Christianity, history and liberty: Constantine’s Cross

Economist: TODAY IS the date when many Christians commemorate Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helen, central figures in the late Roman empire’s conversion to Christianity. Historians still argue about the significance of this change. Sceptical thinkers like Edward Gibbon and Friedrich Nietzsche deplored it as a way-station in imperial decline. But in the collective memory of Christians, there is enduring gratitude for the Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine 1,700 years ago, when persecution gave way to religious tolerance. This early version of secularism did not last long; by the end of that century, Christianity had become an official credo, with the emperor enforcing its doctrines.

I spent the final part of last week at a gathering in Istanbul which commemorated the Edict of Milan as a landmark in the history of religious freedom. It was organised by a Catholic body—the Council of European Episcopal Conferences—and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which by tradition enjoys “primacy of honour”  in the Orthodox Christian world. Participants included some lay historians and social scientists, including a Muslim Turkish scholar, Semiha Topal; but the majority were clergy or church-affiliated people from Europe and the Middle East.

A good chance, then, for comfortable Christians from western Europe to give heart to their co-religionists in tougher places further east? Well, some such messages of solidarity were conveyed, and prayers were offered for the two Syrian bishops kidnapped on April 22nd.  But my strongest impression was different; I was struck by the resilience and practicality of the Middle Eastern clergy, and the sense of grievance and frustration articulated by Christian speakers from Europe.

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