By Kallie Szczepanski
The Nestorian Church, also known as the Church of the East, originated in the Sassanid Empire of Persia. Its beliefs are based on the ideas of Nestorius (386-451), who taught that Jesus Christ’s human and divine natures were separate. Nestorian thought spread across Central Asia, following the Silk Road trade routes, as far as India and China. During the 7th to 9th centuries, the Nestorian Church was the most wide-spread Christian denomination on Earth, as measured by geographical distribution.
Nestorius, whose ideas formed the basis of the Nestorian Church’s doctrine of Christ’s separate natures, was the Patriarch of Constantinople between 428 and 431 CE. His work as the patriarch was short-lived, because the First Council of Ephesus headed by Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, in 431 convicted him of heresy and removed him from the post over the issue of Christ’s nature(s).
Nestorius’s followers were undaunted by their leader’s deposal. Many of them moved from Mesopotamia (now Iraq) to Persia (Iran) in order to have freedom to express their beliefs. In Sassanid Persia, the Nestorians joined forces with early Christian groups who had been deported from the Roman Empire. Persecution by the Zoroastrians under Emperor Shapur II (r. 339-79) helped to solidify the pre-Nestorian Christian community there; they declared their independence from other denominations in 424.
The Nestorians arrived in Persia, and by 486 had established themselves among the Sassanid Christians. Their success in proselytizing brought renewed persecution from the Zoroastrian authorities. Soon, due to the missionary activities of churchmen and traders, the Nestorian Church included believers not only in Persia but Egypt, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Bactria (now the intersection of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan) and even India. Targets of their missionary work included the Huns.
The Golden Age of the Nestorian Church:
According to the Nestorian Steele, a Persian missionary brought the faith to Tang China in 635 CE. The steele is located in Xi’an, formerly the Tang capital city of Chang’an. Along the way, Nestorianism spread to Turkic, Mongolian and Manchu peoples along the Silk Road. By the ninth century, the belief system had reached Silla Korea, Siberia, and probably even Japan.
Late in the ninth century, the Nestorian community in India was reinforced by several large waves of immigration from Persia. They settled on the Malabar Coast of southwest India – interestingly, in the same region where Portuguese Catholic missionaries would arrive some 700 years later.
Later Nestorian Church History:
Nestorian Christianity came under attack in China during the late Tang Dynasty. Emperor Wuzong (r. 840-846) persecuted followers of introduced religions including both Christianity and Buddhism. By the time the Tang Dynasty collapsed in 907 CE, many church buildings stood abandoned.
Christianity in western China revived only with the conquest by Genghis Khan’s descendants in the 13th century. The Mongol khans had intermarried with the predominantly Christian Kereit clan, so although Genghis Khan was a shamanist and Kublai Khan a Buddhist, they were very tolerant of Christianity in Mongolia and Yuan China.
Across Central Asia, Nestorianism was gradually displaced by Islam between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. We know that there were Nestorian communities in existance after that time, however, since the Christian trading settlement of Issyk Kul, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, was the site of a bubonic plague outbreak in 1338-39. However, Islamicization was in full swing in the region by that time.
In China, the nativist Ming Dynasty replaced the Mongol Yuan emperors in 1368. After the death of the expansionist Yongle Emperor, isolationist Ming rulers purged China of foreign influences, including Christianity. They expelled Christians from the empire.
The final blow for much of Central Asian Nestorianism likely came from the Muslim conqueror Timur (Tamerlane). He campaigned across the region, slaughtering all opposition, in a drive to recreate the Mongol Empire. By the end of the 1400s, the only significant Nestorian community left was the relatively insulated settlement on India’s Malabar Coast.