An enormous marble cross has been found in northwest Pakistan, prompting energetic discussions about its origin and dating. The cross, found in the village of Kavardo in the Karakoram mountain range, measures some 2.1m by 1.8m and weighs between three and four tons.
Some scholars have suggested that the marble carving is an ancient St Thomas cross, possibly dating back around 1,200 hundred years, while others argue that it is a pre-Christian symbol or even a piece of stonework taken from a different structure.
A research team from the University of Baltistan in Pakistan have been leading the efforts to uncover its origins.
Prof Muhammad Naeem Khan, vice chancellor of the university, said: “This needs carbon dating and exact scientific evidence, but there's a lot of excitement and a lot of division."
The region in which the cross was found, which neighbours the Himalayan mountain range, is in close proximity to the Silk Road trading routes and therefore could have attracted Christian travellers, according to researchers.
Another researcher from the University of Baltistan, Wajid Bhatti, told the Assyrian international news Agency (AINA) that the cross was "among one of the largest on the Indian subcontinent".
"This is really big news for all of us. This shows that Christianity already existed in the region at that time, and that there must have been a church and Christian homes.
"Currently, no Christian family lives there, but this was clearly the case at the time."
Christianity was thought to have been officially established in India with the arrival of Thomas the Apostle in AD 52.
However, Byzantine history expert, Béatrice Caseau, argued that the presence of the marble cross may serve as proof that merchants from the Middle East spread Christianity to the region at a different time. He explained: "Even if we lack the sources to know with certainty where they passed, we know that Christians from the Persian world, using the Syriac language, came to the Indus region between the fifth and eighth centuries, until the arrival of Islam.”
According to the Barnabas Fund, one local Christian leader responded with joy at the discovery, saying:
“Praise the Lord, this makes me very joyful. It will be a great encouragement to Christians in Pakistan to show that our faith was here many, many generations ago, before Islam came. This is amazing news! I am looking forward to what the research outcome will reveal about Christianity in Pakistan."