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Buddhism and Christianity, in the form of the Church of the East, sometimes erroneously referred to as Nestorian, can be seen to be active in the heartlands of the Silk Road from their earliest periods. Buddhism seems to have entered China at about the same time that the Apostle Thomas arrived in Taxila, now northern Pakistan, to build a palace for Maharaja/Basileus Gundaphores, known to us from contemporary coinage which uses both Greek and Prakrit. Although the surviving ancient churches of south-west India testify to the Thomas tradition in the south, the archaeological evidence is, at least for an initial arrival, in the north.

Be that as it may, the story of Christianity along the Silk Road is closely tied up with the Church of the East. This is a church whose history, before the coming of Islam, is mainly related to the Persian Empire, the second great superpower in the ancient world after Rome. After the arrival of Islam, its heartlands were in the Islamic world but it had important missionary work as far afield as India and China. Bishop William Young, the late bishop of Sialkot in Pakistan, in his history of this church recounts more or less peaceful coexistence and even dialogue during the Parthian period (up to c.225). He tells us of an exchange between Bardaisan (usually regarded in the West as a fatalist and Gnostic) and a Magian in which Bardaisan defends freedom of the will and the distinctive ethics of Christians and Jews.

The emergence of the Sassanids and the turning of the Roman Empire towards Christianity, however, spelt trouble for these eastern Christians. The Sassanids were much more centralised than the loose-knit Parthians and more self-consciously Zoroastrian. The Christians, moreover, began to be seen as a potential fifth column in the Sassanian conflicts with Rome.Although there had been localised persecution under the Parthians, usually instigated by Magian elements, there were now periods of more organised persecution culminating in the great pogrom of Shapur II. Patriarch Shamaoun witnessed the martyrdom of his bishops, clergy and lay people before he was himself executed. The aim seems to have been to exterminate Christianity from Sassanian domains. It was only with the edict of the Shahinshah Yazdigard in 410 that the persecution came to an end and the Church of the East was recognised as a millat, or religious community within the Persian Empire. The edict had a similar effect to that of Milan in the Roman world in that Christians were now acknowledged as a religio licita alongside Jews and others. The term millat, by the way, was to become important much later with the imposition of the dhimma under Islam and the organisation of the Ottoman Empire. This edict did not mean that persecution was at an end. It was still a capital crime for a Zoroastrian to convert to another religion and the penalty was enforced again and again.

Although the Church of the East seems to have been under the nominal oversight of the Patriarchate of Antioch in the early period, this link was severed by the edict. The subsequent influence of Nestorianism further alienated the Church from churches to the west of it. This, to some extent, explains the eastwards thrust of the Church’s missionary expansion. It appears that the Christians of St Thomas of India were within the orbit of Nestorianism, although later on they came under Jacobite influence as well.

In central Asia, however, the Nestorians were everywhere: there were metropolitan sees in cities like Merv, Herat and Turkestan. When papal envoys arrived at the request of the Great Khans, they found the Nestorians there. Many Mongol and Turkic peoples converted to Christianity and this remained the case until the 13th-14th centuries and the gradual Islamisation of the area.

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