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Early Christianity

Christianity began in Jerusalem as a Jewish sect that proclaimed Jesus Christ as the Messiah, or savior of the Jews. As the movement grew after the death of Jesus about ad 30, it separated from the Jewish faith. An early Christian missionary and theologian named Paul began to preach the new religion to the wider, non-Jewish world in the eastern Mediterranean, southwestern Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Conversion was gradual and piecemeal, but by the 2nd century ad Christianity had spread beyond the Middle East to parts of Europe and North Africa. The Romans, whose religion demanded emperor worship, perceived the new religion as a threat to their control. Romans persecuted Christians until the early 4th century when Roman emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and established it as the official religion of the Roman Empire. By 600 most of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Fertile Crescent, as well as southern and western Europe and North Africa, was Christian.

However, differences over interpretation of the faith developed within the early church, prompting councils in the 4th and 5th centuries to define Christian doctrine. Communities that would not accept the councils' definitions formed separate churches. Some of these, such as the Coptic church in Egypt and the Nestorian church in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, still exist today. The split of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western segments in the 4th century and the fall of the Western section in the 5th century undermined the unity of Christianity. A split developed along regional lines between the church of Rome in the West and that of Byzantium (now Istanbul, Turkey) in the East. The two sides became the Catholic and Orthodox churches, respectively, because Eastern Christians would not accept Rome as the center of church authority. The split became permanent in the 11th century, when the Catholic church began to assert its claim to authority more vigorously.

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