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The East-West Schism: A Holy Warfare That Continues to Influence The World’s Geopolitical Environment

Disagreements over theology caused the East-West Schism - Image by PixelPixieStudio from Pixabay

The break of communion between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, also known as  The East-West schism is one of the most influential events to shape world geopolitics. And even though it happened in the 11th century CE, it is still relevant in helping our understanding of the way the world functions today.

The East-West schism ended what might be considered as the first globalization attempt via the Holy Catholic Church. Between 330 and 1054, Europe, Asia Minor, and Northern Africa were involved in a concerted campaign to establish a Christian dynasty of disparate powers all united in the faith.

Five centers of Christianity were established in Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople (Istanbul), and Alexandria. Each patriarchy watched over a vast geopolitical region and was more or less autonomous there.

But they all shared a few distinct characteristics.

  • All were unified via the Holy Catholic Church
  • All coexisted peacefully
  • All had fused church and state machinery together

However, Christendom faced a number of glitches from the onset. Theological differences and disagreements on the extent of papal authority forced a total of 7 ecumenical (international) meetings to be convened. They were all unable to find common ground.

The eventual breakaway happened in July 1054. Pope Leo IX sent a cardinal from Rome to Constantinople to negotiate, but bitter disagreements during the discussions resulted in a mutual ex-communication.

It was hardly interesting enough to make it into our CRE textbooks. But the impacts of that altercation were monumental.

Africans were labeled savages and treated as such. The African Holocaust entailed the death of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions more. Click To Tweet
The Crusades start soon thereafter

After the schism, papal authority to seat and unseat emperors was reinforced. This set in motion one of the most interesting episode in world history – Holy (Christian) Wars, more commonly known as The Crusades.

Basically, the Holy War entailed a war of attrition by Catholic forces against rival creeds all over Europe and Asia Minor. Once the schism had taken place, infighting between factions of Christianity became just as common as wars with other religions.

In Constantinople, papal forces laid siege, conquered, and plundered the city worse than any other occupational force before or after.

A century of Holy Warfare in Europe redefined borders in Europe, established a new brand of religious dogma, and forever altered world geopolitics. It also created bad blood between Christianity and Islam.

Even after Christians eventually left the battlefield, radical Islam continued to use this time-tried strategy of Holy War. Today, it is more commonly referred to as terrorism.

The rise and rise of Islam

The East-West schism was partly fueled by the spread of Islam in the 7th to 10th centuries CE. Eastern churches were considerably more tolerant of Islam than Western ones.

In Ethiopia, the Muslim community there predated the official establishment of Islam as an official religion.

Egypt was also welcoming to Muslim immigrants, at least until they overthrew the government and established a Khedivate there. Alexandria was not exactly lost in the East-West schism. It was already under Muslims in the lead-up to 1054.

Jerusalem was also conquered by Muslim forces in the 9th century. Claimed by both Christianity and Islam as the holiest city, crusading was even more gruesome there.

But in the end, followers of the prophet Muhammad had carved out quite a sizeable piece of Europe for themselves. The Crusades can be seen to have been a direct reaction to this intrusion.

In Africa, Islam became the most popular religion after indigenous worship soon after the East-West schism. In East Africa, strong ties were established with Arabia after the loss of Europe as a trading partner.

It fueled the slave trade

After the official breakdown of relations in 1054, the East-West schism was little more than a diplomatic tiff for a few decades. It wasn’t until 1094 that the first crusade was launched. However, relations soured quickly after this.

Both sides of the schism sought to outdo the other on the world stage. This resulted in a period of stiff and destructive competition.

Exploration of new lands and the slave trade were the main arenas of competition.

The Roman Catholic Church was closely affiliated with Europe’s state machinery during the exploration of America. In fact, the pope issued quite a few special decrees granting the intrepid explorers land rights in these foreign lands.

Among the Eastern churches, Ethiopia emerged as the leader in exploration and slave trading. The Orthodox Tawahedo Church controlled the realm’s state machinery at the peak of the Ethiopian Empire in the 18th century. The 18th century was also the height of slave trading in Africa.

It entrenched racism in the modern world

The East-West schism was fueled by a philosophy known as Arianism which had started back in the 5th century CE. In a very sublime way, Arianism introduces divine eugenics in church dogma.

Even though it was not said outright, an undercurrent of racial profiling has continued to affect world events in oft-ignored ways after the East-West schism.

Nearly millennia after the schism, Aryanism was responsible for the Jewish Pogrom of 1938-45. It was responsible for the death of over 11 million European Jews.

But the pogrom had already been tried out in Africa in the 19th century. After European explorers and missionaries had encountered native worship in the interior, it was labeled as blasphemy.

Africans were labeled savages and treated as such. The African Holocaust entailed the death of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions more.

Displaced Africans were soon virtually enslaved in their own lands. In South Africa, apartheid elevated white settlers to lordship status over their black subjects. It wasn’t much different elsewhere.

Many African nations are still dependent on their colonial masters. The economic and military superiority of Western countries continues to warp international relations in their favor.

Africa is isolated from the world stage

Prior to the East-West schism, Africa had been an active participant at the world stage. Egypt and Ethiopia were especially influential in the early spread of Christianity.

However, after the schism, all this contact dried up. Africa became a true outsider to the world, removed from both European and Arabic circles of influence.

As a result of this isolation, Africans slowly returned to their traditional religious beliefs and practices. Our ancient Christian roots were forgotten, only being revived by the arrival of missionaries in the late 19th century.

Isolation from Christendom resulted in the drying up of international trade with Africa. This embargo further acerbated the effective isolation of Africa.

Also read: How the East-West Schism Impacted Ethiopia


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