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According to Phillip Jenkins, the particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm: another, earlier global Christianity once existed. For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and this was true into the fourteenth century. Christianity became predominantly European not because this continent had any obvious affinity for that faith, but by default: Europe was the continent where it was not destroyed. Matters could have easily developed differently. While the Arab Muslim conquests of the seventh century subjected the Christians of the Middle East to incredible pressures, the ancient communities nonetheless not only survived, as underscored by the remarkable renaissance of the Church of the East during the patriarchate of Timothy I, but even managed to thrive. “Only around 1300,” writes Jenkins, “did the axe fall, and quite suddenly.”
The after effects of the Mongol invasions certainly played their part, by terrifying Muslims and others with the prospect of a direct threat to their social and religious power. Climatic factors were also critical, as the world entered a period of rapid cooling, precipitating bad harvests and shrinking trade routes: a frightened and impoverished world looks for scapegoats.
Thus “Muslim regimes and mobs now delivered near-fatal blows to weakened Christian churches.” According to Jenkins, the number of Christians in Asia fell, between 1200 and 1500, from 21 million to 3.4 million. During the same years, the proportion of the world’s total Christian population living in Africa and Asia combined fell from 34 percent to just 6 percent, and the remnant that survived virtually disappeared in the massacres of Armenians, Assyrians, Syrians, and other ancient Christian communities during the 19th and 20th centuries, which led the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin argue for a new category of crime to which he subsequently gave the name “genocide.”
According to Philip Jenkins there is a tragedy unfolding throughout the Middle East as an ancient Church is coming to a bloody end. Iraq's Christians numbered 5-6% in 1970. The number has fallen below 1% in the face of persecution.
Across the Middle East ancient churches — Chaldean, Assyrian, Orthodox — are survivals from the earliest history of the church. For centuries, the land long known as Mesopotamia had a solid claim to rank as the center of the church and an astonishing record of missions and evangelism. What we see today in Iraq is not just the death of a church, but also the end of one of the most awe-inspiring phases of Christian history.
Here's the full article.
Jenkins' latest book is outstanding.