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Christianity rapidly spread within and outside the Roman Empire. But since these Christians did not always accept the religions of the lands in which they lived, they were often seen as subversive. In fact, in Rome they were killed for not being “politically correct” — they refused to offer sacrifices to the gods of the state. Christians generally refused to accommodate themselves to any state religion, whether of Rome, Persia or any other place.

Established religion of the Romans. Within a few hundred years, the fortunes of Christianity changed dramatically. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire. What impact did this establishment have upon perceptions of what was radically a transnational movement? Outside the Roman Empire, Christianity was seen as the religion of the Romans. In the rival empire of Persia, Christianity was seen not only as a foreign religion but the religion of the enemy. Even so, Christians and Christianity were tolerated.

Beyond the worlds of Rome and its enemies, Christianity flourished. Within a few hundred years, it spread across Asia; there were dioceses and bishops in Mongolia and China. The incredible growth of this branch of the church — what we today call the Assyrian Church of the East — was, and still is, relatively unknown to the Western world.

Yet in spite of this rapid growth of Christianity outside the Roman and Persian worlds, Christianity still was strongly perceived as the Roman religion.

Minority Christianity in an Islamic world. What happened with the coming of Islam? An important chapter of the history of the Middle East is the story of the Islamization of what were once Roman, Christian lands. For about three centuries, the populations of Egypt, Syria and the border lands of the Roman Empire were overwhelmingly Christian. However, Christianity gradually was reduced to the status of a minority religion as the Middle East increasingly became Muslim — a process still continuing today.

Islam tolerates Christians as a forerunner religion, but Christians have second-class status in Islamic society and frequently are subjected to tremendous social pressure to adopt Islam.

The Crusader interlude and its aftermath. For a relatively brief historical period, the Islamic states and jurisdictions of parts of the Middle East were displaced by Western feudal Christian rule. All of a sudden, the controlling political authority was Christian, in the sense that it stemmed from the “Christian” West. Christian Western powers imposed a new political order.

Also, the Crusader rulers displaced Eastern forms of Christianity and hierarchs with Western forms. For example, the Westerners installed their own patriarch in Jerusalem, which is why we still have a Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem today. The same thing happened in Antioch and Constantinople.

In the post-Crusader Islamic world, Christianity was viewed with now greater suspicion because of its entanglement with militant Western powers. Even centuries later, in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, France claimed to be the protector of Catholics while Germany assumed a similar role for Protestants.

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Tags: Middle East Christians Christian-Muslim relations Emigration Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem