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In China, similarly, the so-called Nestorian Stele, which dates from the eighth century, tells us of the arrival of the Christian missionary, Alo-Pen, and his team in 635. They received imperial favour and, in spite of opposition, the Church flourished there until the loss of royal patronage and persecution led to its decline from the ninth century onwards. The discovery of a Christian pagoda, from the 8th century, by Dr Peter Saeki, a Japanese scholar, in the 1930s, as well as its rediscovery by Martin Palmer more recently, and also of the so-called Jesus-Sutras at Dunhuang, confirm a flourishing Christian presence in China.

The wonderful account of two Chinese monks, Rabban Sauma and his disciple Markos, who were dispatched from Beijing by the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, to worship at Jerusalem, shows the Church still in China in the 13th century. As is well known, Markos was first made Metropolitan of China by the Patriarch, Dinkha I, and then, on the death of the Patriarch, was himself elected Patriarch under the name Yaballaha (“given by God”) III. Both he and the local Khan sent Rabban Sauma to the West to forge an alliance against the Seljuk Turks and to recover Jerusalem. His meetings with representatives of the Pope, his celebration of the Eucharist in Rome and his visits to various monarchs are all found in the journal of their travels published in English by Wallis Budge under the title The Monks of Kublai Khan.

In the subsequent centuries, this Church would experience many ups and downs. There would be serious persecution from the very groups they had tried to reach. In the last days of the Ottoman Empire, there were to be massacres of the Assyrians, as these Christians were also called. They were to be betrayed about promises for a homeland of their own by Western powers. Most recently, they, as well as others, have been the target of Islamist extremism of the most violent kind. To protect themselves and to find fellowship with the wider Church, many of their number have entered into communion with the Roman See, whilst retaining their liturgy and customs. They are now known as the Chaldean Catholic Church.

Both Buddhism and Christianity arrived along the Silk Road at about the same time, in the first and second century AD. Both encountered entrenched religious, philosophical and ethical traditions to which they had to relate. Buddhism, as it spread to China, had to encounter the ethical and civic system of Confucianism and to accommodate itself to the high value given to a structured society, to the worship of ancestors and to a syncretistic tendency among Confucianists. As the Jesus-Sutras show, Christianity in China also had to adapt itself to Taoist and Buddhist terminology so it would make sense in that context.

The encounter between Buddhism, in its Mahayana form, and Christianity in our area of discussion repays some consideration. As the story of Barlaam and Joasaph reveals, it was possible for even a great Eastern theologian like St John of Damascus to use Buddhist motifs and ideas to tell a Christian story about India. At the same time, it appears that the Mahayana emphasis on Buddha as a saviour of the human race has something to do with Christianity’s central beliefs, as may a renewed emphasis on Metta, or the Buddha’s unconditional love for humankind, and on wisdom.

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