Religion of Light

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The Holy Assembly of the Luminous Religion from Daqin is the official full name of the Assyrian Christian faith in the Chinas. The Church of the Luminous Religion is a member of the Communion of the Church of the East.




According to a VIII Century monument set up at the entrance to the Patriarchal headquarters in Xi'an, the Christian faith was brought to China before the VII Century by an Assyrian missionary named Mar Alopen. This was in the middle of the Tang dynasty in Chinese history, and the monument states that Christianity even obtained the recognition of the Tang emperor Taizong in 635.

The Christians of this period seem to have actively cultivated the most prominent Confucians that they could. The first missionaries apparently made a decision that Confucianism was a system of behaviour and moral code without doctrinal underpinnings that necessarily brought it into contact with Christian theology. Buddhism, on the other hand, has been hostile to Christianity in China since the beginning. Both sides seemed to recognize instinctively that the philosophical worldviews of the two religions are irreconcilable: Christianity treats mankind and world as the meaningful creations of a personal Deity who has left the imprint of Divine order on the created world. Buddhism treats mankind and the world as transient aggregations emerging naturally from underlying conditions that are formless and without volition.

Persecutions by the late Tang emperors did not manage to completely extirpate the Assyrian Church, though the post-Tang "Period of the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms" almost did. It is probable that the increased Central Asian presence of the Assyrian Church aided the survival of the Chinese church during this period. Central Asia provided a refuge of sorts for some of Western China's Christians, and a pool from which missionaries continued to be sent into the Middle Kingdom.

The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period is remembered in the Church of the East as a time of great and terrible persecutions. Many of the rulers of this period tried to increase their influence by showering favour on the more numerous Buddhists, and the often implacable hostility of the two religions to one another in China meant that Christians were almost always singled out for persecution in these cases.

One of the major difficulties for the Church in this period was that Christians had very little way to influence the rulers without admitting directly to Christianity. As a proscribed cult, Christianity was barred from official circles, and even the noted Assyrian physicians found no place; their role was already taken by traditional Chinese medical practitioners.

It has been said, however, that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, and in the early Sung dynasty, some of those seeds began to grow. Christianity has always been a relatively minor religion in the Chinas, but never again would the Chinese Church be in such desperate danger of utter collapse.


Initially, the Church in China was under the administration of the Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, however, in the late XIV - early XV Century, Timür's persecutions of the Assyrian Church in Central Asia and the Middle East combined with the disapproval of the Chinese ruling classes of "the foreign religion" to virtually isolate the growing Chinese church from its theoretical governing centre. In practice, Assyrian metropolitan archbishops are fairly autonomous, however, and wide latitude is given them in matters of practice, if not in doctrine.

Some time after the death of Timür, the nine Metropolitans of the Chinese Assyrian Church ((Including the original three Xi'an, Lanzhou and Nanjing) were directed by the Ming Emperor to journey to the Catholicos in Baghdaad informing him that the Emperor would henceforth be the head of the Christians in his empire, as was proper for the centre of civilisation. The three Metropolitans cast lots to determine who should bear the message. The lot fell to the Metropolitan of Xi'an, Mar Tulumai, whose name translated is Bartholomew. He set off in the year 1427 to the city of Baghdaad wherein the Patriarch of Seleucia resided.

Arriving in the city the following year, Mar Tulumai found that Catholicos Mar Shimun II was an old and somewhat feeble-minded man not expected to live much longer and very conscious of the damage dome by Timür to his church. Those close to the Catholicos strongly suggested that Mar Tulumai not seek an audience with the Patriarch at this time for this purpose, but Mar Tulumai was used to the machinations of Chinese court politics, and considered this to be just another part of the game.

As the advisers had feared, however his audience with the Catholicos did not go well. Mar Shimun II refused to countenance the effective secession of any region of his church, and by all accounts, was not gentle in telling the Chinese Metropolitan so.

Three weeks later, when Mar Tulumai was still in Baghdaad, however, Catholicos Mar Shimun II died. His successor Mar Mertas III was able to see that going out of his way to irritate the Chinese Emperor in this way would probably prove fatal for many of the Christians of the Chinese Empire. Unwilling to provoke another round of martyrdom when there was a reasonable way to avoid the large number of deaths that would undoubtedly result, he recalled Mar Tulumai. Then, as one of his first regnal acts, he raised Xi'an to a Patriarchate and granted autocephaly to the Assyrian Church in China. By doing this, he effectively placed the issue of Imperial headship right back in the lap of Mar Tulumai. Patriarch Mar Tulumai was quick to acknowledge the Emperor as having the Mandate of Heaven, and as such worthy of his, and every Assyrian Christian's, obedience.

Subsequent history

The operational areas of the Chinese Religion of Light church and the Assyrian Church have subsequently overlapped in several areas. In Uyguristan particularly, this overlap is mostly along ethnic/cultural lines. Uygurs tend to belong to the Assyrian Church, Han Chinese to the Religion of Light.

In other parts of the Chinas, there has been enough communication and moving around of people that the Assyrian Church once again has a foothold in some parts of China. There is a tacit understanding between the two Patriarchs that no appointments higher than bishop shall be made by the Catholicos in the operational area of the Religion of Light, but there are several not-quite-officially metropolitan bishops of that Church in the Chinas to this day. It was parts of this Assyrian Church which eventually founded the Borneian Church.

Theological Distinctives

The Luminous Religion, often called the Religion of Light, has an Assyrian base to its understanding of Christianity, and the two churches recognise each other's liturgies and sacerdotal appointments. However, the theology of the Religion of Light has been modified somewhat by the Confucianism that has surrounded it since its founding. In fact, many see the Luminous Religion as being both Confucian and Christian. This is not to say that there have not been conflicts with Confucianism. In particular, Christian egalitarianism has often been seen to go too far by the aristocratically dominated standard interpretations of Confucianism. However, if the Luminous Religion has been influenced by Confucianism, this influence has also been returned (if to a lesser degree).

The Luminous Religion has adopted some of the Confucian doctrine of filial piety, and has in effect added to the Confucian "Five Bonds" of relationship a sixth: God to Man. God, as the ultimate source of the human race (see St. Luke 4:38) is thus due the ultimate filial piety and honour. Christ is sometimes seen in this context as a combination of spiritual ancestor and heavenly elder brother; his is a true noble example to follow (matching the Confucian ideal of the "true gentleman" or "righteous man") and a salvation to honour with one's life. Particular emphasis, in fact, is laid on doing God proper honour through a harmonious life of reverence. The Eucharist ("Holy Qurbana" in the Assyrian Church) is seen as a kind of capstone of the rites, which completes and perfects the everyday rites of faith, mercy/benevolence, right living and fellowship/harmony.

Mostly, however, the differences are just those of practice and of structure. For example, the simple, fairly consistent Holy Qurbana of the Assyrian Church of the East has been modified over time by the Religion of Light into a complex schema, with simple rites for the peasant on one end of the scale, and long, involved, high-ceremonial rituals for higher churchmen and government officials.

It should also be mentioned that the Religion of Light in the Chinas exists in a state of almost permanent dispute and sometimes outright hostility with Buddhism. The differences of how the two religions conceive of the world are probably irreconcilable in that the Christians believe that the world and mankind are objectively real and the Buddhists believe that people are a temporary collection of sense phenomena. This leads the two religions to frame very different fundamental questions - they are attempts to resolve different conceptions of what The Problem is. In the Chinas, Buddhism has always been the larger of the two groups, though at a few times, the Luminous Religion has begun to approach Buddhism in terms of numbers of adherents. Persecutions have been frequent, however, and official preferring of Buddhists over Christians has been considered a way for Emperors to garner support and increase their influence. There have, however, been times where the reverse has been true - several Emperors have shown favour to the Church as a way of keeping the Buddhists in line, or keeping them from becoming too powerful. These have been rarer, however.


The Holy Assembly of the Luminous Religion is much more "top-down" and hierarchical than the other Churches of the East. At the top is the Patriarch of Xi'an, then under him are several Prince-Metropolitans, who oversee the regular Metropolitans. Below them are the bishops, priests and monks.

Like many of the Churches of the East, monasticism is an important component of the Religion of Light, but Luminous Religion monasticism often takes the form of temporary vows rather than the lifelong religious orders more usual in the West. In this, it is perhaps borrowing unconsciously from certain varieties of Buddhism.

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