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Divergent cultural, linguistic and political interests sparked conflicts even after the rural population had embraced Christianity. Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch were Greek in language and culture; the inhabitants of these cities identified with the interests of the imperial government. The inhabitants of the rural regions surrounding Alexandria and Antioch were not Greek, but Coptic and Semitic in language and culture. The politicians in Constantinople were held in suspicion, their politics decried as a drain on the provinces.

The doctrinal disputes that surfaced in the fifth century – Nestorianism and Monophysitism – rather than being primarily theological disputes, were expressions of the cultural, economic, linguistic, philosophic and political tensions of the times. Today, these issues have been clarified between the churches that embraced them and the Church of Rome.

Antioch was the capital of Roman Syria and the guardian of the trade routes to Asia. St. Peter established a Christian community at Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” (Acts 11:26) St. Paul, called the apostle to the Gentiles for his preaching to non-Jews, also used this city as his base. Many of the Eastern churches trace their origins to Antioch, now an insignificant town in Turkey. In addition to the regions immediately surrounding Antioch (modern Lebanon, Syria and southern Turkey), the churches of Persia, India, Mongolia and China all found their origins in the evangelization efforts of the Antiochenes.

Alexandria, the breadbasket of the empire and its second city after Rome, was founded in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great. The city exerted an influence over northeastern Africa, modern Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia, in a manner similar to that of Antioch in the Middle East.

Straddling the continents of Europe and Asia, the imperial city of Constantinople attained a prestige that overshadowed the entire East. The churches of the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Russia trace their origins to Constantinople.

Heresies and Schisms. By the fourth century, the Gospel had taken root throughout the Roman Empire, expanding even beyond its borders. The unity of the Church, however, did not last.

Competing positions regarding the nature and person of Jesus and the role of the Virgin Mary – expressions of the cultural, philosophical, theological and political attitudes of the Alexandrian and Antiochene churches – soon gave rise to divisions. One interpretation, known as Nestorianism, was held by a few Antiochene theologians who, led by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, were condemned by the church fathers gathered in council in the city of Ephesus in 431.

Politically and culturally severed from the Church of the Western and Eastern Roman empires, the Church of Persia embraced Nestorius and developed a distinct Christology and ecclesial identity.

Twenty years later, near the imperial palace in Constantinople, in the city of Chalcedon, the church fathers gathered in council to discuss the theological position, defined as Monophysitism, that some believed exaggerated the divine nature of Christ to the detriment of his human nature.

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