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Islam and Christianity in Asia

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Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition What is This? Depicts the historical development and present state of the world's major religions

    Islam and Christianity in Asia

    BOTH CHRISTIANITY and Islam spread eastwards from their respective places of origin. Generally, with some striking exceptions, their rate of success diminished the further east they reached. Neither religion made significant inroads into eastern China, Japan or Southeast Asia (apart from French Indochina). Today, however, South Korea stands out as a predominantly Christian country, and Malaysia and Indonesia are strongly Muslim. The Philippines, too, provide a contrast to most of East Asia, with a strong Spanish Christian heritage and significant Muslim influence in the south.

    Christian Missions to Asia

    Christianity is traditionally thought to have reached India with the Apostle Thomas, who went by sea to Cochin and founded churches all over southern India. He died in Mylapore in 72 CE after twenty years of missionary work on the subcontinent.

    Islam and Christianity in Asia

    1. The Spread of Christianity and Islam in Asia

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    The early spread of Christianity in Asia was facilitated by the proliferation of Christians in the Persian Empire and the movement of ideas along the Silk Road. Nestorian Christianity spread furthest; extensive missionary activity took it as far as China. The arrival of the Nestorian monk, Alopen, in China is recorded on the eighth-century stone ‘Nestorian Monument’, and Nestorian texts were found in the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang.

    Later Christian missions to Asia were made by religious orders, such as the Dominicans, the Augustinians, the Franciscans and later the Jesuits, amongst the most illustrious of whom were Matteo Ricci, Roberto de Nobili and their predecessor, the Spaniard, Francis Xavier ( 1506 – 52 ), who was canonized in 1622 . Xavier was sent by Rome as a missionary to the colonies of Portugal, but pushed on beyond them into China and Japan. Xavier's commitment to the conversion of Japan had only limited success. Christians were persecuted and the religion was banished in 1650 . When missionaries returned in 1859 , however, they discovered that the church had to some degree survived underground.

    The Dutch, Portuguese and British empires brought both Catholicism and Protestantism to large parts of Asia, but in many places, anti-colonial Islamic (and, in India, Hindu) movements limited the influence of Christianity. Interestingly, however, a semi-indigenous and syncretic form of peasant Christianity developed in China, and presented a significant challenge to the Qing dynasty in the form of the Taiping Rebellion of 1850 – 63 .

    In many Asian countries, Christianity suffers from its colonial associations, which have been used to justify its persecution, both by communist regimes and also by the nationalist movements instrumental in the independence of a number of countries from colonial powers.

    The Spread of Islam

    During the Umayyad Empire Islam spread rapidly eastwards, stretching as far as the borders of China and India by the mid-eighth century. This spread was effected by forcible conversion of polytheists, and by the protection of the Peoples of the Book, the Christians and Jews, as dhimmis (protected minorities) in return for taxes paid to fund Muslim expansion.

    The expansion under the ‘Abbasids, who succeeded the Umayyads, was temporarily halted in 1258 by the Mongols. This resulted in a cultural shift away from the erstwhile dominance of the Arabs and towards Persians and Turks. Arabic, however, remained the lingua franca and expansion continued, though at a less frantic pace, until the seventeenth century, when countries as far afield as Indonesia and Malaysia became largely Muslim. Most Muslim countries subsequently became subject to European rule. Their eventual independence from Europe owed much to Islamic resistance movements, such as the Wahabite-driven resistance to the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Faraizi resistance to the British in India. The history of Islam in India reached a turning point in 1947 when the partition of India, negotiated by Muhammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League, created the Islamic state of Pakistan.

    In northern and western China and Central Asia Islam remains relatively strong. There are large numbers of Muslim Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Uzbeks and Tajiks, as well as the indigenous Chinese Hui. Islam suffered less than other religions during the Cultural Revolution, partly because its membership was largely from ethnic minorities and so was of little interest to the Red Guard.

    Religion in the Philippines

    Islam and Christianity in Asia

    2. The Philippines

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    The indigenous folk religion of the Philippines has not been completely obscured by the dominance of Roman Catholicism, and, as elsewhere in Asia, Christianity is characterized by a degree of inculturation. Catholicism was introduced to the Philippines through colonization by Spain. Philip II of Spain saw no distinction between colonization and evangelism. At the Synod of Manila in 1580 the Jesuits, Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans shared out the islands between themselves for proselytization. The Jesuits have continued to maintain their interest in the Philippines, developing Christian communities there and evolving a liberation theology in response to the corrupt regime of President Marcos, who was ejected in 1986 . Independent churches, such as the Aglipayan Church, have large congregations, and Islam remains strong on Mindanao despite the ambivalent attitude to the religion on the part of the occupying Americans at the turn of the twentieth century.

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