Historian explores Christianity's lost age, lands

DALLAS, Dec 1 (Reuters Life!) - Christianity is often viewed as a Western faith which used Europe as its springboard for global expansion.

But historian Philip Jenkins argues in a new book that this narrative neglects the faith's first 1,000 years when Christianity set down firm roots in Asia and Africa - roots that flourished into huge churches but were pruned, withered and died.

"We can't understand Christian history without Asia - or, indeed, Asian history without Christianity," Jenkins writes in 'The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia - and How It Died.'

He notes that churches were operating in Sri Lanka before England had its first archbishop of Canterbury and that Nestorian Christian branches were well established across Asia long before Poland became Catholic.

Jenkins attributes the decline of these ancient churches to a number of factors including the rise of Islam and climate change which stoked social tensions -- connecting distant dots in a thought-provoking manner that is sure to stir debate.

One result is that the Christian church in the Middle East, the land of its birth, has shrunk to the point that Jenkins says in a "geographical sense. Christianity has no heart, no natural core."

He notes that while Islam is now the dominant faith in many formerly Christian lands - and he takes issue with the "myth of Muslim tolerance" - he also argues that it would be wrong to interpret this, as many U.S. conservatives do, as a "deadly warning against the Islamic threat."

"Historically, all major religions have produced multiple instances of intolerance and persecution, and the scriptures of Islam include considerably fewer calls to blood-curdling violence than do their Christian and Jewish counterparts."

Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, spoke to Reuters about his book and the light it may shed on unfolding events:

Q: Christianity became "European" but could perhaps have become the dominant faith of, say, Asia. What role do you think chance plays in such developments?

A: "There were all sorts of moments when things could easily have gone the other way. There are wars which go one way or the other. There is a conversion that goes one way or the other. One of the biggest moments of chance was right around 1300 when the Mongol kings who ruled most of Asia could have gone Muslim, or Christian or even Buddhist. And eventually they became Muslim. Had they become Christian we probably would be looking at a Christian Asia."

Q: Christianity's current "growth area" is in Asia and particularly Africa. Do you see this as a return to its "early roots?

A: "Christianity in the last 50 years or so is going home. It is a religion that was born in Asia and Africa ... and by far the largest growth (now) is in Africa. There were 10 million Christians in Africa in 1900 and 360 million by 2000. That is the largest numerical change that has ever happened in the history of any religion."

Q: You describe the underlying struggle between Christians and Muslims as a "conflict within a family, and no feud is more bitter." What do you make of current efforts at interfaith dialogue?

A: "I have a little bit of a different view here. I think that the most important kinds of dialogue happen at what you might call street and village level rather than between say church leaders and intellectuals. I think that some of the most helpful things that happen in this way have been in Nigeria, where you have people who used to lead militias and are now speaking to each other on a daily basis trying to prevent violence."

Q: You say like any religion, Christianity is as vulnerable to destruction as was the faith of the Aztecs. Do you believe that none of the world's major faiths are immune to "extinction?"

A: "It would be very, very hard indeed to imagine the extinction of Christianity or Islam. But what I mean is it is certainly possible to imagine them being utterly destroyed in particular places ... I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think that I may be part of the last generation that will know Christianity in the Middle East.