were present at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.[7]

Expansion to Central Asia

The spread of Christianity in Central Asia seems to have been facilitated by the great diffusion of Greek in the region (Seleucid Empire, Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Indo-Greek Kingdom), as well as Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. The spread of the Jews in Asia since the deportation from Babylon and the capture of Jerusalem by Titus also seems to have been a contributing factor.[7]

The earliest known references to Christian communities in Central Asia is from a writing by Bar Daisan around 196 AD: "Nor do our sisters among the Gilanians and Bactrians have any intercourse with strangers".[8]

The Sasanians also proved rather tolerant of the Christian faith until the persecution by the Zoroastrian priest Kartir under Bahram II (276−93 AD). Further persecutions seem to have taken place under Shapur II (310-379) and Yazdegerd II (438-457), with events in 338 having brought significant damage to the faith.[7]

India (1st century AD)

According to tradition, the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares was proselytized by St Thomas, who continued on to southern India, and possibly as far as Malaysia or China.

According to Eusebius' record, the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew were assigned to Parthia (modern Iran) and India.[9][10] By the time of the establishment of the Second Persian Empire (AD 226), there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India, Afghanistan and Baluchistan (including parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), with laymen and clergy alike engaging in missionary activity.[9]

An early third-century Syriac work known as the Acts of Thomas[9] connects the apostle's Indian ministry with two kings, one in the north and the other in the south. According to the Acts, Thomas was at first reluctant to accept this mission, but the Lord appeared to him in a night vision and compelled him to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes (or Habban), to his native place in northwest India. There, Thomas found himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian King, Gondophares. The Apostle's ministry resulted in many conversions throughout the kingdom, including the king and his brother.[9]

Thomas thereafter went south to Kerala and baptized the Jewish settlers and a few natives, whose descendants form the Saint Thomas Christians or the Syrian Malabar Nasranis.[11]

Piecing together the various traditions, the story suggests that Thomas left northwest India when invasion threatened, and traveled by vessel to the Malabar Coast along the southwestern coast of the Indian continent, possibly visiting southeast Arabia and Socotra en route, and landing at the former flourishing port of Muziris on an island near Cochin in 52. From there he preached the gospel throughout the Malabar Coast. The various Churches he founded were located mainly on the Periyar River and its tributaries and along the coast, where there were Jewish colonies. He preached to all classes of people and had about 170 converts, including members of the four principal castes. Later, stone crosses were erected at the places where churches were founded, and they became pilgrimage centres. In accordance with apostolic custom, Thomas ordained teachers and leaders or elders, who were reported to be the earliest ministry of the Malabar church.

Thomas next proceeded overland to the Coromandel Coast in southeastern India, and ministered in what is now the Madras area, where a local King and many people were converted. One tradition related that he went from there to China via Malacca in Malaysia, and after spending some time there, returned to the Madras area.[12] Apparently his renewed ministry outraged the Brahmins, who were fearful lest Christianity undermine their social caste system. So according to the Syriac version of the Acts of Thomas, Mazdai, the local king at Mylapore, after questioning the Apostle condemned him to death about the year AD 72. Anxious to avoid popular excitement, the King ordered Thomas conducted to a nearby mountain, where, after being allowed to pray, he was then stoned and stabbed to death with a lance wielded by an angry Brahmin.[9][11]