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Eastern Christianity comprises the Christian traditions and churches that developed in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Africa, India, and parts of the Far East over several centuries of religious antiquity.
The term is generally used in Western Christianity to describe all Christian traditions that did not develop in Western Europe. As such, the term does not describe any single communion or common religious tradition, and in fact some "Eastern" Churches have more in common historically and theologically with "Western" Christianity than with one another. The various "Eastern" Churches do not normally refer to themselves as "Eastern," with one exception (the Church of the East).
The terms "Eastern" and "Western" in this regard originated with divisions in the Church mirroring the cultural divide between the Hellenistic east and Latinate west and the political divide between the weak Western and strong Eastern Roman empires. Because the most powerful Church in the East was what has become known as the Eastern Orthodox church, the term "Orthodox" is often used in a similarly loose fashion as "Eastern", although strictly speaking most Churches consider themselves part of an Orthodox and Catholic communion.
Eastern Christians do not share the same religious traditions, but do share many cultural traditions. Christianity divided itself in the East during its early centuries both within and outside of the Roman Empire in disputes about Christology and fundamental theology, as well as national divisions (Roman, Persian, etc.). It would be many centuries later that Western Christianity fully split from these traditions as its own communion. Today there are four main branches or families of Eastern Christianity, each of which has distinct theology and dogma.
In many Eastern churches, some parish priests administer the sacrament of chrismation to infants after baptism, and priests are allowed to marry before ordination. While all the Eastern Catholic Churches recognize the authority of the Pope, some of them who having originally been part of the Orthodox Church or Oriental Orthodox Church closely follow the traditions of Orthodoxy or Oriental Orthodoxy, including the tradition of allowing married men to become priests.
The Eastern churches' differences from Western Christianity have as much, if not more, to do with culture, language, and politics, as theology. For the non-Catholic Eastern churches, a definitive date for the commencement of schism cannot usually be given (see East-West Schism). The Church of the East declared independence from the churches of the Roman Empire at its general council in 424, which was before the Council of Ephesus in 431, and so had nothing to do with the theology declared at that Council. Oriental Orthodoxy separated after the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Since the time of the historian Edward Gibbon, the split between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church has been conveniently dated to 1054,though the reality is more complex. This split is sometimes referred to as the Great Schism, but now more usually referred to as the East-West Schism. This final schism reflected a larger cultural and political division which had developed in Europe and southwest Asia during the Middle Ages and coincided with Western Europe's re-emergence from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
The Orthodox Church is a Christian body whose adherents are largely based in Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, with a growing presence in the western world. Orthodox Christians accept the decisions of the First seven Ecumenical Councils.
Orthodox Christianity identifies itself as the original Christian church (see early centers of Christianity) founded by Christ and the Apostles, and traces its lineage back to the early church through the process of Apostolic Succession and unchanged theology and practice. Distinguishing characteristics of the Orthodox Church (shared with some of the Eastern Catholic Churches) include the Divine Liturgy, the Mysteries or Sacraments, and an emphasis on the preservation of Tradition, which it holds to be Apostolic in nature.
The Orthodox Church is organized into self-governing jurisdictions along geographical, national, ethnic, and/or linguistic lines. Orthodoxy is thus made up of 15 or 16 autocephalous bodies. Smaller churches are autonomous and each have a mother church that is autocephalous.
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The Orthodox Church includes the following jurisdictions:
It may also be noted that the Church of Rome was once in communion with the Orthodox Church, but the two were split after the East-West Schism and thus it is no longer in communion with the Orthodox Church.
It is estimated that there are approximately 240 million Orthodox Christians in the world. Today, many adherents shun the term "Eastern" as denying the church's universal character. They refer to Eastern Orthodoxy simply as the Orthodox Church.
Oriental Orthodoxy refers to the churches of Eastern Christian tradition that keep the faith of the first three Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church: the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325), the First Council of Constantinople (381) and the Council of Ephesus (431), while rejecting the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon (451). Hence, these churches are also called Old Oriental Churches.
Oriental Orthodoxy developed in reaction to Chalcedon on the eastern limit of the Byzantine Empire and in Egypt and Syria. In those locations, there are also Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs, but the rivalry between the two has largely vanished in the centuries since the schism.
The following Oriental Orthodox churches are autocephalous and in full communion:
Historically, the Church of the East was the widest reaching branch of Eastern Christianity, at its height spreading from its heartland in Persian ruled Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean, India, and China. Originally the church of Sassanid Persia, the Church of the East declared itself independent of other churches in 424 and over the next century became affiliated with Nestorianism, a Christological doctrine advanced by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, which had been declared heretical in the Roman Empire. Thereafter it was often known as the Nestorian Church in the West. Surviving a period of persecution within Persia, the Church of the East flourished under the caliphate and branched out, establishing dioceses throughout Asia.
After a period of expansion under the Mongol Empire, the church went into decline through the 14th century, and was eventually confined largely to its heartland in what is now Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and to the Malabar Coast of India. In the 16th century dynastic struggles sent the church into schism, resulting in the formation of two rival churches.
Two modern churches developed from the schism, the Chaldean Church, which entered into communion with Rome as an Eastern Catholic Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East. The followers of these two churches are almost exclusively ethnic Assyrians. In India, the local Church of the East community, known as the Saint Thomas Christians, experienced its own rifts as a result of Portuguese influence.
The Assyrian Church of the East emerged from the historical Church of the East, which was centered in Mesopotamia/Assyria, then part of the Persian Empire and spread widely throughout Asia. The modern Assyrian Church of the East emerged in the 16th century following a split with the Chaldean Church, which later entered into communion with Rome as an Eastern Catholic Church.
The Church of the East was associated with the doctrine of Nestorianism, advanced by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 – 431, which emphasized the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus. Nestorius and his doctrine were condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, leading to the Nestorian Schism in which churches supporting Nestorius split from the rest of Christianity.
Many followers relocated to Persia and became affiliated with the local Christian community there. This community adopted an increasingly Nestorian theology and was thereafter often known as the Nestorian Church. As such, the Church of the East accepts only the first two Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church — the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople — as defining its faith tradition, and rapidly took a different course from other Eastern Christians.
The Church of the East spread widely through Persia and into Asia, being introduced to India by the 6th century and to the Mongols and China in the 7th century. It experienced periodic expansion until the 14th century, when the church was nearly destroyed by the collapse of the Mongol Empire and the conquests of Timur. By the 16th century it was largely confined to Iraq, northeast Syria, southeast Turkey, northwest Iran and the Malabar Coast of India (Kerala). The split of the 15th century, which saw the emergence of separate Assyrian and Chaldean Churches, left only the former as an independent sect. Further splits into the 20th century further affected the history of the Assyrian Church of the East.
Many of these churches were originally part of one of the above families and so are closely related to them by way of ethos and liturgical practice. As in the other Eastern churches, married men may become priests, and parish priests administer the mystery of confirmation to newborn infants immediately after baptism, via the rite of chrismation; the infants are then administered Holy Communion.
The Syro-Malabar Church, which is part of the Saint Thomas Christian community in India, follows East Syrian traditions and liturgy. Other Saint Thomas Christians of India, who were originally of the same East Syrian tradition, passed instead to the West Syrian tradition and now form part of Oriental Orthodoxy (some from the Oriental Orthodox in India united with the Catholic Church in 1930 and became the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church). The Maronite Church also claims never to have been separated from Rome, and has no counterpart Orthodox Church out of communion with the Pope. It is therefore inaccurate to refer to it as a "Uniate" Church. The Italo-Albanian Catholic Church has also never been out of communion with Rome, but, unlike the Maronite Church, it resembles Orthodox Church's liturgical rite.
In addition to these four mainstream branches, there are a number of much smaller groups which, like Protestants, originated from disputes with the dominant tradition of their original areas, but are usually not referred to as Protestants because they lack historical ties to the Reformation, and usually lack a classically Protestant theology. Most of these are either part of the more traditional Old Believer movement, which arose from a schism within Russian Orthodoxy, or the more radical "Spiritual Christianity" movement. The latter includes a number of diverse "low-church" groups, from the Bible-centered Molokans to the anarchic Doukhobors to the self-mutilating Skoptsy. None of these groups are in communion with the mainstream churches listed above, aside from a few Old Believer parishes in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.
There are national dissidents, where ethnic groups want their own nation-church like with the Macedonian Orthodox Church and Montenegrin Orthodox Church; both domiciles of the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, it should be noted that in Macedonia, the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church is minimal, due to Macedonia's efforts to create an autocephalous Macedonian primacy in the Orthodox Church. The vast majority of Orthodox ethnic Macedonians view the Serbian Orthodox Church as hostile to Macedonian history, national interests, and self-determination.
The Saint Thomas Christians are an ancient body of Christians on the southwest coast of India who trace their origins to the evangelical activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century. By the 5th century the Saint Thomas Christians were part of the Church of the East, or Nestorian Church. Until the middle of the 17th century and the arrival of the Portuguese, the Thomas Christians were all one in faith and rite. Thereafter, divisions arose among them, and consequently they are today of several different rites.
Ecumenical dialogue over the past 43 years since Paul VI's meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I has awoken the nearly 1000-year hopes for Christian unity. Since the lifting of excommunications during the Paul VI and Athenagoras I meeting in Jerusalem there have been other significant meetings between Popes and Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople. The most recent meeting was between Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I, who signed the Common Declaration. It states that "We give thanks to the Author of all that is good, who allows us once again, in prayer and in dialogue, to express the joy we feel as brothers and to renew our commitment to move towards full communion".
In 2013 Patriarch Bartholomew I attended the installation ceremony of the new Roman Catholic Pope, Pope Francis, which was the first time any Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople had ever attended such an installation.
At a meeting in Balamand, Lebanon in June 1993, the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church declared that these initiatives that "led to the union of certain communities with the See of Rome and brought with them, as a consequence, the breaking of communion with their Mother Churches of the East … took place not without the interference of extra-ecclesial interests"; and that what has been called "uniatism" "can no longer be accepted either as a method to be followed nor as a model of the unity our Churches are seeking" (section 12).
At the same time, the Commission stated:
There has been a significant Christian migration in the 20th century from the Near East. One thousand years ago Christians were the majority population in today's Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. In 1914 Christians constituted 25% of the population of the Ottoman Empire. At the beginning of the 21st century Christians constituted 6–7 percent of the region’s population: less than 1% in Turkey, 3% in Iraq, 12% in Syria, 39% in Lebanon, 6% in Jordan, 2.5% in Israel/Palestine and 15–20% in Egypt.
Christians especially Nestorian contributed to the Arab Islamic Civilization during the Ummayads and the Abbasids by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic. They also excelled in philosophy, science ( such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Qusta ibn Luqa, Masawaiyh, Patriarch Eutychius, Jabril ibn Bukhtishu etc.) and theology ( such as Tatian, Bar Daisan, Babai the Great, Nestorius, Toma bar Yacoub etc.) and the personal physicians of the Abbasid Caliphs were often Assyrian Christians such as the long serving Bukhtishu dynasty.
A hospital and medical training center existed at Gundeshapur. The city of Gundeshapur was founded in 271 CE by the Sassanid king Shapur I. It was one of the major cities in Khuzestan province of the Persian empire in what is today Iran. A large percentage of the population were Syriacs, most of whom were Christians. Under the rule of Khusraw I, refuge was granted to Greek Nestorian Christian philosophers including the scholars of the Persian School of Edessa (Urfa)(also called the Academy of Athens), a Christian theological and medical university. These scholars made their way to Gundeshapur in 529 following the closing of the academy by Emperor Justinian. They were engaged in medical sciences and initiated the first translation projects of medical texts. The arrival of these medical practitioners from Edessa marks the beginning of the hospital and medical center at Gundeshapur. It included a medical school and hospital (bimaristan), a pharmacology laboratory, a translation house, a library and an observatory. Indian doctors also contributed to the school at Gundeshapur, most notably the medical researcher Mankah. Later after Islamic invasion, the writings of Mankah and of the Indian doctor Sustura were translated into Arabic at Baghdad. Daud al-Antaki was one of the last generation of influential Arab Christian writers.
Arab Christians especially Maronites played important roles in Al-Nahda, and because Arab Christians formed the educated upper and bourgeois classes, they have had a significant impact in politics, business and culture, and most important figures of the Al-Nahda movement were Christian Arabs.
The Eastern churches (excepting the non-liturgical dissenting bodies) each belong to one of several liturgical families:
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