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Reasons for Rapid Muslim Subjugation of Christianity
But none of this explains the painfully rapid subjugation of the Christian religion in Asia and Africa. When Islam suddenly raised its head in the seventh century, Christianity had been the state religion in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire of Byzantium for well over three centuries. It had penetrated Asia as far as Arabia, Persia and Indonesia, and the greater part of North Africa, including Egypt. North Africa had already hosted Christian synods of more than 500 bishops. Men with the highest talents that are till this day highly revered in the Church, served in Egypt and Carthage. Origenes, Athanasius, Cyprianus, Augustine and, before him, Tertullian, had taught there. There may have been an element of pseudo-Christianity, but the most severe and most cruel persecutions that took place in these regions caused the holy courage of the martyrs, both men and women, to shine even brighter. The most splendid cathedrals had arisen and the most famous schools for the training of the clergy had been established throughout Byzantine Asia and along the entire north coast of Africa. The Christian Church was not only tolerated, but she was the supreme power, while all traces of the earlier Paganism had been exterminated, mostly by imperial command. The Church existed there in a state of unprecedented bloom and was fully intending to penetrate Asia and Africa still deeper, all the way to Ethiopia and Sudan. Furthermore, the Christian religion did not merely float on the surface as a drop of oil on water, but it shaped the cultures of peoples in their deepest dimensions. Wherever struggles arose in the Church, entire nations would get involved.
If you were to visit these regions today, you would hardly find a trace of this Christian history in Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia and half a million Coptics in Egypt. In Asia, you would find here and there a few residual groups of Greeks, Marionites and Armenians as pitiful remnants of the once magnificent Byzantine State Church. And then realize that Islam conquered these peoples not after a struggle of many centuries, but as it were with one fell swoop. This series of facts confronts us today as an almost inexplicable problem, the solution to which must be found in two factors, namely, the internal condition of the church at the time and the style of Islamic propaganda. It is on these that we will now focus.
Originally, the Christian Church in the East tried to spread its tentacles by means of quiet evangelism. As long as she retained this mode, she retained her internal health. However, before long, Christianity began to penetrate wider circles. It was among them that Greek and Eastern philosophies in their many varieties re-interpreted the mysteries of the Gospel and distorted them according to their own philosophies. History teaches us about the struggles of the Church during the second century to wrestle itself loose from the embrace of Gnosticism, Doceticism and, later, Manicheism. A spirit of dissatisfaction arose in the East with respect to their own heritage. This lead to a tendency to welcome and incorporate every new religion into a new syncretism. This process meant that such new religions were distorted and then smothered. True, the silent majority of the masses continued in the faith, but they did not determine the direction of things. In contrast, the educated upper crust who propagated their theoretical concoctions in writing and taught in the academies, increasingly sought their inspiration and power in a philosophical frame on which they elegantly embroidered the flowers of the Christian religion—as they saw them. This process caused an increasing distance from the roots of the faith and led to attempts to seek the essence of Christianity in various philosophical and dogmatic systems that found their strength not in spiritual inspiration but in arid, scholastic dialectics. Worse, some undermined the structure of Christian truth by replacing its foundation with that of Pagan philosophy. Since these systems and schools of thought began to oppose each other, before she realized what was happening, the Church became enmeshed in bitter arguments and divisions. Most of the debates focused on the centre of the Christian religion, i.e. on the person of Christ Himself. They no longer gratefully accepted in faith the incomprehensible mystery of the incarnation, that is, of God becoming man, but began to dissect and sift the mysteries of the faith in a rationalistic way. One philosophical explanation of this mystery was pitted against another, all of them claiming for themselves the inspired faith of the masses and uttering warnings to their opponents that they were shortchanging the majesty of Christ. The Church had no choice but to intervene in these controversies by way of a series of Conciliar Councils [meetings of the church’s hierarchy] in order to discern the truth or otherwise of these philosophical and dogmatic schools of thought. Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites and Monotheletes were successively declared heretics and pushed beyond the pale of the Church.
The ordinary people participated in these struggles. Frequently they even resorted to violence and came to physical blows. The sad outcome of all of this was that the entire Body of Christ was torn and members confronted each other in hostile camps. This did not only destroy the unity of the Church but also its strength, because the zeal of the Christian religion for the mysteries of the holy faith diminished in favour of dialectic skirmishes. Gradually what was to be a religion of the heart and which was to bloom in faith, hope and love, became rigid and arid in a mode of thought in which the heart went cold and froze up. While Byzantine scholars engrossed themselves restlessly in dogmas about Christ, the love for Christ in their hearts dampened, while the mystical union of the believer with his Christ slowly faded away and dissolved.
And then, as if all this philosophical stupor, dialectical confusion and Byzantine dampening of the spirit were not enough, there appeared on the horizon a second force that would undermine genuine Christianity, namely the Ceasaropapism introduced by Emperor Constantine the Great. Now it was not a case of the State seeking a deep alliance with the Church of Christ, but, rather, of the Church being placed under the guardianship of the State. This new relationship lead to unprecedented external flowering of the Church in two ways. First, entire tribes were “converted” by force, as later was the case also with Charlemagne and in the provinces around the Baltic Sea. Paganism was rejected. Its temples were either demolished or turned into churches, its altars crushed and its schools closed by imperial order. Secondly, there were those among the powerbrokers and elite who used to engage in sun worship, but who, now that the Christian religion was part of the establishment, bowed their knees before the Cross in order to achieve high prestige in the State. These two elements spelled numerical increase for the church, but it weakened her internally, spiritually. None of this added anything to Christ’s glory in a spiritual way. People draped themselves in Christian garb, but no change occurred in their hearts. This made the Church appear a soulless entity.2424For a similar explanation of how African Christian ethnic groups can fight each other to death, see J. Boer, “Old Wine in New Skins: An Old African Worldview in a New Church.” In Studies in Christian-Muslim Relations, vol 5, Appendix 7. Also Christian Courier, June 5, 1998, pp. 10-11.
The story is not yet finished. After the State had turned the Church into an attachment, church affairs became affairs of state. The Emperor and his lackeys interfered in all church affairs. Originally Constantine announced that he would concern himself only with the externals of the Church, while the internals were left to the Church itself. This was a healthy principle, but it was soon suppressed when ecclesiastical infighting threatened the peace and power of the State. The Emperor had no choice but to interfere, take sides and exorcise attempts to create division. Hence, time and again he applied the weight of the State to ecclesiastical life. This in turn led each of the opposing parties to give priority to currying the favour of the imperial Court. It was common knowledge that the side favoured by the Emperor and supported by the Court was assured of victory. The great Conciliar Councils continued to protect the terrain and power of the church. We have good reason to admire the courage and resilience with which these leaders tried to maintain the independence of the Church. However, after the decisions had been made and the delegates returned to their dioceses, the decisions had to be turned into actions—and this was in the hands of the Emperor. And so politics joined philosophy and dialectics to undermine the Church.
The spiritual condition of the Church deteriorated seriously. It harboured too many false elements and was constantly pulled farther away from its roots. Finally, exhausted from all her controversies, it lost its resistance to becoming a mere tool in the hands of nitpicking scholars, power-hungry princes of the Church and sly politicians. Warnings against such developments already appeared in the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor in the New Testament book of Revelations, chapters 2-3. There it was predicted that the hour would come that the candlestick would be taken away from them and false philosophies devastate the Church. Christ would come like a thief in the night to undo her and spit her out of His mouth because of her lukewarm state.
It was while the Christian Church was in the above pitiful condition that Islam arose, suddenly attacked her, made her shake on her foundations and saw to the demise of almost all her splendid cathedrals. Of course, God not only allowed this all to happen, but He willed it. Anyone who believes in the royal reign of Christ over His Church must recognize the hand of God in this destruction of the Church by the Muslims as a justified penalty for her unfaithfulness.2525Italics by translator. It was in the West that the Christian religion was to triumph, not in the East. The East was exhausted. Only in the West, under the instigation of the Germanic peoples, would the church bloom. In the East, only little remnants would remain in order to remind us of the great Church of Christ that once was. Nothing touches the emotions of faith of the traveler through these lands of Asia and Africa more than to see how in all these countries the Church not only suffered fearful devastation but totally disappeared. The slowly corroding ruins of churches in which once the Halleluiah was raised, are all that reminds the traveler of the ancient glory of Christendom in these regions. Apart from the Arabs who came from elsewhere, all the ancestors of the Muslims who surround the traveler were once baptized Christians. Our martyrs who astounded the world with their stalwart courage, came from those generations. It was Christian in a much more intimate way than what you find in much of today’s European Christendom. And all of this Christianity is eradicated lock, stock and barrel, so that we are left without a trace. Even customs and traditions that once marked domestic and social life as well as the religious and moral life of these nations—not a trace of that can be found today. At the same time, you will find that under Islam, Pagan influences that were thought to have been forgotten, returned to the surface, especially among the Berbers, but of the Christian religion you will find nothing. Even the holy symbol of the Cross is no more to be seen in even a single monument. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that remains to remind you of the ancient Christian confession of their forefathers. We do recognize that the small remnants of the Church of Christ in Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor have been influenced by Islam in their morals, customs and even in their mode of worship, while among the great populations of Islam you will find no trace, however faint, of the former Christianity. This hurts immensely. This situation is spiritually depressing and must lead to somber reflection. You constantly hope you will come across some reminder somewhere, but you find nothing. No name, no sign, no sound. The ruins tell you that this was once the land of Christians, but provide no clue about that past. As a swarm of locusts descends on an orchard and devours all the leaves and blossoms to leave only bare branches, so has Islam in those countries totally devoured and dissected the Christian orchard till nothing was left.
And now, how did it go with the Muslim mission that caused such a destructive ending for Christendom? I am not now speaking of the harsh manner with which Muhammad himself and the Caliphs after him turned against the Arab Pagans and against the numerous Jews in Medina and surroundings. These idolaters and Jews simply had the sword put to their throat. They had to adopt Islam or pay the supreme price. But this is not where the riddle I am talking about is to be found. These Jews were also among the lower cultures whose Cabalism had caused them to wither spiritually and who later sided with Muslims against Christians. The puzzling question is what enabled Islam to so relentlessly pursue its unprecedented success without interruption when it confronted the Christian Church that was so powerful at the time and ranked spiritually and morally so much higher than Muhammad’s religion. Of course, the violence of the sword terrified the people, but we make a mistake if we imagine that the horsemen that turned up in Syria, Persia and Egypt from Arabia simply put to the sword all who refused to convert to Islam. Instead, they occupied their lands, they evicted those in power and replaced them. They presented themselves as the rulers and, since nothing could withstand the power of their sword, they behaved as lords and masters of the land.
But this is very different from actually conquering the spirit, even though that is what eventually happened. With the exception of a few small remnants, all the descendants of former Christians are today Muslim in heart and soul. This result was not and could not have been reached by violence and force alone. Rather, this spiritual transformation took place very gradually. However, in contrast to Asia and Africa, in the European part of Turkey, including all its former Balkan vassal states, by far the majority have remained Christian till this day.
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