The Saints and Martyrs of Asia

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Martyrs of Nagasaki (1628 engraving)
The Saints and Martyrs of Asia
Martyrs of Nagasaki (1628 engraving)

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Asia is the largest of the earth’s continents, stretching from Asia Minor in the west to Japan in the east, from the Siberian Arctic in the north to Sri Lanka in the south. Asia is the home of the very first Christians, but also of many peoples yet to be evangelised.

At Mount Sinai, St Catherine’s is the best known of a number of desert monasteries, where for some fifteen hundred years people have sought a life of perfection regarded as unattainable in the outside world. Turkey was at one time the heartland of Christianity, where scholars produced the creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon, before being over-run by Islam. In other Moslem countries of western Asia, such as Iran, small churches have remained faithful, often through great hardship. In many of these countries, the various Orthodox Churches are significant the Christian tradition, reaching back to the beginnings of the Christian church.

On the Indian sub-continent the faith is traced back at least to the 4th century. This Syrian tradition survives today in South India. More recently the churches in India have led the world church in the quest for Christian unity. Since WWII, united churches have been formed in South India, North India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, providing some of the great leaders in the ecumenical movement.

In China, Christianity has both prospered and temporarily disappeared according to the attitude of the authorities. Successive Nestorian, Roman and Jesuit missions were followed by the return of missionaries in the 19th century, but again there was persecution at the time of the communist takeover and the “cultural revolution”. In the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989, Christians suffered along with other Chinese. The church is now mostly underground (hidden) but independent of outside support, and has developed its own distinctive style of witness and leadership.

In Japan the pattern of conversion and suppression has been followed by toleration. Korea has produced many martyrs and North Korea continues to do so. The Philippine church has had a long struggle for freedom from foreign domination. The same is true in Indonesia, where the largest church anywhere in the Moslem world has been established.

One third of Asia lies in the states that once formed part of the Soviet Union. After the invasion of 1941, German speaking people were deported from the Volga and the Black Sea to Siberia, most of them Lutherans. Many Christians, including Orthodox, suffered in the camps of the Gulag Archipelago. More recently the church has regained toleration and freedom. The Russian Orthodox Church has a proud history stretching back to the 9th century, and there have been numerous saints and martyrs.