When the Roman Empire first regarded the early church as a branch of Judaism, Christianity was legally protected. Eventually the profession of Christianity became a crime, and the degree of persecution or tolerance wavered according to the whims of the reigning emperor and the local ruler. Increased martyrdom brought on the development of apologetics and theological precision in addressing controversy and fostered order in the life of the church. Sometimes Christians felt protected from state persecution, but periods of fierce official persecution were common.
When Diocletian in 303 stepped up the Roman persecution of Christians, he perceived the church as a political threat, a state within a state, developing an establishment paralleling his government. He ordered churches destroyed, clergy imprisoned, sacred books confiscated, and rampant martyrdom of believers. Only in April 311 was an Edict of Toleration of Christians issued, and in 313 the Emperor Constantine promulgated the Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of conscience. When Constantine transferred his capital from Rome to Byzantium the spread of Christianity coincided with the spread of the Roman Empire.
Desiring Christianity to be as united as the law and citizenship of the empire, Constantine convoked church councils to settle theological questions and disputes under imperial supervision. In May 325 the first general council met in Nicaea. The bishops attended at government expense. Constantine himself participated and took positions, advocating a universal creed. Following that first council the debates continued in matters of Christology, and imperial interference played a part. Any departure from official Christian orthodoxy was regarded as a state crime.
Subsequent councils were called by imperial rulers with the expectation that a united religion would mean a united empire. But this backfired, and the opposite occurred. Schisms proliferated. By the close of the sixth century there was confusion and serious disaffection from orthodox Christianity, and consequently from the Constantinople government. In those parts of the empire where the churches did not accept the Council of Chalcedon (451), Christians were heavily taxed for disagreeing with the doctrines supported by the emperor. Some parts of the empire suffered abuse and persecution from Byzantine Christians. The invasion of the Persians into parts of Byzantium only aggravated the situation.
With the seventh-century Muslim invasion, some Christians welcomed the Muslim Arabs, because often the Islamic protection was better than that of Constantinople or the Persians. With this new regime Christians were given a special but secondary status in society (dhimmi) which offered government protection. But there was a price to pay, a special tax (jizya), in addition to laws imposing constraints on dress and manners, and forbidding the riding of animals. The use of religious symbols in public was forbidden, and there were prohibitions against building or repairing churches, ringing bells, and the public display of crosses. Non-Muslims were not allowed missionary activity, and Muslims were forbidden to convert to Christianity.
This two-tiered system made the Christians second- class citizens but allowed them to live peacefully side by side with the Muslims and others. But this millet system reinforced the divisions among churches and splintered Christianity. Some Christians succumbed to Islam rather than remain in a subordinate social standing. Yet Christianity thrived in many places, and Christians remained the majority in that region into the ninth century.
In these times Eastern and Western Christianity became increasingly estranged religiously and politically. Western Latin Christianity was more strongly adversarial toward Islam. This resulted in the Crusades of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. The Crusades began as a desire to free the Holy Land from the Muslims, but ended with the sack of Constantinople and the Eastern churches. Western Christianity oppressed the Christian East. Christian nations oppressed the Muslims. Because Islam did not recognize the separation of religion and government, the Muslims failed to see the difference between local Christians of the East and the hostile Western Christian governments that mounted the Crusades.
Several Muslim dynasties ruled following the Crusades. The last was the Ottoman Empire, which established its capital in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453. The Ottomans reinforced the subordinate status of Christians and Jews through the millet system. The Ottoman caliph considered “Armenian” those Christians who rejected the Council of Chalcedon. This led to frictions and internal quarrels in the differing millets. In the latter times of the Ottoman Empire European nations opened commercial contacts in the Near East and Middle East. The European powers requested the right to protect their trading clients, often Christians. Different governments protected different churches, and this aligned Eastern churches with European political centers. Gradually this disrupted the millet system as European governments wanted equality of citizenship for Eastern Christians.
With Islam, religion and government are joined in the service of God, and the same person usually provides both religious and civic leadership. The Islamic ideal is a worldwide Muslim community (‘ummah) in which politics and religion are one, and racial and ethnic distinctions are not important. The Qur’an and other Islamic religious books are the foundation for the legal system, and there is no institution parallel to the Church. Christian religious leaders always had difficulty convincing their Muslim rulers of their civic loyalty because they also wanted to be in contact with the foreign religious hierarchy. The protection by European governments increased the doubts about the civic loyalty of Eastern Christians.
With the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, European nations assumed mandates in some parts of the former empire to form nation-states in which citizenship would be based on one’s place or residence or birth rather than on religion, and in which religious organizations would be free from government control. This was in opposition to the ideal of ‘ummah, the united community under single governance with economic, social, and legal practices based on religion.
Today these two opposing views are still in contention, and vie for acceptance. In the Middle East we find as much diversity among governments concerning church and state as in the West. Eastern Christian minorities still struggle for equality of citizenship.
The attached article appeared in the The Flyer, quarterly newsletter of St. Joseph of Cupertino Parish, September 2014, page 2.