Islam and the Destruction of Eastern and North African Christianity

Islam and the Destruction of Eastern and North African Christianity

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By Rodney Stark

(from his book: The Triumph of Christianity, ch 12)

 CHRISTIANITY DID NOT START OUT as a European religious movement; in early days far more missionary activity was devoted to the East than to the West. Thus, following his conversion, Paul devoted his initial missionary efforts to Arabia[1] (Gal. 1:17). Subsequently, when the Great Revolt brought Roman vengeance unto Israel, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem appear to have taken shelter in the East. Although we know precious little about how Christianity was spread in the East, we know that it was extremely successful there, soon becoming a major presence in Syria, Persia, parts of Arabia, Mesopotamia, Turkestan, Armenia, and on into India and even with several outposts in China.[2] As for North Africa, it was “the most Christianized region of the Western empire,”[3] home to “such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine.”[4] By the year 300, it is plausible that more than half of all Christians lived in the East and Africa; in 325, 55 percent of the bishops invited to the Council of Nicaea were from the East and this did not, of course, include Montanists, Marcionites, Manichaeists, or other Eastern “heretical” Christians. By the year 500, probably more than two-thirds of Christians were outside of Europe,[5] and if we can identify “a Christian center of gravity” at this time, it would be in “Syria rather than Italy.”[6]

    Christianity became a predominately European faith “by default”[7] when it was destroyed in Asia and North Africa. The destruction began in the seventh and early eighth century when these areas were overrun by Islam. The number of Eastern bishops (as measured by council attendance) fell from 338 in 754 to 110 in 896.[8] However, following the initial Muslim conquests, for centuries Christians persisted as a large, if repressed, majority. Then, in the fourteenth century came a relentless and violent Muslim campaign of extermination and forced conversions. After centuries of gradual decline, the number of Christians in the East and North Africa suddenly was reduced to less than 2 percent of the population by 1400.[9] With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Christianity had been essentially restricted to Europe. That is the story to be told in this chapter


[1] Paul “used ‘the East’ and ‘Arabia’ as interchangeable terms” (Briggs 1913, 257).

[2] Atiya 1968; Jenkins 2008; Moffett 1992; Stark 2009.

[3] Löhr 2007, 40

[4] Jenkins 2002, 17.

[5] My calculation based on Barrett 1982, 796.

[6] Jenkins 2002, 17.

[7] Jenkins 2008, 3.

[8] Noble 2008, 251.

[9] My calculation based on Barrett 1982, 796.

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