Persecution Of Christians
The persecution of Christians can be historically traced from the first century of the Christian era to the present day. Christian missionaries and converts to Christianity have both been targets of persecution, sometimes to the point of being martyred for their faith, ever since the emergence of Christianity. Since the emergence of Christian states in Late Antiquity, Christians have also been persecuted by other Christians over differences in doctrine characterized as heresy.
Early Christians were persecuted for their faith at the hands of both the Jews, from whose religion Christianity arose, and the Romans who controlled many of the lands across which early Christianity was spread in the Roman Empire. Early in the fourth century, the empire’s official persecutions were ended by the Edict of Serdica and the practice of Christianity legalized by the Edict of Milan. Shortly thereafter, Christians began persecuting each other. The schisms of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages – including the Rome–Constantinople schisms and the many Christological controversies – together with the later Protestant Reformation provoked severe conflicts between Christian denominations. During these conflicts, the various denominations frequently persecuted each other and caused sectarian violence. In the 20th century, Christian populations were persecuted, sometimes to the point of genocide, by various states, including the Ottoman Empire and its successor, which committed the Hamidian massacres, the Armenian Genocide, the Assyrian Genocide, and the Greek Genocide, and officially atheist states such as the Soviet Union, Communist Albania, and North Korea.
The persecution of Christians has continued into the 21st century. Since Christianity is the largest world religion, its adherents live across the globe. Approximately 10% of the world’s Christians are minorities who live in non-Christian-majority states. Persecution includes the persecution of Christians by Christians and the persecution of Christians by ISIL and other terrorist groups, with official state persecution mostly occurring in countries in Africa and Asia with a state religion or religious favoritism, or in currently or formerly communist countries.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2020 report, Christians in Burma, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Vietnam are persecuted; these countries are labelled “countries of particular concern” by the United States Department of State, because of their governments’ engagement in, or toleration of, “severe violations of religious freedom”. The same report recommends that Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, the Central African Republic, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sudan, and Turkey constitute the US State Department’s “special watchlist” of countries in which the government allows or engages in “severe violations of religious freedom”.
Much persecution of Christians is undertaken by non-state actors labelled “entities of particular concern” by the US State Department, including the Islamist groups Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Houthi movement in Yemen, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province in Pakistan, al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, as well as the United Wa State Army and participants in the Kachin conflict in Burma.
Main article: Persecution of Christians in the New Testament
Early Christianity began as a sect among Second Temple Jews, and according to the New Testament account, Pharisees, including Saul of Tarsus (prior to his conversion to Christianity as Saint Paul), persecuted early Christians. The early Christians preached the second coming of a Messiah which did not conform to their religious teachings. However, feeling that their beliefs were supported by Jewish scripture, Christians had been hopeful that their countrymen would accept their faith. Despite individual conversions, the vast majority of Judean Jews did not become Christians.
Claudia Setzer asserts that, “Jews did not see Christians as clearly separate from their own community until at least the middle of the second century.” Thus, acts of Jewish persecution of Christians fall within the boundaries of synagogue discipline and were so perceived by Jews acting and thinking as the established community. The Christians, on the other hand, saw themselves as persecuted rather than “disciplined.”
Inter-communal dissension began almost immediately with the teachings of the outspoken Saint Stephen at Jerusalem, who was considered an apostate by Jewish authorities. According to the Acts of the Apostles, a year after the Crucifixion of Jesus, Stephen was stoned for his alleged transgression of the faith, with Saul (who later converted and was renamed Paul) acquiescing and looking on.
In 41 AD, when Herod Agrippa, who already possessed the territory of Herod Antipas and Philip (his former colleagues in the Herodian Tetrarchy), obtained the title of King of the Jews, in a sense re-forming the Kingdom of Judea of Herod the Great (r. 37–4 BC). Herod Agrippa was reportedly eager to endear himself to his Jewish subjects and continued the persecution in which James the Great lost his life, Saint Peter narrowly escaped and the rest of the apostles took flight.
After Agrippa’s death in 44, the Roman procuratorship began (before 41 they were Prefects in Iudaea Province) and those leaders maintained a neutral peace, until the procurator Porcius Festus died in 62 and the high priest Ananus ben Ananus took advantage of the power vacuum to attack the Church and executed James the Just, then leader of Jerusalem’s Christians. The New Testament states that Paul was himself imprisoned on several occasions by the Roman authorities, stoned by the Pharisees and left for dead on one occasion, and was eventually taken to Rome as a prisoner. Peter and other early Christians were also imprisoned, beaten and harassed. The First Jewish Rebellion, spurred by the Roman killing of 3,000 Jews, led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the end of Second Temple Judaism (and the subsequent slow rise of Rabbinic Judaism ), and the disempowering of the Jewish persecutors. According to an old church tradition, which is mostly doubted by historians, the early Christian community fled Jerusalem beforehand, to the already pacified region of Pella.
Luke T. Johnson nuances the harsh portrayal of the Jews in the Gospels by contextualizing the polemics within the rhetoric of contemporaneous philosophical debate, showing how rival schools of thought routinely insulted and slandered their opponents. These attacks were formulaic and stereotyped, crafted to define who was the enemy in the debates, but not used with the expectation that their insults and accusations would be taken literally, as they would be centuries later, resulting in millennia of antisemitism in Christianity.
By the 4th century, John Chrysostom argued that the Pharisees alone, not the Romans, were responsible for the murder of Jesus. However, according to Walter Laqueur, “Absolving Pilate of guilt may have been connected to the missionary activities of early Christians in Rome and their desire not to antagonize those who they wanted to convert.”
Main article: Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire
The persecution of Christians occurred, sporadically and usually locally, throughout the Roman Empire, beginning in the 1st century AD and ending in the 4th century AD. Originally a polytheistic empire in the traditions of Roman paganism and the Hellenistic religion, as Christianity spread through the empire, it came into ideological conflict with the imperial cult of ancient Rome. Pagan practices such as making sacrifices to the deified emperors or other gods were abhorrent to Christians as their beliefs prohibited idolatry. The state and other members of civic society punished Christians for treason, various rumored crimes, illegal assembly, and for introducing an alien cult that led to Roman apostasy.
The first documented case of imperially supervised persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire begins with Nero (54–68). In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome, destroying portions of the city and impoverishing the Roman population. Some people suspected that Nero himself was the arsonist, as Suetonius reported, claiming that he played the lyre and sang the ‘Sack of Ilium’ during the fires. In the Annals, Tacitus wrote:
…To get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Chrestians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (emphasis added)— Tacitus’ Annals 15.44, see Tacitus on Christ
This passage in Tacitus constitutes the only independent attestation that Nero blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome, and while it is generally believed to be authentic and reliable, some modern scholars have cast doubt on this view, largely because there is no further reference to Nero’s blaming of Christians for the fire until the late 4th century. Suetonius, later to the period, does not mention any persecution after the fire, but in a previous paragraph unrelated to the fire, mentions punishments inflicted on Christians, defined as men following a new and malefic superstition. Suetonius, however, does not specify the reasons for the punishment; he simply lists the fact together with other abuses put down by Nero.
From Nero to Decius
In the first two centuries Christianity was a relatively small sect which was not a significant concern of the Emperor. Rodney Stark estimates there were less than 10,000 Christians in the year 100. Christianity grew to about 200,000 by the year 200, which works out to about .36% of the population of the empire, and then to almost 2 million by 250, still making up less than 2% of the empire’s overall population. According to Guy Laurie, the Church was not in a struggle for its existence during its first centuries. However, Bernard Green says that, although early persecutions of Christians were generally sporadic, local, and under the direction of regional governors, not emperors, Christians “were always subject to oppression and at risk of open persecution.” James L. Papandrea says there are ten emperors generally accepted to have sponsored state sanctioned persecution of Christians, though the first empire wide government sponsored persecution wasn’t until Decius in 249.
Some early Christians sought out and welcomed martyrdom. Roman authorities tried hard to avoid Christians because they “goaded, chided, belittled and insulted the crowds until they demanded their death.”
According to Droge and Tabor, “in 185 the proconsul of Asia, Arrius Antoninus, was approached by a group of Christians demanding to be executed. The proconsul obliged some of them and then sent the rest away, saying that if they wanted to kill themselves there was plenty of rope available or cliffs they could jump off.” Such seeking after death is found in Tertullian’s Scorpiace and in the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch but was not the only view of martyrdom in the early Christian church. The 2nd-century text Martyrdom of Polycarp relates the story of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who did not desire death, but died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire miraculously failed to touch him. The Martyrdom of Polycarp advances an argument for a particular understanding of martyrdom, with Polycarp’s death as its prized example. The example of the Phrygian Quintus, who actively sought out martyrdom, is repudiated.
According to two different Christian traditions, Simon bar Kokhba, the leader of the second Jewish revolt against Rome (132–136 AD) who was proclaimed Messiah, persecuted the Christians: Justin Martyr claims that Christians were punished if they did not deny and blaspheme Jesus Christ, while Eusebius asserts that Bar Kokhba harassed them because they refused to join his revolt against the Romans. The latter is likely true, and Christians’ refusal to take part in the revolt against the Roman Empire was a key event in the schism of Early Christianity and Judaism.
One traditional account of killing is the Persecution in Lyon in which Christians were purportedly mass-slaughtered by being thrown to wild beasts under the decree of Roman officials for reportedly refusing to renounce their faith according to Irenaeus. The sole source for this event is early Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea’s Church History, an account written in Egypt in the 4th century. Tertullian’s Apologeticus of 197 was ostensibly written in defense of persecuted Christians and was addressed to Roman governors.
Trajan’s policy towards Christians was no different from the treatment of other sects, that is, they would only be punished if they refused to worship the emperor and the gods, but they were not to be sought out. The “edict of Septimius Severus” touted in the Augustan History is considered unreliable by historians. According to Eusebius, the Imperial household of Maximinus Thrax’s predecessor, Severus Alexander, had contained many Christians. Eusebius states that, hating his predecessor’s household, Maximinus ordered that the leaders of the churches should be put to death. According to Eusebius, this persecution of 235 sent Hippolytus of Rome and Pope Pontian into exile but other evidence suggests that the persecutions of 235 were local to the provinces where they occurred rather than happening under the direction of the Emperor.
In the reign of the emperor Decius (r. 249–251), a decree was issued requiring that all residents of the empire should perform sacrifices, to be enforced by the issuing of each person with a libellus certifying that they had performed the necessary ritual. It is not known what motivated Decius’s decree, or whether it was intended to target Christians, though it is possible the emperor was seeking divine favors in the forthcoming wars with the Carpi and the Goths. According to Eusebius, bishops Alexander of Jerusalem, Babylas of Antioch, and Fabian of Rome were all imprisoned and killed. The patriarch Dionysius of Alexandria escaped captivity, while the bishop Cyprian of Carthage fled his episcopal see to the countryside.
The legally-required sacrifices were a formality equivalent to a testimonial of allegiance to the emperor and the established order. Decius authorized roving commissions visiting the cities and villages to supervise the execution of the sacrifices and to deliver written certificates to all citizens who performed them. Christians were often given opportunities to avoid further punishment by publicly offering sacrifices or by burning incense to Roman gods, and were accused by the Romans of impiety when they refused. Refusal was punished by arrest, imprisonment, torture, and executions. Christians fled to safe havens in the countryside and some purchased their libelli. Several councils held at Carthage debated the extent to which the community should accept these lapsed Christians. The Christian church, despite no indication in the surviving texts that the edict targeted any specific group, never forgot the reign of Decius whom they labelled as that “fierce tyrant”. After Decius died, Trebonianus Gallus (r. 251–253) succeeded him and continued the Decian persecution for the duration of his reign.
The accession of Trebonianus Gallus’s successor Valerian (r. 253–260) ended the Decian persecution. In 257 however, Valerian began to enforce public religion. Cyprian of Carthage was exiled and executed the following year, while Pope Sixtus II was also put to death. Dionysius of Alexandria was tried, urged to recognize “the natural gods” in the hope his congregation would imitate him, and exiled when he refused.
Valerian was defeated by the Persians at the Battle of Edessa and himself taken prisoner in 260. According to Eusebius, Valerian’s son, co-augustus, and successor Gallienus (r. 253–268) allowed Christian communities to use again their cemeteries and made restitution of their confiscated buildings. Eusebius wrote that Gallienus allowed the Christians “freedom of action”.
The Great Persecution
See also: Persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire
The Great Persecution, or Diocletianic Persecution, was begun by the senior augustus and Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) on 23 February 303. In the eastern Roman empire, the official persecution lasted intermittently until 313, while in the western Roman empire the persecution went unenforced from 306. According to Lactantius’s De mortibus persecutorum (“on the deaths of the persecutors”), Diocletian’s junior emperor, the caesar Galerius (r. 293–311) pressured the augustus to begin persecuting Christians. Eusebius of Caesarea’s Church History reports that imperial edicts were promulgated to destroy churches and confiscate scriptures, and to remove Christian occupants of government positions, while Christian priests were to be imprisoned and required to perform sacrifice in ancient Roman religion. In the account of Eusebius, an unnamed Christian man (named by later hagiographers as Euethius of Nicomedia and venerated on the 27 February) tore down a public notice of an imperial edict while the emperors Diocletian and Galerius were in Nicomedia (İzmit), one of Diocletian’s capitals; according to Lactantius, he was tortured and burned alive. According to Lactantius, the church at Nicomedia (İzmit) was destroyed, while the Optatan Appendix has an account from the praetorian prefecture of Africa involving the confiscation of written materials which led to the Donatist schism. According to Eusebius’s Martyrs of Palestine and Lactantius’s De mortibus persecutorum, a fourth edict in 304 demanded that everyone perform sacrifices, though in the western empire this was not enforced.
An “unusually philosophical” dialogue is recorded in the trial proceedings of Phileas of Thmuis, bishop of Thmuis in Egypt’s Nile Delta, which survive on Greek papyri from the 4th century among the Bodmer Papyri and the Chester Beatty Papyri of the Bodmer and Chester Beatty libraries and in manuscripts in Latin, Ethiopic, and Coptic languages from later centuries, a body of hagiography known as the Acts of Phileas. Phileas was condemned at his fifth trial at Alexandria under Clodius Culcianus, the praefectus Aegypti on 4 February 305 (the 10th day of Mecheir).
In the western empire, the Diocletianic Persecution ceased with the usurpation by two emperors’ sons in 306: that of Constantine, who was acclaimed augustus by the army after his father Constantius I (r. 293–306) died, and that of Maxentius (r. 306–312) who was elevated to augustus by the Roman Senate after the grudging retirement of his father Maximian (r. 285–305) and his co-augustus Diocletian in May 305. Of Maxentius, who controlled Italy with his now un-retired father, and Constantine, who controlled Britain, Gaul, and Iberia, neither was inclined to continue the persecution. In the eastern empire however, Galerius, now augustus, continued Diocletian’s policy. Eusebius’s Church History and Martyrs of Palestine both give accounts of martyrdom and persecution of Christians, including Eusebius’s own mentor Pamphilus of Caesarea, with whom he was imprisoned during the persecution.
When Galerius died in May 311, he is reported by Lactantius and Eusebius to have composed a deathbed edict – the Edict of Serdica – allowing the assembly of Christians in conventicles and explaining the motives for the prior persecution. Eusebius wrote that Easter was celebrated openly. By autumn however, Galerius’s nephew, former caesar, and co-augustus Maximinus Daia (r. 310–313) was enforcing Diocletian’s persecution in his territories in Anatolia and the Diocese of the East in response to petitions from numerous cities and provinces, including Antioch, Tyre, Lycia, and Pisidia. Maximinus was also encouraged to act by an oracular pronouncement made by a statue of Zeus Philios set up in Antioch by Theotecnus of Antioch, who also organized an anti-Christian petition to be sent from the Antiochenes to Maximinus, requesting that the Christians there be expelled. Among the Christians known to have died in this phase of the persecution are the presbyter Lucian of Antioch, the bishop Methodius of Olympus in Lycia, and Peter, the patriarch of Alexandria. Defeated in a civil war by the augustus Licinius (r. 308–324), Maximinus died in 313, ending the systematic persecution of Christianity as a whole in the Roman Empire. Only one martyr is known by name from the reign of Licinius, who issued the Edict of Milan jointly with his ally, co-augustus, and brother-in-law Constantine, which had the effect of resuming the toleration of before the persecution and returning confiscated property to Christian owners.
According to legend, one of the martyrs during the Diocletianic persecution was Saint George, a Roman soldier who loudly renounced the Emperor’s edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and tribunes claimed to be a Christian by declaring his worship of Jesus Christ.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that “Ancient, medieval and early modern hagiographers were inclined to exaggerate the number of martyrs. Since the title of martyr is the highest title to which a Christian can aspire, this tendency is natural”. Attempts at estimating the numbers involved are inevitably based on inadequate sources, but historian of the persecutions W. H. C. Frend estimated the overall numbers as between 5,500 and 6,500, a number also adopted by later writers including Yuval Noah Harari:
In the 300 years from the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians.
Persecutions of followers of doctrines which were seen as heretical or causing schism were persecuted during the reign of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, and they would be persecuted again later in the 4th century. The orthodox catholic Christians now close to the Roman state represented imperial persecution as an historical phenomenon, rather than a contemporary one. The orthodox theologian Augustine of Hippo wrote that there had been ten persecutions, beginning with the Neronian persecution, and alleging persecutions by the emperors Domitian, Trajan, “Antoninus” (Marcus Aurelius), “Severus” (Septimius Severus), and Maximinus (Thrax), as well as Decian and Valerianic persecutions, and then another by Aurelian as well as by Diocletian and Maximian. These ten persecutions Augustine compared with the 10 Plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus.
After the accession of Constantine the Great, the Roman state was considered divinely directed, and the first great age of persecution, in which the Devil was considered to have used open violence to dissuade the growth of Christianity, was thought to be at an end. Henceforth, besides the third age of persecution expected to be associated with the advent of the Antichrist and the end time, the Devil’s machinations in the second, middle age of persecution were to be worked through subterfuge against individual Christians. The last emperor of the Constantinian dynasty, Constantine’s half-brother’s son Julian (r. 361–363) opposed Christianity and sought to restore traditional religion, though he did not arrange a general or official persecution, since martyrdoms strengthened other Christians’ resistance. By the later part of the century, the bishop Basil of Caesarea wrote of the era of persecution with retrospect, describing it as “the good old times when God’s churches flourished, rooted in faith, united in love” in his 164th epistle.
For other Christians, including the dissident Donatists, state persecution continued unabated. They too no longer attributed persecution to the emperors, now Christians; they blamed non-Christian officials in the imperial government. Major persecutions were launched against Donatist Christians in Africa by first Constantine and then his sons and successors as augusti Constans and Constantius II.
In 355 Constantius, who had ordered the suppression of Athanasius of Alexandria, expelled Pope Liberius from Rome and exiled other bishops who refused to assent to Athanasius’s own exile. When Constantius returned to Rome in 357, Constantius consented to allow the return of Liberius to the papacy; Pope Felix II, who had replaced him, was driven out along with his followers. In 355. Dionysius, bishop of Mediolanum (Milan) was expelled from his episcopal see and replaced by the Arian Christian Auxentius of Milan.
According to the Collectio Avellana, on the death of Pope Liberius in 366, Damasus, assisted by hired gangs of “charioteers” and men “from the arena”, broke into the Basilica Julia to violently prevent the election of Pope Ursicinus. The battle lasted three days, “with great slaughter of the faithful” and a week later Damasus seized the Lateran Basilica, had himself ordained as Pope Damasus I, and compelled the praefectus urbi Viventius and the praefectus annonae to exile Ursicinus. Damasus then had seven Christian priests arrested and awaiting banishment, but they escaped and “gravediggers” and minor clergy joined another mob of hippodrome and amphitheatre men assembled by the pope to attack the Liberian Basilica, where Ursacinus’s loyalists had taken refuge. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, on the 26 October, the pope’s mob killed 137 people in the church in just one day, and many more died subsequently. The Roman public frequently enjoined the emperor Valentinian the Great to remove Damasus from the throne of Saint Peter, calling him a murderer for having waged a “filthy war” against the Christians.
In the 4th century, the Terving king Athanaric in c. 375 ordered the Gothic persecution of Christians. Athanaric was perturbed by the spread of Gothic Christianity among his followers, and feared for the displacement of Gothic paganism.
It was not until the later 4th century reigns of the augusti Gratian (r. 367–383), Valentinian II (r. 375–392), and Theodosius I (r. 379–395) that Christianity would become the official religion of the empire with the joint promulgation of the Edict of Thessalonica, establishing Nicene Christianity as the state religion and as the state church of the Roman Empire on 27 February 380. After this began state persecution of non-Nicene Christians, including Arian and Nontrinitarian devotees.
Callinicus I, initially a priest and skeuophylax in the Church of the Theotokos of Blachernae, became patriarch of Constantinople in 693 or 694. Having refused to consent to the demolition of a chapel in the Great Palace, the Theotokos ton Metropolitou, and having possibly been involved in the deposition and exile of Justinian II (r. 685–695, 705–711), an allegation denied by the Synaxarion of Constantinople, he was himself exiled to Rome on the return of Justinian to power in 705. The emperor had Callinicus immured. He is said to have survived forty days when the wall was opened to check his condition, though he died four days later.
Violent persecutions of Christians began in earnest in the long reign of Shapur II (r. 309–379). A persecution of Christians at Kirkuk is recorded in Shapur’s first decade, though most persecution happened after 341. At war with the Roman emperor Constantius II (r. 337–361), Shapur imposed a tax to cover the war expenditure, and Shemon Bar Sabbae, the Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, refused to collect it. Often citing collaboration with the Romans, the Persians began persecuting and executing Christians. Passio narratives describe the fate of some Christians venerated as martyrs; they are of varying historical reliability, some being contemporary records by eyewitnesses, others were reliant on popular tradition at some remove from the events. An appendix to the Syriac Martyrology of 411 lists the Christian martyrs of Persia, but other accounts of martyrs’ trials contain important historical details on the workings of the Sassanian Empire’s historical geography and judicial and administrative practices. Some were translated into Sogdian and discovered at Turpan.
Under Yazdegerd I (r. 399–420) there were occasional persecutions, including an instance of persecution in reprisal for the burning of a Zoroastrian fire temple by a Christian priest, and further persecutions occurred in the reign of Bahram V (r. 420–438). Under Yazdegerd II (r. 438–457) an instance of persecution in 446 is recorded in the Syriac martyrology Acts of Ādur-hormizd and of Anāhīd. Some individual martyrdoms are recorded from the reign of Khosrow I (r. 531–579), but there were likely no mass persecutions. While according to a peace treaty of 562 between Khosrow and his Roman counterpart Justinian I (r. 527–565), Persia’s Christians were granted the freedom of religion; proselytism was, however, a capital crime. By this time the Church of the East and its head, the Catholicus of the East, were integrated into the administration of the empire and mass persecution was rare.
The Sassanian policy shifted from tolerance of other religions under Shapur I to intolerance under Bahram I and apparently a return to the policy of Shapur until the reign of Shapur II. The persecution at that time was initiated by Constantine’s conversion to Christianity which followed that of Armenian king Tiridates in about 301. The Christians were thus viewed with suspicions of secretly being partisans of the Roman Empire. This didn’t change until the fifth century when the Church of the East broke off from the Church of Antioch. Zoroastrian elites continued viewing the Christians with enmity and distrust throughout the fifth century with threat of persecution remaining significant, especially during war against the Romans.
Zoroastrian high priest Kartir, refers in his inscription dated about 280 on the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht monument in the Naqsh-e Rostam necropolis near Zangiabad, Fars, to persecution (zatan – “to beat, kill”) of Christians (“Nazareans n’zl’y and Christians klstyd’n“). Kartir took Christianity as a serious opponent. The use of the double expression may be indicative of the Greek-speaking Christians deported by Shapur I from Antioch and other cities during his war against the Romans. Constantine’s efforts to protect the Persian Christians made them a target of accusations of disloyalty to Sasanians. With the resumption of Roman-Sasanian conflict under Constantius II, the Christian position became untenable. Zoroastrian priests targeted clergy and ascetics of local Christians to eliminate the leaders of the church. A Syriac manuscript in Edessa in 411 documents dozens executed in various parts of western Sasanian Empire.
In 341, Shapur II ordered the persecution of all Christians. In response to their subversive attitude and support of Romans, Shapur II doubled the tax on Christians. Shemon Bar Sabbae informed him that he could not pay the taxes demanded from him and his community. He was martyred and a forty-year-long period of persecution of Christians began. The Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon gave up choosing bishops since it would result in death. The local mobads – Zoroastrian clerics – with the help of satraps organized slaughters of Christians in Adiabene, Beth Garmae, Khuzistan and many other provinces.
Yazdegerd I showed tolerance towards Jews and Christians for much of his rule. He allowed Christians to practice their religion freely, demolished monasteries and churches were rebuilt and missionaries were allowed to operate freely. He reversed his policies during the later part of his reign however, suppressing missionary activities. Bahram V continued and intensified their persecution, resulting in many of them fleeing to the eastern Roman empire. Bahram demanded their return, beginning the Roman–Sasanian War of 421–422. The war ended with an agreement of freedom of religion for Christians in Iran with that of Mazdaism in Rome. Meanwhile, Christians suffered destruction of churches, renounced the faith, had their private property confiscated and many were expelled.
Yazdegerd II had ordered all his subjects to embrace Mazdeism in an attempt to unite his empire ideologically. The Caucasus rebelled to defend Christianity which had become integrated in their local culture, with Armenian aristocrats turning to the Romans for help. The rebels were however defeated in a battle on the Avarayr Plain. Yeghishe in his The History of Vardan and the Armenian War, pays a tribute to the battles waged to defend Christianity. Another revolt was waged from 481–483 which was suppressed. However, the Armenians succeeded in gaining freedom of religion among other improvements.
Accounts of executions for apostasy of Zoroastrians who converted to Christianity during Sasanian rule proliferated from the fifth to early seventh century, and continued to be produced even after collapse of Sasanians. The punishment of apostates increased under Yazdegerd I and continued under successive kings. It was normative for apostates who were brought to the notice of authorities to be executed, although the prosecution of apostasy depended on political circumstances and Zoroastrian jurisprudence. Per Richard E. Payne, the executions were meant to create a mutually recognised boundary between interactions of the people of the two religions and preventing one religion challenging another’s viability. Although the violence on Christians was selective and especially carried out on elites, it served to keep Christian communities in a subordinate and yet viable position in relation to Zoroastrianism. Christians were allowed to build religious buildings and serve in the government as long as they didn’t expand their institutions and population at the expense of Zoroastrianism.
Khosrow I was generally regarded as tolerant of Christians and interested in the philosophical and theological disputes during his reign. Sebeos claimed he had converted to Christianity on his deathbed. John of Ephesus describes an Armenian revolt where he claims that Khusrow had attempted to impose Zoroastrianism in Armenia. The account, however, is very similar to the one of Armenian revolt of 451. In addition, Sebeos doesn’t mention any religious persecution in his account of the revolt of 571. A story about Hormizd IV’s tolerance is preserved by the historian al-Tabari. Upon being asked why he tolerated Christians, he replied, “Just as our royal throne cannot stand upon its front legs without its two back ones, our kingdom cannot stand or endure firmly if we cause the Christians and adherents of other faiths, who differ in belief from ourselves, to become hostile to us.”
During the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628
Several months after the Persian conquest in AD 614, a riot occurred in Jerusalem, and the Jewish governor of Jerusalem Nehemiah was killed by a band of young Christians along with his “council of the righteous” while he was making plans for the building of the Third Temple. At this time the Christians had allied themselves with the Eastern Roman Empire. Shortly afterward, the events escalated into a full-scale Christian rebellion, resulting in a battle against the Jews and Christians who were living in Jerusalem. In the battle’s aftermath, many Jews were killed and the survivors fled to Caesarea, which was still being held by the Persian army.
The Judeo-Persian reaction was ruthless—Persian Sasanian general Xorheam assembled Judeo-Persian troops and went and encamped around Jerusalem and besieged it for 19 days. Eventually, digging beneath the foundations of the Jerusalem, they destroyed the wall and on the 19th day of the siege, the Judeo-Persian forces took Jerusalem.
According to the account of the Armenian ecclesiastic and historian Sebeos, the siege resulted in a total Christian death toll of 17,000, the earliest and thus most commonly accepted figure. Per Antiochus, 4,518 prisoners alone were massacred near Mamilla reservoir. A cave containing hundreds of skeletons near the Jaffa Gate, 200 metres east of the large Roman-era pool in Mamilla, correlates with the massacre of Christians at hands of the Persians mentioned in the writings of the abbot Antiochus of Palestine (Antiochus Strategius). While reinforcing the evidence of massacre of Christians, the archaeological evidence seem less conclusive on the destruction of Christian churches and monasteries in Jerusalem.
According to the later account of Antiochus of Palestine, whose perspective appears to be that of a Byzantine Greek and shows an antipathy towards the Jews, thousands of Christians were massacred during the conquest of the city. Estimates based on varying copies of Strategos’s manuscripts range from 4,518 to 66,509 killed. Strategos wrote that the Jews offered to help them escape death if they “become Jews and deny Christ”, and the Christian captives refused. In anger the Jews allegedly purchased Christians to kill them. In 1989, a mass burial grave at Mamilla cave was discovered in by Israeli archeologist Ronny Reich, near the site where Antiochus recorded the massacre took place. The human remains were in poor condition containing a minimum of 526 individuals.
From the many excavations carried out in the Galilee, it is clear that all churches had been destroyed during the period between the Persian invasion and the Arab conquest in 637. The church at Shave Ziyyon was destroyed and burnt in 614. Similar fate befell churches at Evron, Nahariya, ‘Arabe and monastery of Shelomi. The monastery at Kursi was damaged in the invasion.
In AD 516, tribal unrest broke out in Yemen and several tribal elites fought for power. One of those elites was Joseph Dhu Nuwas or “Yousef Asa’ar”, a Jewish king of the Himyarite Kingdom who is mentioned in ancient south Arabian inscriptions. Syriac and Byzantine Greek sources claim that he fought his war because Christians in Yemen refused to renounce Christianity. In 2009, a documentary that aired on the BBC defended the claim that the villagers had been offered the choice between conversion to Judaism or death and 20,000 Christians were then massacred by stating that “The production team spoke to many historians over a period of 18 months, among them Nigel Groom, who was our consultant, and Professor Abdul Rahman Al-Ansary, a former professor of archaeology at the King Saud University in Riyadh.” Inscriptions documented by Yousef himself show the great pride that he expressed after killing more than 22,000 Christians in Zafar and Najran. Historian Glen Bowersock described this massacre as a “savage pogrom that the Jewish king of the Arabs launched against the Christians in the city of Najran. The king himself reported in excruciating detail to his Arab and Persian allies about the massacres that he had inflicted on all Christians who refused to convert to Judaism.”
At the time of the Arab Islamic conquest of the mid 7th century AD the populations of Mesopotamia and Assyria (modern-day Iraq, north east Syria, south east Turkey and Kuwait), Syria, Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon and coastal Syria), Egypt, Jordan, North Africa (modern-day Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Algeria), Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and Armenia were predominantly Christian and non-Arab.
As People of the Book Christians were given dhimmi status (along with Jews, Samaritans, Gnostics and Mandeans), which was inferior to the status of Muslims. Christians thus faced religious discrimination and religious persecution in that they were banned from proselytising (spreading or promoting Christianity) in lands conquered by the Muslims on pain of death, they were banned from bearing arms and undertaking certain professions. Under sharia, non-Muslims were obligated to pay jizya and kharaj taxes, together with periodic heavy ransom levied upon Christian communities by Muslim rulers in order to fund military campaigns, all of which contributed a significant proportion of income to the Islamic states while conversely reducing many Christians to poverty, and these financial and social hardships forced many Christians to convert to Islam. Christians unable to pay these taxes were forced to surrender their children to the Muslim rulers as payment who would sell them as slaves to Muslim households where they were forced into Islam
According to the tradition of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Muslim conquest of the Levant was a relief for Christians oppressed by the Romans. Michael the Syrian, patriarch of Antioch, wrote later that the Christian god had “raised from the south the children of Ishmael to deliver us by them from the hands of the Romans”. According to the Chronicle of Seert, “the hearts of the Christians rejoiced at the domination of the Arabs – may God strengthen and prosper it!”
According to the Hanafi school of sharia, the testimony of a non-Muslim (such as a Christian) was not considered valid against the testimony of a Muslim in legal or civil matters. Islamic law forbid Muslim women from marrying Christian men, but Muslim men were permitted to marry Christian women. Christians under Islamic rule had the right to convert to Islam or any other religion, while conversely a murtad, or an apostate from Islam, faced severe penalties or even hadd, which could include the death penalty.
In general, Christians subject to Islamic rule were allowed to practice their religion with some notable limitations stemming from the apocryphal Pact of Umar. This treaty, supposedly enacted in 717 AD, forbade Christians from publicly displaying the cross on church buildings, from summoning congregants to prayer with a bell, from re-building or repairing churches and monasteries after they had been destroyed or damaged, and imposed other restrictions relating to occupations, clothing and weapons. The Umayyad Caliphate persecuted many Berber Christians in the seventh and eighth centuries, who slowly converted to Islam.
Early Middle Ages
In Umayyad al-Andalus (the Iberian Peninsula), the martyrdoms of forty-eight Christian martyrs alleged to have taken place between 851 and 859 are related by in a hagiography by Eulogius of Córdoba. The Martyrs of Córdoba were executed in the Emirate of Córdoba, and the hagiography describes in detail the executions of the martyrs for capital violations of Islamic law, including apostasy and blasphemy.
George Limnaiotes, a monk on Mount Olympus known only from the Synaxarion of Constantinople and other synaxaria, was supposed to have been 95 years old when he was tortured for his iconodulism. In the reign of Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717–741), he was mutilated by rhinotomy and his head burnt.
Germanus I of Constantinople, a son of the patrikios Justinian, a courtier of the emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641), having been castrated and enrolled in the cathedral clergy of Hagia Sophia when his father was executed in 669, was later bishop of Cyzicus and then patriarch of Constantinople from 715. In 730, in the reign of Leo III (r. 717–741), Germanus was deposed and banished, dying in exile at Plantanion (Akçaabat). Leo III also exiled the monk John the Psichaites, an iconodule, to Cherson, where he remained until after the emperor’s death.
Andrew of Crete was beaten and imprisoned in Constantinople after having debated with the iconoclast emperor Constantine V (r. 741–775), possibly in 767 or 768, and then abused by the Byzantines as he was dragged through the city, dying of blood loss when a fisherman cut off his foot in the Forum of the Ox. The church of Saint Andrew in Krisei was named after him, though his existence is doubted by scholars. Having defeated and killed the emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802–811) at the Battle of Pliska in 811, the First Bulgarian Empire’s khan, Krum, also put to death a number of Roman soldiers who refused to renounce Christianity, though these martyrdoms, known only from the Synaxarion of Constantinople, may be entierely legendary. In 813 the Bulagrians invaded the thema of Thrace, led by Krum, and the city of Adrianople (Edirne) was captured. Krum’s successor Dukum died shortly after Krum himself, being succeeded by Ditzevg, who killed Manuel the archbishop of Adrianople in January 815. According to the Synaxarion of Constantinople and the Menologion of Basil II, Ditzevg’s own successor Omurtag killed some 380 Christians later that month. The victims included the archbishop of Develtos, George, and the bishop of Thracian Nicaea, Leo, as well as two strategoi called John and Leo. Collectively these are known as the Martyrs of Adrianople.
The Byzantine monk Makarios, of the Pelekete monastery in Bithynia, having already refused a enviable position at court offered by the iconoclast emperor Leo IV the Khazar (r. 775–780) in return for the repudiation of his iconodulism, was expelled from the monastery by Leo V the Armenian (r. 813–820), who also imprisoned and exiled him.
The patriarch Nikephoros I of Constantinople dissented from the iconoclast Council of Constantinople of 815 and was exiled by Leo V as a result. He died in exile in 828.
In spring 816, the Constantinopolitan monk Athanasios of Paulopetrion was tortured and exiled for his iconophilism by the emperor Leo V. In 815, during the reign of Leo V, having been appointed hegoumenos of the Kathara Monastery in Bithynia by the emperor Nikephoros I, John of Kathara was exiled and imprisoned first in Pentadactylon, a stronghold in Phrygia, and then in the fortress of Kriotauros in the Bucellarian thema. In the reign of Michael II he was recalled, but exiled again under Theophilos, being banished to Aphousia (Avşa) where he died, probably in 835.
Eustratios of Agauros, a monk and hegumenos of the Agauros Monastery at the foot of Mount Trichalikos, near Prusa’s Mount Olympus in Bithynia, was forced into exile by the persecutions of Leo V and Theophilos (r. 829–842). Leo V and Theophilos also persecuted and exiled Hilarion of Dalmatos, the son of Peter the Cappadocian, who had been made hegumenos of the Dalmatos Monastery by the patriarch Nikephoros I. Hilarion was allowed to return to his post only in the regency of Theodora. The same emperors also persecuted Michael Synkellos, an Arab monk of the Mar Saba monastery in Palestine who, as the syncellus of the patriarch of Jerusalem, had travelled to Constantinople on behalf of the patriarch Thomas I. On the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Michael declined the ecumenical patriarchate and became instead the hegumenos of the Chora Monastery.
According to Theophanes Continuatus, the Armenian monk and iconographer of Khazar origin Lazarus Zographos refused to cease painting icons in the second official iconoclast period. Theophilos had him tortured and his hands burned with heated irons, though he was released at the intercession of the empress Theodora and hidden at the Monastery of John the Baptist tou Phoberou, where he was able to paint an image of the patron saint. After the death of Theophilos, and the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Lazarus re-painted the representation of Christ on the Chalke Gate of the Great Palace of Constantinople.
Symeon Stylites of Lesbos was persecuted for his iconodulism in the second period of official iconoclasm. He was imprisoned and exiled, returning to Lesbos only after the vernation of icons was restored in 842. The bishop George of Mytilene, who may have been Symeon’s brother, was exiled from Constantinople in 815 on account of his iconophilia. He spent the last six years of his life in exile on an island, probably one of the Princes’ Islands, dying in 820 or 821. George’s relics were taken to Mytilene to be venerated after the restoration of iconodulism to orthodoxy under the patriarch Methodios I, during which the hagiography of George was written.
The bishop Euthymius of Sardis was the victim of several iconoclast Christian persecutions. Euthymius had previously been exiled to Pantelleria by the emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802–811), recalled in 806, led the iconodule resistance against Leo V (r. 813–820), and exiled again to Thasos in 814. After his recall to Constantinople in the reign of Michael II (r. 820–829), he was again imprisoned and exiled to Saint Andrew’s Island, off Cape Akritas (Tuzla, Istanbul). According to the hagiography of by the patriarch Methodios I of Constantinople, who claimed to have shared Euthymius’s exile and been present at his death, Theoktistos and two other imperial officials personally whipped Euthymius to death on account of his iconodulism; Theoktistos was active in the persecution of iconodules under the iconoclast emperors, but later championed the iconodule cause. Theoktistos was later venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church, listed in the Synaxarion of Constantinople. The last of the iconoclast emperors, Theophilos (r. 829–842), was posthumously rehabilitated by the iconodule Orthodox Church on the intervention of his wife Theodora, who claimed he had had a deathbed conversion to iconodulism in the presence of Theoktistos and had given 60 Byzantine pounds of gold to each of his victims in his will. The rehabilitation of the iconoclast emperor was a precondition of his widow for convoking the Council of Constantinople in March 843, at which the veneration of icons was restored to orthodoxy and which became celebrated as the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
Evaristos, a relative of Theoktistos Bryennios and a monk of the Monastery of Stoudios, was exiled to the Thracian Chersonese (Gallipoli peninsula) for his support of his hegumenos Nicholas and his patron the patriarch Ignatios of Constantinople when the latter was deposed by Photios I in 858. Both Nicholas and Evaristos went into exile. Only after many years was Evaristos allowed to return to Constantinople to found a monastery of his own. The hegumenos Nicholas, who had accompanied Evaristos to the Chersonese, was restored to his post at the Stoudios Monastery. A partisan of Ignatios of Constantinople and a refugee from the Muslim conquest of Sicily, the monk Joseph the Hymnographer was banished to Cherson from Constantinople on the elevation of Ignatios’s rival Photios in 858. Only after the end of Photios’s patriarchate was Joseph allowed to return to the capital and become the cathedral skeuophylax of Hagia Sophia.
Euthymius, a monk, senator, and synkellos favored by Leo VI (r. 870–912), was first made a hegumenos and then in 907 patriarch of Constantinople by the emperor. When Leo VI died and Nicholas Mystikos was recalled to the patriarchal throne, Euthymius was exiled.
The Abbasid Caliphate was less tolerant of Christianity than had been the Umayyad caliphs. Nonetheless, Christian officials continued to be employed in the government, and the Christians of the Church of the East were often tasked with the translation of Ancient Greek philosophy and Greek mathematics. The writings of al-Jahiz attacked Christians for being too prosperous, and indicates they were able to ignore even those restrictions placed on them by the state. In the late 9th century, the patriarch of Jerusalem, Theodosius, wrote to his colleague the patriarch of Constantinople Ignatios that “they are just and do us no wrong nor show us any violence”.
Elias of Heliopolis, having moved to Damascus from Heliopolis (Ba’albek), was accused of apostasy from Christianity after attending a party held by a Muslim Arab, and was forced to flee Damascus for his hometown, returning eight years later, where he was recognized and imprisoned by the “eparch“, probably the jurist al-Layth ibn Sa’d. After refusing to convert to Islam under torture, he was brought before the Damascene emir and relative of the caliph al-Mahdi (r. 775–785), Muhammad ibn-Ibrahim, who promised good treatment if Elias would convert. On his repeated refusal, Elias was tortured and beheaded and his body burnt, cut up, and thrown into the river Chrysorrhoes (the Barada) in 779.
According to the Synaxarion of Constantinople, the hegumenos Michael of Zobe and thirty-six of his monks at the Monastery of Zobe near Sebasteia (Sivas) were killed by a raid on the community. The perpetrator was the “emir of the Hagarenes”, “Alim”, probably Ali ibn-Sulayman, an Abbasid governor who raided Roman territory in 785.
Bacchus the Younger was beheaded in Jerusalem in 787 or 786. Bacchus was Palestinian, whose family, having been Christian, had been converted to Islam by their father. Bacchus however, remained crypto-Christian and undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, upon which he was baptized and entered the monastery of Mar Saba. Reunion with his family prompted their reconversion to Christianity and Bacchus’s trial and execution for apostasy under the governing emir Harthama ibn A’yan.
After the 838 Sack of Amorium, the hometown of the emperor Theophilos (r. 829–842) and his Amorian dynasty, the caliph al-Mu’tasim (r. 833–842) took more than forty Roman prisoners. These were taken to the capital, Samarra, where after seven years of theological debates and repeated refusals to convert to Islam, they were put to death in March 845 under the caliph al-Wathiq (r. 842–847). Within a generation they were venerated as the 42 Martyrs of Amorium. According to their hagiographer Euodius, probably writing within a generation of the events, the defeat at Amorium was to be blamed on Theophilos and his iconoclasm. According to some later hagiographies, including one by one of several Middle Byzantine writers known as Michael the Synkellos, among the forty-two were Kallistos, the doux of the Koloneian thema, and the heroic martyr Theodore Karteros.
During the 10th-century phase of the Arab–Byzantine wars, the victories of the Romans over the Arabs resulted in mob attacks on Christians, who were believed to sympathize with the Roman state. According to Bar Hebraeus, the catholicus of the Church of the East, Abraham III (r. 906–937), wrote to the grand vizier that “we Nestorians are the friends of the Arabs and pray for their victories”. The attitude of the Nestorians “who have no other king but the Arabs”, he contrasted with the Greek Orthodox Church, whose emperors he said “had never cease to make war against the Arabs. Between 923 and 924, Orthodox churches were destroyed in mob violence in Ramla, Ashkelon, Caesarea Maritima, and Damascus. In each instance, according to the Arab Melkite Christian chronicler Eutychius of Alexandria, the caliph al-Muqtadir (r. 908–932) contributed to the rebuilding of ecclesiastical property.
According to the Synaxarion of Constantinople, Dounale-Stephen, having journeyed to Jerusalem, continued his pilgrimage to Egypt, where he was arrested by the local emir and, refusing to relinquish his beliefs, died in jail c. 950.
High Middle Ages (1000–1200)
See also: History of Christian thought on persecution and tolerance
The caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996–1021) engaged in a persecution of Christians. Al-Hakim was “half-insane”, and had perpetrated the only general persecution of Christians by Muslims until the Crusades. Al-Hakim’s mother was a Christian, and he had been raised mainly by Christians, and even through the persecution al-Hakim employed Christian ministers in his government. Between 1004 and 1014, the caliph produced legislation to confiscate ecclesiastical property and burn crosses; later, he ordered that small mosques be built atop church roofs, and later still decreed that churches were to be burned. The caliph’s Jewish and Muslim subjects were subjected to similarly arbitrary treatment. As part of al-Hakim’s persecution, thirty thousand churches were reportedly destroyed, and in 1009 the caliph ordered the demolition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, on the pretext that the annual Holy Fire miracle on Easter was a fake. The persecution of al-Hakim and the demolition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre prompted Pope Sergius IV to issue a call for soldiers to expel the Muslims from the Holy Land, while European Christians engaged in a retaliatory persecution of Jews, whom they conjectured were in some way responsible for al-Hakim’s actions. In the second half of the eleventh century, pilgrims brought home news of how the rise of the Turks and their conflict with the Egyptians increased the persecution of Christian pilgrims.
In 1013, at the intervention of the emperor Basil II (r. 960–1025), Christians were given permission to leave Fatimid territory. In 1016 however, the caliph was proclaimed divine, alienating his Muslim subjects by banning the hajj and the fast of ramadan, and causing him to again favor the Christians. In 1017, al-Hakim issued an order of toleration regarding Christians and Jews, while the following year confiscated ecclesiastical property was returned to the Church, including the construction materials seized by the authorities from demolished buildings.
In 1027, the emperor Constantine VIII (r. 962–1028) concluded a treaty with Salih ibn Mirdas, the emir of Aleppo, allowing the emperor to repair the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and permitting the Christians forced to convert to Islam under al-Hakim to return to Christianity. Though the treaty was re-confirmed in 1036, actual building on the shrine began only in the later 1040s, under the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042–1055). According to al-Maqdisi, the Christians seemed largely in control of the Holy Land, and the emperor himself was rumored, according to Nasir Khusraw, to have been among the many Christian pilgrims that came to the Holy Sepulchre.
Main article: The Crusades
In the Middle Ages, the crusades were promoted as defensive response of Christianity against persecution of Eastern Christianity in the Levant. Western Catholic contemporaries believed the First Crusade was a movement against Muslim attacks on Eastern Christians and Christian sites in the Holy Land. In the mid-11th century, relations between the Byzantine Empire and the Fatimid Caliphate and between Christians and Muslims were peaceful, and there had not been persecution of Christians since the death of al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. As a result of the migration of Turkic peoples into the Levant and the Seljuk Empire’s wars with the Fatimid Caliphate in the later 11th century, reports of Christian pilgrims increasingly mentioned persecution of Christians there. Similarly, accounts sent to the West of the Byzantines’ medieval wars with various Muslim states alleged persecutions of Christians and atrocities against holy places. Western soldiers were encouraged to take up soldiering against the empire’s Muslim enemies; a recruiting bureau was even established in London. After the 1071 Battle of Manzikert, the sense of Byzantine distress increased and Pope Gregory VII suggested that he himself would ride to the rescue at the head of an army, claiming Christians were being “slaughtered like cattle”. In the 1090s, the emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1118) issued appeals for help against the Seljuks to western Europe. In 1091 his ambassadors told the king of Croatia Muslims were destroying sacred sites, while his letter to Robert I, Count of Flanders, deliberately described emotively the rape and maltreatment of Christians and the sacrilege of the Jerusalem shrines.
Pope Urban II, who convoked the First Crusade at the 1095 Council of Clermont, spoke of the defense of his co-religionists in the Levant and the protection of the Christian holy places, while ordinary crusaders are also known to have been motivated by the notion of persecution of Christians by Muslims. According to Fulcher of Chartres, the pope described his holy wars as being contra barbaros, ‘against the barbarians’, while the pope’s own letters indicate that the Muslims were barbarians fanatically persecuting Christians. The same idea, expressed in similar language, was evident in the writings of the bishop Gerald of Cahors, the abbot Guibert of Nogent, the priest Peter Tudebode, and the monk Robert of Reims. Outside the clergy, the Gesta Francorum‘s author likewise described the Crusaders’ opponents as persecuting barbarians, language not used for non-Muslim non-Christians. These authors, together with Albert of Aix and Baldric of Dol, all referred to the Arabs, Saracens, and Turks as barbarae nationes, ‘barbarian races’. Peter the Venerable, William of Tyre, and The Song of Roland all took the view that Muslims were barbarians, and in calling for the Third Crusade, Pope Gregory VIII expounded on the Muslim threat from Saladin, accusing the Muslims of being “barbarians thirsting for the blood of Christians”. In numerous instances Pope Innocent III called on the Catholics to defend the Holy Land in a holy war against the impugnes barbariem paganorum, ‘attacks of the pagan barbarians’. Crusaders believed that by fighting off the Muslims, the persecution of Christians would abate, in accordance to their god’s will, and this ideology – much promoted by the Crusader-era propagandists – was shared at every level of literate medieval western European society.
According to Guibert of Nogent, a Catholic writer, the persecution suffered by the Eastern Christians and the attacks on the empire by the Turks were caused by the Christians’ own doctrinal errors. He claimed that “Since they deviate from faith in the Trinity, so that hitherto they who are in filth become filthier, gradually they have come to the final degradation of having taken paganism upon themselves as the punishment for the sin proceeding from this, they have lost the soil of their native land to invading foreigners …”. Western Christians considered the Byzantine position in the filioque controversy to be heresy and akin to Arianism; Guibert claimed that heresy was an Eastern practice, almost unknown in the Latin West. Further blame was attached to the Eastern Christians by the crusaders for the Crusade of 1101’s defeats in Asia Minor; Alexios Komnenos was accused of having collaborated with the Turks to attack the crusaders. The Norman prince Bohemond, citing the supposed transgressions of the emperor and the Eastern Church, which the pope had declared heretic and whose doctrinal errors Bohemond blamed on Alexios, seized the Muslim-held and formerly Byzantine city of Antioch (Antakya) for himself after the Siege of Antioch and subsequent Battle of Antioch left Kerbogha defeated, becoming Bohemond I of the Principality of Antioch. This contravention of the agreement to return conquered lands to the emperor’s control, was justified in the crusaders’ letter to Pope Urban II by the statement that the Greek Christians were heretics. Later, Bohemond took the opportunity of a crusade to attack Dyrrachium (Durrës), justifying his attack on the Christians in a letter to Pope Paschal II enumerating Alexios’s faults and blaming him for the East–West Schism and for having taken the imperial throne by force. Besides Guibert, other crusader writers to accuse Eastern Christians of sabotaging the crusade include Raymond of Aguilers, Albert of Aix, Baldric of Dol, and the author of the Gesta Francorum. Alexios’s departure from the crusade, followed by the departure of his envoy Tatikios, was seen as proof of the Eastern Christians’ treachery. Though Fulcher of Chartres displayed a positive assessment of Eastern Christianity, he too accused the emperor of attacking Christian pilgrims, and of being a “tyrant”.
When First Crusade’s Siege of Jerusalem ended successfully for the crusaders, the patriarchate of Jerusalem was vacant, and the crusaders elevated a Latin patriarch without reference to either the Roman Catholic or the Eastern Orthodox churches. An Orthodox candidate for the patriarchate was forced to flee to Constantinople. Only when Saladin’s Siege of Jerusalem was concluded and the city was returned to Muslim control were the Orthodox Christians allowed to practise in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Crusade scholars continue to debate crusading, its causes, and its effects, so scholarship in this field repeatedly undergoes revision and reconsideration. Many early crusade scholars saw the source-histories as simple recitations of how events actually transpired, but by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholarship was increasingly skeptical of that assumption. By 1935, Carl Erdmann published Die Entstehung des Kreuzzugsgedankens (The Origin of the Idea of Crusade), changing the direction of crusader studies more than any other single work by focusing on the ideology of crusade. This ideology indicated the crusades were essentially defensive, which meant that soldiers were there to provide protection for pilgrims and fellow Christians in the East and to reclaim formerly Christian lands lost to Islamic expansion and forced conversion. This ideology remained throughout the Middle Ages despite the failure to finalize these goals. Constable adds that those “scholars who see the crusades as the beginning of European colonialism and expansionism would have surprised people at the time. Crusaders would not have denied some selfish aspects… but the predominant emphasis was on the defense and recovery of lands that had once been Christian and on the self-sacrifice rather than the self-seeking of the participants”.
In 1951, Steven Runciman, a Byzantinist who saw the crusades in terms of East-West relations, wrote in the conclusion of his crusade history, that the “Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance”. Giles Constable says it is this view of the crusades that is most common among the populace. The problem with this view, according to political science professor Andrew R. Murphy, is that such concepts as intolerance were not part of eleventh century thinking about relationships for any of the various groups involved in or affected by the crusades, neither the Latins, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Baybars, nor others. Instead, concepts of tolerance began to grow during the crusades from efforts to define legal limits and the nature of co-existence, and these ideas grew among both Christians and Muslims.
These wars produced multiple massacres perpetrated by both sides. According to Mary Jane Engh’s definition of religious persecution, which identifies it as “the repressive action initiated or condoned by authorities against their own people on religious grounds,” it is not possible to term these acts of war as religious persecution.
After the collapse of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Fall of Acre, the last of the Crusaders’ possessions in Asia in 1291, one of the main Christian military orders was suppressed from 1307 on trumped-up charges by the papacy. The Knights Templar were accused of sodomy, heresy, and corruption and the members were persecuted. In the crusades waged against non-Muslims, including Christians described as heretics, Catholic participants were promised the same spiritual rewards as were believed to be received by those who fought against Muslims in the Holy Land.
Pope Innocent III, with the king of France, Philip Augustus, began the military campaign known as the Albigensian Crusade between 1209 and 1226 against other Christians known as Cathars. Scholars disagree, using two distinct lines of reasoning, on whether the war that followed was religious persecution from the Pope or a land grab by King Philip. Historian Laurence W. Marvin says the Pope exercised “little real control over events in Occitania”. Four years after the Massacre at Beziers in 1213, the Pope cancelled crusade indulgences and called for an end to the campaign. The campaign continued anyway. The Pope was not reversed until the Fourth Lateran council re-instituted crusade status two years later in 1215; afterwards, the Pope removed it yet again. The campaign continued in what Marvin refers to as “an increasingly murky moral atmosphere” for the next 16 years: there was technically no longer any crusade, no indulgences or dispensational rewards for fighting it, the papal legates exceeded their orders from the Pope, and the army occupied lands of nobles who were in the good graces of the church. The Treaty of Paris that ended the campaign left the Cathars still in existence, but awarded rule of Languedoc to Louis’ descendants.
Northern (Baltic) crusades
The Northern (or Baltic Crusades), went on intermittently from 1147 to 1316, and the primary trigger for these wars was not religious persecution but instead was the noble’s desire for territorial expansion and material wealth in the form of land, furs, amber, slaves, and tribute. The princes wanted to subdue these pagan peoples and stop their raiding by conquering and converting them, but ultimately, Iben Fonnesberg-Schmidt says, the princes were motivated by their desire to extend their power and prestige, and conversion was not always an element of their plans. When it was, conversion by these princes was almost always as a result of conquest, either by the direct use of force or indirectly when a leader converted and required it of his followers as well. “While the theologians maintained that conversion should be voluntary, there was a widespread pragmatic acceptance of conversion obtained through political pressure or military coercion.” The Church’s acceptance of this led some commentators of the time to endorse and approve it, something Christian thought had never done before.
During the Ilkhanate, massacres were perpetrated by Hulagu Khan against the Assyrians, particularly in and around the ancient Assyrian city of Arbela (modern Erbil).
Late Middle Ages
Advocates of lay piety called for church reform and met with persecution from the Popes. John Wycliffe (1320–1384) urged the church to give up ownership of property, which produced much of the church’s wealth, and to once again embrace poverty and simplicity. He urged the church to stop being subservient to the state and its politics. He denied papal authority. John Wycliff died of a stroke, but his followers, called Lollards, were declared heretics. After the Oldcastle rebellion many were killed.
Jan Hus (1369–1415) accepted some of Wycliff’s views and aligned with the Bohemian Reform movement which was also rooted in popular piety. In 1415, Hus was called to the Council of Constance where his ideas were condemned as heretical and he was handed over to the state and burned at the stake.
The Fraticelli, who were also known as the “Little Brethren” or “Spiritual Franciscans,” were dedicated followers of Saint Francis of Assisi. These Franciscans honored their vow of poverty and saw the wealth of the Church as a contributor to corruption and injustice when so many lived in poverty. They criticized the worldly behavior of many churchmen. Thus, the Brethren were declared heretical by John XXII (1316-1334) who was called “the banker of Avignon.”
The leader of these brethren, Bernard Délicieux (c. 1260–1270 – 1320) was well known as he had spent much of his life battling the Dominican-run inquisitions. He confessed, after torture and threat of excommunication, to the charge of opposing the inquisitions, and was defrocked and sentenced to life in prison, in chains, in solitary confinement, and to receive nothing but bread and water. The judges attempted to ameliorate the harshness of this sentence due to his age and frailty, but Pope John XXII countermanded them and delivered the friar to Inquisitor Jean de Beaune. Délicieux died shortly thereafter in early 1320.
Timur instigated large scale massacres of Christians in Mesopotamia, Persia, Asia Minor and Syria in the 14th century AD. Most of the victims were indigenous Assyrians and Armenians, members of the Assyrian Church of the East and Orthodox Churches, which led to the decimation of the hitherto majority Assyrian population in northern Mesopotamia and the abandonment of the ancient Assyrian city of Assur.
Early Modern period
Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation
Main articles: European wars of religion, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation
The Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation provoked a number of persecutions of Christians by other Christians and the European wars of religion, including the Eighty Years’ War, the French Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years’ War, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the Savoyard–Waldensian wars, and the Toggenburg War. There were false allegations of witchcraft and numerous witch trials in the early modern period.
Beginning in the late 17th century, Christianity was banned for at least a century in China by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty after Pope Clement XI forbade Chinese Catholics from venerating their relatives or Confucius or the Lord Buddha or Guanyin.
During the Boxer Rebellion, Muslim unit Kansu Braves serving in the Chinese army attacked Christians.
During the Northern Expedition, the Kuomintang incited anti-foreign, anti-Western sentiment. Portraits of Sun Yat-sen replaced the crucifix in several churches, KMT posters proclaimed “Jesus Christ is dead. Why not worship something alive such as Nationalism?” Foreign missionaries were attacked and anti-foreign riots broke out. In 1926, Muslim General Bai Chongxi attempted to drive out foreigners in Guangxi, attacking American, European, and other foreigners and missionaries, and generally making the province unsafe for foreigners. Westerners fled from the province, and some Chinese Christians were also attacked as imperialist agents.
From 1894 to 1938, there were many Uighur Muslim converts to Christianity. They were killed, tortured and jailed. Christian missionaries were expelled.
Main articles: Dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution and Revolt in the Vendée
The Dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution is a conventional description of a campaign, conducted by various Robespierre-era governments of France beginning with the start of the French Revolution in 1789, to eliminate any symbol that might be associated with the past, especially the monarchy.
The program included the following policies:
- the deportation of clergy and the condemnation of many of them to death,
- the closing, desecration and pillaging of churches, removal of the word “saint” from street names and other acts to banish Christian culture from the public sphere
- removal of statues, plates, and other iconography from places of worship
- destruction of crosses, bells and other external signs of worship
- the institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the Cult of Reason and subsequently the Cult of the Supreme Being,
- the large-scale destruction of religious monuments,
- the outlawing of public and private worship and religious education,
- forced marriages of the clergy,
- forced abjuration of priesthood, and
- the enactment of a law on 21 October 1793 making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harbored them liable to death on sight.
The climax was reached with the celebration of the Goddess “Reason” in Notre-Dame de Paris, the Parisian cathedral, on 10 November.
Under threat of death, imprisonment, military conscription or loss of income, about 20,000 constitutional priests were forced to abdicate or hand over their letters of ordination and 6,000 – 9,000 were coerced to marry, many ceasing their ministerial duties. Some of those who abdicated covertly ministered to the people. By the end of the decade, approximately 30,000 priests were forced to leave France, and thousands who did not leave were executed. Most of France was left without the services of a priest, deprived of the sacraments and any nonjuring priest faced the guillotine or deportation to French Guiana.
The March 1793 conscription requiring Vendeans to fill their district’s quota of 300,000 enraged the populace, who took up arms as “The Catholic Army”, “Royal” being added later, and fought for “above all the reopening of their parish churches with their former priests.”
With these massacres came formal orders for forced evacuation; also, a ‘scorched earth’ policy was initiated: farms were destroyed, crops and forests burned and villages razed. There were many reported atrocities and a campaign of mass killing universally targeted at residents of the Vendée regardless of combatant status, political affiliation, age or gender. By July 1796, the estimated Vendean dead numbered between 117,000 and 500,000, out of a population of around 800,000.
Main article: Martyrs of Japan
Tokugawa Ieyasu assumed control over Japan in 1600. Like Toyotomi Hideyoshi, he disliked Christian activities in Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate finally decided to ban Catholicism in 1614, and in the mid-17th century it demanded the expulsion of all European missionaries and the execution of all converts. This marked the end of open Christianity in Japan. The Shimabara Rebellion, led by a young Japanese Christian boy named Amakusa Shirō Tokisada, took place in 1637. After the Hara Castle fell, the shogunate’s forces beheaded an estimated 37,000 rebels and sympathizers. Amakusa Shirō’s severed head was taken to Nagasaki for public display, and the entire complex at Hara Castle was burned to the ground and buried together with the bodies of all the dead.
Many of the Christians in Japan continued for two centuries to maintain their religion as Kakure Kirishitan, or hidden Christians, without any priests or pastors. Some of those who were killed for their Faith are venerated as the Martyrs of Japan.
Christianity was later allowed during the Meiji era. The Meiji Constitution of 1890 introduced separation of church and state and permitted freedom of religion.
Kingdom of Mysore
See also: Captivity of Mangalorean Catholics at Seringapatam
Muslim Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, took action against the Mangalorean Catholic community from Mangalore and the South Canara district on the southwestern coast of India. Tipu was widely reputed to be anti-Christian. He took Mangalorean Catholics into captivity at Seringapatam on 24 February 1784 and released them on 4 May 1799.
Soon after the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784, Tipu gained control of Canara. He issued orders to seize the Christians in Canara, confiscate their estates, and deport them to Seringapatam, the capital of his empire, through the Jamalabad fort route. There were no priests among the captives. Together with Fr. Miranda, all the 21 arrested priests were issued orders of expulsion to Goa, fined Rs 2 lakhs, and threatened death by hanging if they ever returned. Tipu ordered the destruction of 27 Catholic churches.
According to Thomas Munro, a Scottish soldier and the first collector of Canara, around 60,000 of them, nearly 92 percent of the entire Mangalorean Catholic community, were captured. 7,000 escaped. Observer Francis Buchanan reports that 70,000 were captured, from a population of 80,000, with 10,000 escaping. They were forced to climb nearly 4,000 feet (1,200 m) through the jungles of the Western Ghat mountain ranges. It was 210 miles (340 km) from Mangalore to Seringapatam, and the journey took six weeks. According to British Government records, 20,000 of them died on the march to Seringapatam. According to James Scurry, a British officer, who was held captive along with Mangalorean Catholics, 30,000 of them were forcibly converted to Islam. The young women and girls were forcibly made wives of the Muslims living there and later distributed and sold in prostitution. The young men who offered resistance were disfigured by cutting their noses, upper lips, and ears. According to Mr. Silva of Gangolim, a survivor of the captivity, if a person who had escaped from Seringapatam was found, the punishment under the orders of Tipu was the cutting off of the ears, nose, the feet and one hand.
The Archbishop of Goa wrote in 1800, “It is notoriously known in all Asia and all other parts of the globe of the oppression and sufferings experienced by the Christians in the Dominion of the King of Kanara, during the usurpation of that country by Tipu Sultan from an implacable hatred he had against them who professed Christianity.”
Tipu Sultan’s invasion of the Malabar Coast had an adverse impact on the Saint Thomas Christian community of the Malabar coast. Many churches in Malabar and Cochin were damaged. The old Syrian Nasrani seminary at Angamaly which had been the center of Catholic religious education for several centuries was razed to the ground by Tipu’s soldiers. Many centuries-old religious manuscripts were lost forever. The church was later relocated to Kottayam where it still exists to this date. The Mor Sabor church at Akaparambu and the Martha Mariam Church attached to the seminary were destroyed as well. Tipu’s army set fire to the church at Palayoor and attacked the Ollur Church in 1790. Furthernmore, the Arthat church and the Ambazhakkad seminary was also destroyed. Over the course of this invasion, many Saint Thomas Christians were killed or forcibly converted to Islam. Most of the coconut, arecanut, pepper and cashew plantations held by the Saint Thomas Christian farmers were also indiscriminately destroyed by the invading army. As a result, when Tipu’s army invaded Guruvayur and adjacent areas, the Syrian Christian community fled Calicut and small towns like Arthat to new centres like Kunnamkulam, Chalakudi, Ennakadu, Cheppadu, Kannankode, Mavelikkara, etc. where there were already Christians. They were given refuge by Sakthan Tamburan, the ruler of Cochin and Karthika Thirunal, the ruler of Travancore, who gave them lands, plantations and encouraged their businesses. Colonel Macqulay, the British resident of Travancore also helped them.
Tipu’s persecution of Christians also extended to captured British soldiers. For instance, there were a significant amount of forced conversions of British captives between 1780 and 1784. Following their disastrous defeat at the battle of Pollilur, 7,000 British men along with an unknown number of women were held captive by Tipu in the fortress of Seringapatnam. Of these, over 300 were circumcised and given Muslim names and clothes, and several British regimental drummer boys were made to wear ghagra cholis and entertain the court as nautch girls or dancing girls. After the 10-year-long captivity ended, James Scurry, one of those prisoners, recounted that he had forgotten how to sit in a chair and use a knife and fork. His English was broken and stilted, having lost all his vernacular idiom. His skin had darkened to the swarthy complexion of negroes, and moreover, he had developed an aversion to wearing European clothes.
During the surrender of the Mangalore fort which was delivered in an armistice by the British and their subsequent withdrawal, all the Mestiços (Luso-Indians and Anglo-Indians) and remaining non-British foreigners were killed, together with 5,600 Mangalorean Catholics. Those condemned by Tipu Sultan for treachery were hanged instantly, the gibbets being weighed down by the number of bodies they carried. The Netravati River was so putrid with the stench of dying bodies, that the local residents were forced to leave their riverside homes.
Since the time of the Austro-Turkish war (1683–1699) relations between Muslims and Christians in the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire gradually took more extreme forms and resulted in occasional calls by some Muslim religious leaders for the expulsion or extermination of local Christians. As a result of Ottoman oppression, the destruction of Churches and Monasteries, and violence against the non-Muslim civilian population, Serbian Christians and their church leaders, headed by Serbian Patriarch Arsenije III, sided with the Austrians in 1689 and again in 1737 under Serbian Patriarch Arsenije IV. In the following punitive campaigns, Ottoman forces conducted systematic atrocities against the Christian population in the Serbian regions, resulted in the Great Migrations of the Serbs.
Ottoman Albania and Kosovo
Before the late 16th century, Albania, despite being under Ottoman rule, had remained overwhelmingly Christian, unlike other regions such as Bosnia, Bulgaria and Northern Greece, and mountainous Albania was a frequent site of revolts against the Ottoman Empire, often at enormous human cost such as the destruction of entire villages. In response, the Ottomans abandoned their usual policy of tolerating Christians in favor of one which was aimed at reducing the Christian population through Islamization, beginning in the restive Christian regions of Reka and Elbasan in 1570.
The pressures which resulted from this campaign included particularly harsh economic conditions which were imposed on the Christian population; while earlier taxes on the Christians were around 45 akçes a year, by the middle of the 17th century the rate had been multiplied by 27 to 780 akçes a year. Albanian elders often opted to save their clans and villages from hunger and economic ruin by advocating village-wide and region-wide conversions to Islam, with many individuals often continuing to practice Christianity in private.
A failed Catholic rebellion in 1596 and the Albanian population’s support of Austro-Hungary during the Great Turkish War, and its support of the Venetians in the 1644 Venetian-Ottoman War as well as the Orlov Revolt were all factors which led to punitive measures in which outright force was accompanied by economic incentives depending on the region, and ended up forcing the conversion of large Christian populations to Islam in Albania. In the aftermath of the Great Turkish War, massive punitive measures were imposed on Kosovo’s Catholic Albanian population and as a result of them, most members of it fled to Hungary and settled around Budapest, where most of them died of disease and starvation.
After the Orthodox Serbian population subsequently also fled from Kosovo, the pasha of Ipek (Peja/Pec) forced Albanian Catholic mountaineers to repopulate Kosovo by deporting them to Kosovo, and also forced them adopt Islam. In the 17th and 18th centuries, South Albania also saw numerous instances of violence which was directed against those who remained Christian by local newly converted Muslims, ultimately resulting in many more conversions out of fear as well as flight to faraway lands by the Christian population.
Modern era (1815 to 1989)
Religion in Albania was subordinated to the interests of Marxism during the rule of the country’s communist party when all religions were suppressed. This was used to justify the communist stance of state atheism from 1967 to 1991. The Agrarian Reform Law of August 1945 nationalized most of the property which belonged to religious institutions, including the estates of mosques, monasteries, orders, and dioceses. Many clergy and believers were tried and some of them were executed. All foreign Roman Catholic priests, monks, and nuns were expelled in 1946. Churches, cathedrals and mosques were seized by the military and converted into basketball courts, movie theaters, dance halls, and the like; with members of the Clergy being stripped of their titles and imprisoned. Around 6,000 Albanians were disappeared by agents of the Communist government, with their bodies having never been found or identified. Albanians continued to be imprisoned, tortured and killed for their religious practices well into 1991.
Religious communities or branches that had their headquarters outside the country, such as the Jesuit and Franciscan orders, were henceforth ordered to terminate their activities in Albania. Religious institutions were forbidden to have anything to do with the education of the young, because that had been made the exclusive province of the state. All religious communities were prohibited from owning real estate and they were also prohibited from operating philanthropic and welfare institutions and hospitals. Enver Hoxha’s overarching goal was the eventual destruction of all organized religion in Albania, despite some variance in approach.
Kingdom of Iraq
The Assyrians suffered a further series of persecutions during the Simele massacre in 1933, with the death of approximately 3000 Assyrian civilians in the Kingdom of Iraq at the hands of the Royal Iraqi Army.
Republic of Iraq
In 1987, the last Iraqi census counted 1.4 million Christians. They were tolerated under the secular regime of Saddam Hussein, who even made one of them, Tariq Aziz his deputy. However, Saddam Hussein’s government continued to persecute the Christians on an ethnic, cultural and racial basis, because the vast majority are Mesopotamian Eastern Aramaic-speaking Ethnic Assyrians (aka Chaldo-Assyrians). The Assyro-Aramaic language and script was repressed, the giving of Hebraic/Aramaic Christian names or Akkadian/Assyro-Babylonian names was forbidden (for example Tariq Aziz’s real name was Michael Youhanna ), and Saddam exploited religious differences between Assyrian denominations such as Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, Assyrian Pentecostal Church and Ancient Church of the East, in an attempt to divide them. Many Assyrians and Armenians were ethnically cleansed from their towns and villages during the al Anfal Campaign in 1988, despite the fact that this campaign was primarily directed against the Kurds.
Queen Ranavalona I (reigned 1828–1861) issued a royal edict prohibiting the practice of Christianity in Madagascar, expelled British missionaries from the island, and sought to stem the growth of conversion to Christianity within her realm. Far more, however, were punished in other ways: many were required to undergo the tangena ordeal, while others were condemned to hard labor or the confiscation of their land and property, and many of these consequently died. The tangena ordeal was commonly administered to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person for any crime, including the practice of Christianity, and involved ingestion of the poison contained within the nut of the tangena tree (Cerbera odollam). Survivors were deemed innocent, while those who perished were assumed guilty.
In 1838, it was estimated that as many as 100,000 people in Imerina died as a result of the tangena ordeal, constituting roughly 20% of the population. contributing to a strongly unfavorable view of Ranavalona’s rule in historical accounts. Malagasy Christians would remember this period as ny tany maizina, or “the time when the land was dark”. Persecution of Christians intensified in 1840, 1849 and 1857; in 1849, deemed the worst of these years by British missionary to Madagascar W.E. Cummins (1878), 1,900 people were fined, jailed or otherwise punished in relation to their Christian faith, including 18 executions.
Hitler and the Nazis received some support from Christian communities, mainly due to their common cause against the anti-religious Communists, as well as their mutual Judeophobia and anti-Semitism. Once in power, the Nazis moved to consolidate their power over the German churches and bring them in line with Nazi ideals. Some historians say that Hitler had a general covert plan, which some say existed even before the Nazis’ rise to power, to destroy Christianity within the Reich, which was to be accomplished through control and subversion of the churches and it would be completed after the war.The Third Reich founded its own version of Christianity which was called Positive Christianity, a Nazi version of Christianity which made major changes in the interpretation of the Bible by saying that Jesus Christ was the son of God, but not a Jew and it also argued that Jesus despised Jews, and the Jews were the ones who were solely responsible for Jesus’s death.
Outside mainstream Christianity, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were targets of Nazi Persecution, for their refusal to swear allegiance to the Nazi government. In Nazi Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s, Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to renounce their political neutrality and they were placed in concentration camps as a result. The Nazi government gave detained Jehovah’s Witnesses the option of release if they signed a document which indicated their renouncement of their faith, their submission to state authority, and their support of the German military. Historian Hans Hesse said, “Some five thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to concentration camps where they alone were ‘voluntary prisoners’, so termed because the moment they recanted their views, they could be freed. Some lost their lives in the camps, but few renounced their faith”.
The Nazi Dissolution of the Bruderhof was also carried out by the Nazi government because the Bruderhof refused to pledge allegiance to Hitler. In 1937 their property was confiscated and the group fled to England.
Relations between Muslims and Christians in the Ottoman Empire during the modern era were shaped in no small part by broader dynamics related to European colonial and neo-imperialist activity in the region, dynamics that frequently (though by no means always) generated tensions between the two. Too often, growing European influence in the region during the nineteenth century seemed to disproportionately benefit Christians, thus producing resentment on the part of many Muslims, likewise a suspicion that Christians were colluding with the European powers in order to weaken the Islamic world. Further exacerbating relations was the fact that Christians seemed to benefit disproportionately from efforts at reform (one aspect of which generally sought to elevate the political status of non-Muslims), likewise, the various Christian nationalist uprisings in the Empire’s European territories, which often had the support of the European powers.
Persecutions and forced migrations of Christian populations were induced by Ottoman forces during the 19th century in the European and Asian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The Massacres of Badr Khan were conducted by Kurdish and Ottoman forces against the Assyrian Christian population of the Ottoman Empire between 1843 and 1847, resulting in the slaughter of more than 10,000 indigenous Assyrian civilians of the Hakkari region, with many thousands more being sold into slavery. On 17 October 1850 the Muslim majority began rioting against the Uniate Catholics – a minority that lived in the communities of Judayda, in the city of Aleppo.
During the Bulgarian Uprising (1876) against Ottoman rule, and the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the persecution of the Bulgarian Christian population was conducted by Ottoman soldiers. The principal locations were Panagurishte, Perushtitza, and Bratzigovo. Over 15,000 non-combatant Bulgarian civilians were killed by the Ottoman army between 1876 and 1878, with the worst single instance being the Batak massacre. During the war, whole cities including the largest Bulgarian one (Stara Zagora) were destroyed and most of their inhabitants were killed, the rest being expelled or enslaved. The atrocities included impaling and grilling people alive. Similar attacks were undertaken by Ottoman troops against Serbian Christians during the Serbian-Turkish War (1876–1878).
Between 1894 and 1896 a series of ethno-religiously motivated Anti-Christian pogroms known as the Hamidian massacres were conducted against the ancient Armenian and Assyrian Christian populations by the forces of the Ottoman Empire. The motives for these massacres were an attempt to reassert Pan-Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, resentment of the comparative wealth of the ancient indigenous Christian communities, and a fear that they would attempt to secede from the tottering Ottoman Empire. The massacres mainly took place in what is today southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria and northern Iraq. Assyrians and Armenians were massacred in Diyarbakir, Hasankeyef, Sivas and other parts of Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The death toll is estimated to have been as high as 325,000 people, with a further 546,000 Armenians and Assyrians made destitute by forced deportations of survivors from cities, and the destruction or theft of almost 2500 of their farmsteads towns and villages. Hundreds of churches and monasteries were also destroyed or forcibly converted into mosques. These attacks caused the death of over thousands of Assyrians and the forced “Ottomanisation” of the inhabitants of 245 villages. The Ottoman troops looted the remains of the Assyrian settlements and these were later stolen and occupied by south-east Anatolian tribes. Unarmed Assyrian women and children were raped, tortured and murdered. According to H. Aboona, the independence of the Assyrians was destroyed not directly by the Turks but by their neighbours under Ottoman auspices.
The Adana massacre occurred in the Adana Vilayet of the Ottoman Empire in April 1909. A massacre of Armenian and Assyrian Christians in the city of Adana and its surrounds amidst the Ottoman countercoup of 1909 led to a series of anti-Christian pogroms throughout the province. Reports estimated that the Adana Province massacres resulted in the death of as many as 30,000 Armenians and 1,500 Assyrians.
Between 1915 and 1921 the Young Turks government of the collapsing Ottoman Empire persecuted Eastern Christian populations in Anatolia, Persia, Northern Mesopotamia and The Levant. The onslaught by the Ottoman army, which included Kurdish, Arab and Circassian irregulars resulted in an estimated 3.4 million deaths, divided between roughly 1.5 million Armenian Christians, 0.75 million Assyrian Christians, 0.90 million Greek Orthodox Christians and 0.25 million Maronite Christians (see Great Famine of Mount Lebanon); groups of Georgian Christians were also killed. The massive ethnoreligious cleansing expelled from the empire or killed the Armenians and the Bulgarians who had not converted to Islam, and it came to be known as the Armenian Genocide, Assyrian Genocide, Greek Genocide. and Great Famine of Mount Lebanon. which accounted for the deaths of Armenian, Assyrian, Greek and Maronite Christians, and the deportation and destitution of many more. The Genocide led to the devastation of ancient indigenous Christian populations who had existed in the region for thousands of years.
In the aftermath of the Sheikh Said rebellion, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East were subjected to harassment by Turkish authorities, on the grounds that some Assyrians allegedly collaborated with the rebelling Kurds. Consequently, mass deportations took place and Assyrian Patriarch Mar Ignatius Elias III was expelled from the Mor Hananyo Monastery which was turned into a Turkish barrack. The patriarchal seat was then temporarily transferred to Homs.
Before the partition of India, many Christians worked under Sikh landlords and when they departed the western parts of the Punjab region in 1947, the Government of Pakistan appropriated Sikh property to Muslims arriving from Bihar and the United Provinces, causing over 300,000 Christians in the newly formed state of Pakistan to become homeless. On top of that, rogue Muslims threatened Christians that Pakistan was made for Muslims only and that if Christians wanted to stay there, they had to live a life of servitude and perform sanitation work. Some Christians were therefore murdered for refusing to pick up garbage. In 1951, seventy-two Muslims were charged with the murder of eleven Christians after communal riots over agricultural land erupted.
The Human Rights Council of Pakistan has reported that cases of forced conversion to Islam are increasing. A 2014 report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP) says about 1,000 women in Pakistan are forcibly converted to Islam every year (700 Christian and 300 Hindu).
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks undertook a massive program to remove the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church from the government, outlawed antisemitism in society, and promoted atheism. Tens of thousands of churches were destroyed or converted to other uses, and many members of the clergy were murdered, publicly executed and imprisoned for what the government termed “anti-government activities.” An extensive educational and propaganda campaign was launched in order to convince people, especially children and youths, to abandon their religious beliefs. This persecution resulted in the intentional murder of 500,000 Orthodox followers by the government of the Soviet Union during the 20th century. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed.
The state established atheism as the only scientific truth. Soviet authorities forbade the criticism of atheism and agnosticism until 1936 or of the state’s anti-religious policies; such criticism could lead to forced retirement. Militant atheism became central to the ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and a high priority policy of all Soviet leaders. Christopher Marsh, a professor at the Baylor University writes that “Tracing the social nature of religion from Schleiermacher and Feurbach to Marx, Engles, and Lenin…the idea of religion as a social product evolved to the point of policies aimed at the forced conversion of believers to atheism.”
Under the doctrine of state atheism in the Soviet Union, a “government-sponsored program of forced conversion to atheism” was conducted by the Communists. The Communist Party destroyed churches, mosques and temples, ridiculed, harassed, incarcerated and executed religious leaders, flooded the schools and media with anti-religious teachings, and it introduced a belief system called “scientific atheism,” with its own rituals, promises and proselytizers. Many priests were killed and imprisoned; thousands of churches were closed. In 1925 the government founded the League of Militant Atheists in order to intensify the persecution. The League of Militant Atheists was also a “nominally independent organization established by the Communist Party to promote atheism”.
The Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions towards particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed. It is estimated that 500,000 Russian Orthodox Christians were martyred in the gulags by the Soviet government, excluding the members of other Christian denominations who were also tortured or killed.
The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful worshippers. A very large segment of its clergy, and many of its believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited. In the period between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to less than 500. Between 1917 and 1940, 130,000 Orthodox priests were arrested. The widespread persecution and internecine disputes within the church hierarchy lead to the seat of Patriarch of Moscow being vacant from 1925 to 1943.
After Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church in order to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. By 1957, about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959, Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. By 1985, fewer than 7,000 churches remained active.
In the Soviet Union, in addition to the methodical closure and destruction of churches, the charitable and social work formerly done by ecclesiastical authorities was taken over by the state. As with all private property, Church owned property was confiscated by the state and converted to public use. The few places of worship left to the Church were legally viewed as state property which the government permitted the church to use. After the advent of state funded universal education, the Church was not permitted to carry on educational, instructional activity for children. For adults, only training for church-related occupations was allowed. With the exception of sermons during the celebration of the divine liturgy, it could not instruct the faithful or evangelise the youth. Catechism classes, religious schools, study groups, Sunday schools and religious publications were all declared illegal and banned. This caused many religious tracts to be circulated as illegal literature or samizdat. This persecution continued, even after the death of Stalin until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has recognized a number of New Martyrs as saints, some of whom were executed during the Mass operations of the NKVD under directives like NKVD Order No. 00447.
Before and after the October Revolution of 7 November 1917 (25 October Old Calendar) there was a movement within the Soviet Union to unite all of the people of the world under Communist rule (see Communist International). This included the Eastern European bloc countries as well as the Balkan States. Since some of these Slavic states tied their ethnic heritage to their ethnic churches, both the people and their churches were targeted for ethnic and political genocide by the Soviets and their form of State atheism. The Soviets’ official religious stance was one of “religious freedom or tolerance”, though the state established atheism as the only scientific truth (see also the Soviet or committee of the All-Union Society for the Dissemination of Scientific and Political Knowledge or Znanie which was until 1947 called The League of the Militant Godless and various Intelligentsia groups). Criticism of atheism was strictly forbidden and sometimes resulted in imprisonment. Some of the more high-profile individuals who were executed include Metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd, Priest and scientist Pavel Florensky and Bishop Gorazd Pavlik.
According to James M. Nelson a psychology professor at East Carolina University, the total number of Christian victims under the Soviet regime may have been around 12 million, while Todd Johnson and Gina Zurlo of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary at Boston University estimate a figure of 15–20 million.
The Second Spanish Republic, proclaimed in 1931, attempted to establish a regime with a separation between State and Church as it had happened in France (1905). When established, the Republic passed legislation which prevented the Church from conducting educational activities. A process of political polarisation had characterised the Spanish Second Republic, party divisions became increasingly embittered and questions of religious identity came to assume major political significance. The existence of different Church institutions was an illustration of the situation which resulted from the proclamation which denounced the 2nd Republic as an anti-Catholic, Masonic, Jewish, and Communist internationalist conspiracy which heralded a clash between God and atheism, chaos and harmony, Good and Evil. The Church’s high-ranking officials like Isidro Goma, bishop of Tudela, reminded their Christian subjects of their obligation to vote “for the righteous,” and their priests of their obligation to “educate the consciences.” In the Asturian miners’ strike of 1934, part of the Revolution of 1934, 34 Catholic priests were massacred and churches were systematically burned. Anticlerical opinion accused the Catholic priesthood and religious orders of hypocrisy: clerics were guilty of taking up arms against the people, of exploiting others for the sake of wealth, and of sexual immorality all while claiming the moral authority of peacefulness, poverty, and chastity.
Since the early stages of the Second Republic, far-right forces which were imbued with an ultra-Catholic spirit attempted to overthrow the Republic. Carlists, Africanistas, and Catholic theologians fostered an atmosphere of social and racial hatred in their speeches and writings. The Catholic Church endorsed the rebellion which was led by the fascist Francisco Franco, and Pope Pius XI expressed sympathy for the Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War. The Catholic authorities described Franco’s war as a “crusade” against the Second Republic, and later the Collective Letter of the Spanish Bishops, 1937 appeared, justifying Franco’s attack on the Republic. A similar approach is attested in 1912, when the bishop of Almería José Ignacio de Urbina(founder of the National Anti-Masonic and Anti-Semitic League ) announced “a decisive battle that must be unleashed” between the “light” and “darkness.” Though the official declaration of the “crusade” followed the Republican persecution of Catholic clerics, the Catholic Church was already predisposed towards Franco’s position, because it was seen as the “perfect ally of fascism” while it opposed the anticlerical policies of the Second Republic. The 1936 anticlerical persecution has been seen as “final phase of a long war between clericalism and anticlericalism” and “fully consistent with a Spanish history of popular anticlericalism and anticlerical populism”.
Stanley Payne suggested that the persecution of right-wingers and people who were associated with the Catholic church both before and at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War involved the murder of priests and other clergy, as well as thousands of lay people, by sections of nearly all leftist groups, while a killing spree was also unleashed across the Nationalist zone. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939, and especially during the early months of the conflict, individual clergymen and entire religious communities were executed by leftists, some of whom were communists and anarchists. The death toll of the clergy alone included 13 bishops, 4,172 diocesan priests and seminarians, 2,364 monks and friars and 283 nuns, reaching a total of 6,832 clerical victims. The main perpetrators of the Red Terror were members of the anarchist Federación Anarquista Ibérica, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, and the Trotskyist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification. These organizations distanced themselves from the violence, condemned those who were responsible for it or characterized the killings as mob reprisals for acts of violence which had been perpetrated by the clerics themselves, an explanation which was readily accepted by the public.
In addition to the murder of both the clergy and the faithful, the destruction of churches and the desecration of sacred sites and objects was also widespread. On the night of 19 July 1936 alone, some fifty churches were burned. In Barcelona, out of the 58 churches, only the cathedral was spared, and similar desecrations occurred almost everywhere in Republican Spain.
Two exceptions were Biscay and Gipuzkoa where the Christian Democratic Basque Nationalist Party, after some hesitation, supported the Republic and halted the persecution of Catholics in areas which were held by the Basque Government. All other Catholic churches which were located in the Republican zone were closed. The desecration was not limited to Catholic churches, because synagogues and Protestant churches were also pillaged and closed, but some small Protestant churches were spared. The rising Franco’s regime would keep Protestant churches and synagogues closed, as he only permitted the Catholic Church.
Payne called the terror the “most extensive and violent persecution of Catholicism in Western History, in some way even more intense than that of the French Revolution.” The persecution drove Catholics to the side of the Nationalists, even more of them sided with the Nationalists than would have been expected, because they defended their religious interests and survival.
The Roman Catholic priests who were killed during the Red Terror are considered “Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War”, though the priests who were executed by the fascists are not counted among them. A group known as the “498 Spanish Martyrs” were beatified by the Roman Catholic Church’s Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. The history of the Red Terror has been obscured by scholarly inattention and the “embarrassing partiality” of ecclesiastical historians. Some of The numerous non-fascists who were persecuted during Franco’s White Terror were Protestants , because the fascists accused them of being associated with Freemasonry , and the persecution which they were subjected to during Franco’s White Terror was much more intense than the persecution which they were subjected to during the Red Terror,.
The Latter Day Saint Movement, (Mormons) have been persecuted since their founding in the 1830s. This persecution drove them from New York and Ohio to Missouri, where they continued to suffer violent attacks. In 1838, Gov. Lilburn Boggs declared that Mormons had made war on the state of Missouri, and “must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state” At least 10,000 were expelled from the State. In the most violent of the altercations at this time, the Haun’s Mill massacre, 17 were murdered by an anti-Mormon mob and 13 were wounded. The Extermination Order signed by Governor Boggs was not formally invalidated until 25 June 1976, 137 years after being signed.
The Mormons subsequently fled to Nauvoo, Illinois, where hostilities again escalated. In Carthage, Ill., where Joseph Smith was being held on the charge of treason, a mob stormed the jail and killed him. Smith’s brother, Hyrum, was also killed. After a succession crisis, most united under Brigham Young, who organized an evacuation from the United States after the federal government refused to protect them. 70,000 Mormon pioneers crossed the Great Plains to settle in the Salt Lake Valley and surrounding areas. After the Mexican–American War, the area became the US territory of Utah. Over the next 63 years, several actions by the federal government were directed against Mormons in the Mormon Corridor, including the Utah War, the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, the Poland Act, Reynolds v. United States, the Edmunds Act, the Edmunds–Tucker Act, and the Reed Smoot hearings.
The second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1915 and launched in the 1920s, persecuted Catholics in both the United States and Canada. As stated in its official rhetoric which focused on the threat of the Catholic Church, the Klan was motivated by anti-Catholicism and American nativism. Its appeal was exclusively directed towards white Protestants; it opposed Jews, blacks, Catholics, and newly arriving Southern and Eastern European immigrants such as Italians, Russians, and Lithuanians, many of whom were either Jewish or Catholic.
Across Eastern Europe following World War II, the parts of the Nazi Empire conquered by the Soviet Red Army and Yugoslavia became one-party Communist states and the project of coercive conversion to atheism continued. The Soviet Union ended its war time truce with the Russian Orthodox Church, and extended its persecutions to the newly Communist Eastern bloc: “In Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries, Catholic leaders who were unwilling to be silent were denounced, publicly humiliated or imprisoned by the Communists. Leaders of the national Orthodox Churches in Romania and Bulgaria had to be cautious and submissive”, wrote Geoffrey Blainey. While the churches were generally not treated as severely as they had been in the USSR, nearly all of their schools and many of their churches were closed, and they lost their formally prominent roles in public life. Children were taught atheism, and clergy were imprisoned by the thousands. In the Eastern Bloc, Christian churches, along with Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques were forcibly “converted into museums of atheism.”
Along with execution, some other actions against Orthodox priests and believers included torture, being sent to prison camps, labour camps or mental hospitals.
Current situation (1989 to the present)
Pope Benedict XVI claimed in 2010 that Christians were the most persecuted group in the contemporary world. In a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 23rd session in May 2013, then-Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, Silvano Maria Tomasi claimed that “an estimate of more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith every year”. This number was supported by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at the evangelical Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, which published a statement in December 2016 stating that “between 2005 and 2015 there were 900,000 Christian martyrs worldwide – an average of 90,000 per year.” Tomasi’s radio address to the Council called the figures both a “shocking conclusion” and “credible research”. The accuracy of this number, based on population estimates in a 1982 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, is disputed. Almost all died in wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where all sides of the Second Congo War and subsequent conflicts are majority-Christian, and previous years included victims of the Rwandan genocide, an ethnic conflict and part of the First Congo War where again most belligerents were Christian. As a result, the BBC News Magazine cautioned that “when you hear that 100,000 Christians are dying for their faith, you need to keep in mind that the vast majority – 90,000 – are people who were killed in DR Congo.”
Klaus Wetzel, an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, explains this discrepancy in numbers is due to the contradiction between the definition used by Gordon-Conwell defining Christian martyrdom in the widest possible sense, and the more sociological and political definition Wetzel and Open Doors and others such as The International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF) use, which is: ‘those who are killed, who would not have been killed, if they had not been Christians.’
Numbers are affected by several important factors, for example, population distribution is a factor. The United States submits an annual report on religious freedom and persecution to the Congress which recognizes restrictions on religious freedom, ranging from low to very high, in three-quarters of the world’s countries including the United States. In approximatrly one quarter of the world’s countries, there are high and very high restrictions and oppression, and some of those countries, such as China and India, Indonesia and Pakistan are among those with the highest populations. About three quarters of the world’s population live in the most oppressive countries in the world.
Numbers of martyrs are especially difficult to identify accurately, since religious persecution is often part of a larger conflict. This complicates identifying the act as religious or political. For example, the U.S. Department of State identified 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 1991 when the Gulf War began. By 2010, the number of Christians dropped to 700,000 and by 2011 it was estimated there were between 450,000 and 200,000 Christians left in Iraq. During that period, actions against Christians included the burning and bombing of churches, the bombing of Christian owned businesses and homes, kidnapping, murder, demands for protection money, and anti-Christian rhetoric in the media with those responsible saying they wanted to rid the country of its Christians.
Paul Vallely and the Danish National Research Database, argue that Christians are, as of 2019, the most persecuted religious group in the world. A report released by the UK’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs prepared by Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, in July 2019, and a report on restriction of religious freedom by the PEW organization studying worldwide restrictions of religious freedom, both have Christians suffering in the highest number of countries, rising from 125 in 2015 to 144 as of 2018. PEW has published a caution concerning the interpretation of its numbers: “The Center’s recent report … does not attempt to estimate the number of victims in each country… it does not speak to the intensity of harassment…” France, who restricts the wearing of the hijab, is counted as a persecuting country equally with Nigeria and Pakistan where, according to the Global Security organization, Christians have been killed for their faith.
The Internationale Gesellschaft für Menschenrechte — the International Society for Human Rights — in Frankfurt, Germany is a non-governmental organization with 30,000 members from 38 countries who monitor human rights. In September 2009, then chairman Martin Lessenthin, issued a report estimating that 80% of acts of religious persecution around the world were aimed at Christians at that time.
W. J. Blumenfeld says Christianity enjoys dominant group privilege in the US and some other Western societies. Christianity is, numerically, the largest religion in the U.S. according to PEW, with 43% of Americans identifying themselves as Protestant and one in five (20%) identifying as Catholic. It remains the largest religion in the world including the highly secular Western Europe. Roughly two-thirds of the world’s countries have Christian majorities. Due to the large number of Christian majority countries, differing groups of Christians are harassed and persecuted in Christian countries such as Eritrea and Mexico more often than in most Muslim countries, though not in greater numbers.
According to PEW, the Middle East and North Africa have had the highest levels of restriction on non-favorite religions for the last decade, being higher than any other region, each year, from 2007 to 2017. But it’s the gap between this region and other regions where government favoritism is concerned that is particularly large: “the average country in this region scores nearly twice as high on measures of government favoritism of one religion as the average country in any other region”.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan independent federal agency created by Congress in 1998, published a study of the predominantly Muslim countries in this Middle Eastern/North African region. It concludes that, of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, “28 percent live in ten countries that declare themselves to be Islamic states. In addition, there are 12 predominantly Muslim countries that have chosen to declare Islam as the official state religion … Taken together, the 22 states that declare Islam the official religion account for 58 percent — or just over 600 million — of the 1 billion Muslims living in 44 predominantly Muslim countries.
“Several countries with constitutions establishing Islam as the state religion either do not contain guarantees of the right to freedom of religion or belief, or contain guarantees that, on their face, do not compare favorably with all aspects of international [human rights] standards”. All these countries defer in some way to religious authorities or doctrines on legal issues. For example, “when one spouse is Muslim and the other has a different religion (such as Coptic Christianity), or if spouses are members of different Christian denominations, courts still defer to Islamic family law.” Grim and Finke say their studies indicate that: “When religious freedoms are denied through the regulation of religious profession or practice, violent religious persecution and conflict increase.”
The USCIRF lists in its Annual Report 14 “Countries of Particular Concern” concerning religious rights and 15 additional countries that it has recommended be placed on the U.S. Department of State’s Special Watch List (SWL), a lesser category than CPC designation. Of these 29 countries, 17 are predominantly Muslim countries, located mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, representing less than half of the 44 predominantly Muslim countries in the world, the rest of which are either secular or have declared no state religion. Of the remaining countries, two have populations that are almost equally Christian and Muslim, both with official state versions, four are predominantly Christian countries persecuting non-official or non-favored varieties of Christianity or other religions, one is predominantly Buddhist, and one is predominantly Hindu. Eight of these countries are either currently communist or former communist states such as China, Cuba, Russia and Vietnam. Twenty four of the USCIRF’s twenty nine countries are also on Open Doors Worldwide Watch list as being especially dangerous for Christians.
Eleven predominantly Muslim countries proclaim the state to be secular. “These countries account for nearly 140 million Muslims, or 13.5 percent of the 1 billion Muslims living in predominantly Muslim countries. The 11 remaining predominantly Muslim countries have not made any constitutional declaration concerning the Islamic or secular nature of the state, and have not made Islam the official state religion. This group of countries, which includes Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim country, accounts for over 250 million Muslims”. This demonstrates that the majority of the world’s Muslim population live in countries that either proclaim the state to be secular, or that make no pronouncements concerning Islam as the official state religion.
In the Muslim world
Christians have faced increasing levels of persecution in the Muslim world.Muslim-majority nations in which Christian populations have suffered acute discrimination, persecution, repression, violence and in some cases death, mass murder or ethnic cleansing include; Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Qatar, Kuwait, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives.Native Christian communities are subject to persecution in several Muslim-majority countries such as Egyptand Pakistan.
Furthermore, any Muslim person—including any person who was born into a Muslim family or any person who became a Muslim at a given point in his or her life—who converts to Christianity or re-converts to it, is considered an apostate. Apostasy, the conscious abandonment of Islam by a Muslim in word or deed, including conversion to Christianity, is punishable as a crime under applications of the Sharia (countries in the graph). There are, however, cases in which a Muslim will adopt the Christian faith, secretly without declaring his/her apostasy. As a result, they are practising Christians, but they are still legally Muslims, and as a result, they can still face the death penalty according to the Sharia. Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman, was sentenced to death for apostasy in 2014, because the government of Sudan classified her as a Muslim, even though she was raised as a Christian.
A report by the international catholic charity organisation Aid to the Church in Need said that the religiously motivated ethnic cleansing of Christians is so severe that they are set to completely disappear from parts of the Middle-East within a decade.
A report which was commissioned by the British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and published in May 2019 stated that the level and nature of persecution of Christians in the Middle East “is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN.” The report coted Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia where “the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage.” The report attributed the sources of persecution to extremist groups and the failure of state institutions.
In Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old citizen, was charged in 2006 with rejecting Islam, a crime punishable by death under Sharia law. He has since been released into exile in the West under intense pressure from Western governments. In 2008, the Taliban killed a British charity worker, Gayle Williams, “because she was working for an organization which was preaching Christianity in Afghanistan” even though she was extremely careful not to try to convert Afghans.
On the night of 26–27 March 1996, seven monks from the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria, belonging to the Roman Catholic Trappist Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.), were kidnapped in the Algerian Civil War. They were held for two months and were found dead on 21 May 1996. The circumstances of their kidnapping and death remain controversial; the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) allegedly took responsibility for both, but the then French military attaché, retired General Francois Buchwalter, reports that they were accidentally killed by the Algerian army in a rescue attempt, and claims have been made that the GIA itself was a cat’s paw of Algeria’s secret services (DRS).
A Muslim gang allegedly looted and burned to the ground, a Pentecostal church in Tizi Ouzou on 9 January 2010. The pastor was quoted as saying that worshipers fled when local police supposedly left a group of local protestors unchecked. Many Bibles were burnt.
There have been large scale persecution including forced conversions, destruction of Churches, land of Christians being usurped and killing of Christians in Bangladesh over decades. This included abductions, attacks and forced conversions on Rohingya Christians in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
In Chad, Christians form a minority, at 41% of the population. They have faced an increasing level of persecution from local officials as well as Islamist groups like Boko Haram and tribal herdsmen. Persecution includes burning of Christian villages, closing of markets and killings.
See also: Persecution of Copts
Foreign missionaries are allowed in the country if they restrict their activities to social improvements and refrain from proselytizing. Particularly in Upper Egypt, the rise in extremist Islamist groups such as the Gama’at Islamiya during the 1980s was accompanied by increased attacks on Copts and on Coptic Orthodox churches; these have since declined with the decline of those organizations, but still continue. The police have been accused of siding with the attackers in some of these cases.
There have been periodic acts of violence against Christians since, including attacks on Coptic Orthodox churches in Alexandria in April 2006, and sectarian violence in Dahshur in July 2012. From 2011 to 2013, more than 150 kidnappings, for ransom, of Christians had been reported in the Minya governorate. Christians have been convicted for “contempt of religion”, such as poet Fatima Naoot in 2016.
Although Christians are minority in Indonesia, Christianity is one of the six officially recognized religions of Indonesia and religious freedom is permitted. But there are some religious tensions and persecutions in the country, and most of the tensions and persecutions are civil and not by state.
In January 1999 tens of thousands died when Muslim gunmen terrorized Christians who had voted for independence in East Timor. These events came toward the end of the East Timor genocide, which began around 1975.
In Indonesia, religious conflicts have typically occurred in Western New Guinea, Maluku (particularly Ambon), and Sulawesi. The presence of Muslims in these traditionally Christian regions is in part a result of the transmigrasi program of population re-distribution. Conflicts have often occurred because of the aims of radical Islamist organizations such as Jemaah Islamiah or Laskar Jihad to impose Sharia, with such groups attacking Christians and destroying over 600 churches. In 2005 three Christian girls were beheaded as retaliation for previous Muslim deaths in Christian-Muslim rioting. The men were imprisoned for the murders, including Jemaah Islamiyah’s district ringleader Hasanuddin. On going to jail, Hasanuddin said, “It’s not a problem (if I am being sentenced to prison), because this is a part of our struggle.” Later in November 2011, another fight between Christians against Muslims happen in Ambon. Muslims allegedly set fire to several Christian houses, forcing the occupants to leave the buildings.
In December 2011, a second church in Bogor, West Java, was ordered to halt its activities by the local mayor. Another Catholic church had been built there in 2005. Previously a Christian church, GKI Taman Yasmin, had been sealed. Local authorities refused to lift a ban on the activities of the church, despite an order from the Supreme Court of Indonesia. Local authorities have persecuted the Christian church for three years. While the state has ordered religious toleration, it has not enforced these orders.
In Aceh Province, the only province in Indonesia with autonomous Islamic Shari’a Law, 20 churches in Singkil Regency face threat of demolition due to gubernatorial decree requires the approval of 150 worshippers, while the ministerial decree also requires the approval of 60 local residents of different faiths. On 30 April 2012, all the 20 churches (17 Protestant churches, 2 Catholic churches and one place of worship belonging to followers of a local nondenominational faith) have been closed down by order, from the Acting Regent which also ordered members of the congregations to tear down the churches by themselves. Most of the churches slated for demolition were built in the 1930s and 1940s. The regency has 2 churches open, both built after 2000.
On 9 May 2017, Christian governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has been sentenced to two years in prison by the North Jakarta District Court after being found guilty of committing a criminal act of blasphemy.
Though Iran recognizes Assyrian and Armenian Christians as ethnic and religious minorities (along with Jews and Zoroastrians) and they have representatives in the Parliament, they are nonetheless forced to adhere to Iran’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Muslim converts to Christianity (typically to Protestant Christianity) have been arrested and sometimes executed. Youcef Nadarkhani is an Iranian Christian pastor who was arrested on charges of apostasy in October 2009 and was subsequently sentenced to death. In June 2011 the Iranian Supreme Court overruled his death sentence on condition that he recant, which he refused to do. In a reversal on 8 September 2012 he was acquitted of the charges of apostasy and extortion, and sentenced to time served for the charge of “propaganda against the regime,” and immediately released.
According to the UNHCR, although Christians (almost exclusively ethnic Assyrians and Armenians) represented less than 5% of the total Iraqi population in 2007, they made up 40% of the refugees living in nearby countries.
In 2004, five churches were destroyed by bombing, and Christians were targeted by kidnappers and Islamic extremists, leading to tens of thousands of Christians fleeing to Assyrian regions in the north or leaving the country altogether.
In 2006, the number of Assyrian Christians dropped to between 500,000 and 800,000, of whom 250,000 lived in Baghdad. An exodus to the Assyrian homeland in northern Iraq, and to neighboring countries of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey left behind closed parishes, seminaries and convents. As a small minority, who until recently were without a militia of their own, Assyrian Christians were persecuted by both Shi’a and Sunni Muslim militias, Kurdish Nationalists, and also by criminal gangs.
As of 21 June 2007, the UNHCR estimated that 2.2 million Iraqis had been displaced to neighbouring countries, and 2 million were displaced internally, with nearly 100,000 Iraqis fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month. A 25 May 2007 article notes that in the past seven months 69 people from Iraq have been granted refugee status in the United States.
In 2007, Chaldean Catholic Church priest Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni and subdeacons Basman Yousef Dawid, Wahid Hanna Esho, and Gassan Isam Bidawed were killed in the ancient city of Mosul. Ganni was driving with his three deacons when they were stopped and demanded to convert to Islam, when they refused they were shot. Ganni was the pastor of the Chaldean Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul and a graduate from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum in Rome in 2003 with a licentiate in ecumenical theology. Six months later, the body of Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of Mosul, was found buried near Mosul. He was kidnapped on 29 February 2008 when his bodyguards and driver were killed. See 2008 attacks on Christians in Mosul for more details.
In 2010 there was an attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic cathedral of Baghdad, Iraq, that took place during Sunday evening Mass on 31 October 2010. The attack left at least 58 people dead, after more than 100 had been taken hostage. The al-Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgent group The Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack; though Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, amongst others condemned the attack.
In 2013, Assyrian Christians were departing for their ancestral heartlands in the Nineveh plains, around Mosul, Erbil and Kirkuk. Assyrian militias were established to protect villages and towns.
During the 2014 Northern Iraq offensive, the Islamic State of Iraq issued a decree in July that all indigenous Assyrian Christians in the area of its control must leave the lands they have occupied for 5000 years, be subject to extortion in the form of a special tax of approximately $470 per family, convert to Islam, or be murdered. Many of them took refuge in nearby Kurdish-controlled regions of Iraq. Christian homes have been painted with the Arabic letter ن (nūn) for Nassarah (an Arabic word Christian) and a declaration that they are the “property of the Islamic State”. On 18 July, ISIS militants seemed to have changed their minds and announced that all Christians would need to leave or be killed. Most of those who left had their valuable possessions stolen by the Islamic terrorists. According to Patriarch Louis Sako, there are no Christians remaining in the once Christian dominated city of Mosul for the first time in the nation’s history, although this situation has not been verified.
In Malaysia, although Islam is the official religion, Christianity is tolerated under Article 3 and Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution. But at some point, the spread of Christianity is a particular sore point for the Muslim majority, the Malaysian government has also persecuted Christian groups who were perceived to be attempting to proselytize Muslim audiences. Those showing interest in the Christian faith or other faith practices not considered orthodox by state religious authorities are usually sent either by the police or their family members to state funded Faith Rehabilitation Centres (Malay: Pusat Pemulihan Akidah) where they are counseled to remain faithful to Islam and some states have provisions for penalties under their respective Shariah legislations for apostasy from Islam.
It has been the practice of the church in Malaysia to not actively proselytize to the Muslim community. Christian literature is required by law to carry a caption “for non-Muslims only”. Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia allows the states to prohibit the propagation of other religions to Muslims, and most (with the exception of Penang, Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territories) have done so. There is no well-researched agreement on the actual number of Malaysian Muslim converts to Christianity in Malaysia. According to the latest population census released by the Malaysian Statistics Department, there are none, according to Ustaz Ridhuan Tee, they are 135 and according to Tan Sri Dr Harussani Zakaria, they are 260,000. See also Status of religious freedom in Malaysia.
There are, however, cases in which a Muslim will adopt the Christian faith without declaring his/her apostasy openly. In effect, they are practicing Christians, but legally Muslims.
In the 11 Northern states of Nigeria that have introduced the Islamic system of law, the Sharia, sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians have resulted in many deaths, and some churches have been burned. More than 30,000 Christians were displaced from their homes in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria.
The Boko Haram Islamist group has bombed churches and killed numerous Christians who they regard as kafirs (infidels). Some Muslim aid organisations in Nigeria reportedly reserve aid for Muslims displaced by Boko Haram. Christian Bishop William Naga reported to Open Doors UK that, “They will give food to the refugees, but if you are a Christian they will not give you food. They will openly tell you that the relief is not for Christians.”
In Pakistan, 1.5% of the population are Christian. Many churches built during the colonial Indian period, prior to the partition, remain locked, with the Pakistani government refusing to hand them over to the Christian community. Others have been victims of church arsons or demolitions.
Pakistani law mandates that “blasphemies” of the Qur’an are to be met with punishment. At least a dozen Christians have been given death sentences, and half a dozen murdered after being accused of violating blasphemy laws. In 2005, 80 Christians were behind bars due to these laws. The Pakistani-American author Farahnaz Ispahani has called treatment of Christians in Pakistan a “drip-drip genocide.”
Ayub Masih, a Christian, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 1998. He was accused by a neighbor of stating that he supported British writer Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. Lower appeals courts upheld the conviction. However, before the Pakistan Supreme Court, his lawyer was able to prove that the accuser had used the conviction to force Masih’s family off their land and then acquired control of the property. Masih has been released.
In October 2001, gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on a Protestant congregation in the Punjab, killing 18 people. The identities of the gunmen are unknown. Officials think it might be a banned Islamic group.
In March 2002, five people were killed in an attack on a church in Islamabad, including an American schoolgirl and her mother.
In August 2002, masked gunmen stormed a Christian missionary school for foreigners in Islamabad; six people were killed and three injured. None of those killed were children of foreign missionaries.
In August 2002, grenades were thrown at a church in the grounds of a Christian hospital in north-west Pakistan, near Islamabad, killing three nurses.
On 25 September 2002, two terrorists entered the “Peace and Justice Institute”, Karachi, where they separated Muslims from the Christians, and then murdered seven Christians by shooting them in the head. All of the victims were Pakistani Christians. Karachi police chief Tariq Jamil said the victims had their hands tied and their mouths had been covered with tape.
In December 2002, three young girls were killed when a hand grenade was thrown into a church near Lahore on Christmas Day.
In November 2005, 3,000 Muslims attacked Christians in Sangla Hill in Pakistan and destroyed Roman Catholic, Salvation Army and United Presbyterian churches. The attack was over allegations of violation of blasphemy laws by a Pakistani Christian named Yousaf Masih. The attacks were widely condemned by some political parties in Pakistan.
On 5 June 2006, a Pakistani Christian, Nasir Ashraf, was assaulted for the “sin” of using public drinking water facilities near Lahore.
One year later, in August 2007, a Christian missionary couple, Rev. Arif and Kathleen Khan, were gunned down by Muslim terrorists in Islamabad. Pakistani police believed that the murders was committed by a member of Khan’s parish over alleged sexual harassment by Khan. This assertion is widely doubted by Khan’s family as well as by Pakistani Christians.
In August 2009, six Christians, including four women and a child, were burnt alive by Muslim militants and a church set ablaze in Gojra, Pakistan when violence broke out after alleged desecration of a Qur’an in a wedding ceremony by Christians.
On 8 November 2010, a Christian woman from Punjab Province, Asia Noreen Bibi, was sentenced to death by hanging for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The accusation stemmed from a 2009 incident in which Bibi became involved in a religious argument after offering water to thirsty Muslim farm workers. The workers later claimed that she had blasphemed the Muhammed. Until 2019, Bibi was in solitary confinement. A cleric had offered $5,800 to anyone who killed her. As of May 2019, Bibi and her family have left Pakistan and now reside in Canada.
On 2 March 2011, the only Christian minister in the Pakistan government was shot dead. Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Minorities, was in his car along with his niece. Around 50 bullets struck the car. Over 10 bullets hit Bhatti. Before his death, he had publicly stated that he was not afraid of the Taliban’s threats and was willing to die for his faith and beliefs. He was targeted for opposing the anti-free speech “blasphemy” law, which punishes insulting Islam or its Prophet. A fundamentalist Muslim group claimed responsibility.
On 22 September 2013, at least 78 people, including 34 women and 7 children, were killed and over 100 wounded in a Suicide attack on the over 10-year-old All Saints Church in Peshawar after a service on Sunday morning.
on 4 November 2014, a Christian couple were burnt alive in the Punjab province of Pakistan, on a false rumor of blasphemy against the Quran.
On 15 March 2015, 10 people were killed in suicide bombings on Christian Churches in the city of Lahore.
On 27 March 2016, a suicide bomber from a Pakistani Taliban faction killed at least 60 people and injured 300 others in an attack at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, Pakistan, and the group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it intentionally targeted Christians celebrating Easter Sunday.
On 18 December 2017, 6 people were killed and dozens injured in a suicide bombing on a Methodist church in the city of Quetta, Balochistan province.
On 3 April 2018, 4 members of a Christian family were shot to death and a young girl injured in the city of Quetta where they had arrived from Punjab province to celebrate Easter.
On 5 March 2018, an armed mob of over two dozen, attacked the Gospel Assembly church in Punjab province and beat up Christian worshippers including women and children.
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state that practices Wahhabism and restricts all other religions, including the possession of religious items such as the Bible, crucifixes, and Stars of David. Strict sharia is enforced. Muslims are forbidden to convert to another religion. If one does so and does not recant, they can be executed.
Christians in Somalia face persecution associated with the ongoing civil war in that country.
In September 2011 militants sworn to eradicate Christianity from Somalia beheaded two Christian converts. A third Christian convert was beheaded in Mogadishu in early 2012.
In 1992 there were mass arrests and torture of local priests. Prior to partition, southern Sudan had a number of Christian villages. These were subsequently wiped out by Janjaweed militias.
Christians make up approximately 10% of Syria’s population of 17.2 million people. The majority of Syrian Christians are once Western Aramaic speaking but now largely Arabic speaking Arameans-Syriacs, with smaller minorities of Eastern Aramaic speaking Assyrians and Armenians also extant. While religious persecution has been relatively low level compared to other Middle Eastern nations, many of the Christians have been pressured into identifying as Arab Christians, with the Assyrian and Armenian groups retaining their native languages.
In FY 2016, when the US dramatically increased the number of refugees admitted from Syria, the US let in 12,587 refugees from the country. Fewer than 1% were Christian according to the Pew Research Center analysis of State Department Refugee Processing Center data.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is still in a difficult position. Turkish law requires the Ecumenical Patriarch to be an ethnic Greek who holds Turkish citizenship since birth, although most members of Turkey’s Greek minority have been expelled. The state’s expropriation of church property is an additional difficulty faced by the Church of Constantinople. In November 2007, a 17th-century chapel of Our Lord’s Transfiguration at the Halki seminary was almost totally demolished by the Turkish forestry authority. There was no advance warning given for the demolition work and it was only stopped after appeals were filed by the Ecumenical Patriarch.
The difficulties currently experienced by the Assyrians and Armenian Orthodox minorities in Turkey are the result of an anti-Armenian and anti-Christian attitude which is espoused by ultra-nationalist groups such as the Grey Wolves. According to the Minority Rights Group, the Turkish government recognizes Armenians and Assyrians as minorities but in Turkey, this term is used to denote second-class status.
In February 2006, Father Andrea Santoro was murdered in Trabzon. on 18 April 2007 in the Zirve Publishing House, Malatya, Turkey Three employees of the Bible publishing house were attacked, tortured and murdered by five Sunni Muslim assailants.
The Christian presence in Yemen dates back to the fourth century AD when a number of Himyarites embrace Christianity due to the efforts of Theophilos the Indian. Currently, there are no official statistics on their numbers, but they are estimated to be between 3,000 and 25,000 people, and most of them are either refugees or temporary residents. Freedom of worship, conversion from Islam and establishing facilities dedicated for worship are not recognized as rights in the country’s Constitution and laws. At the same time, Wahabbi activities linked to Al-Islah was being facilitated, financed and encouraged from multiple fronts including the Ministry of Endowments and Guidance, which says that its tasks “to contribute to the development of Islamic awareness and circulation of the publication Education and Islamic morals and consolidation in the life of public and private citizens.”
The Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa has worked in Aden since 1992, and it has three other centers in Sana’a, Taiz and Hodeidah. Three Catholic nuns were killed in Hodeidah in 1998, two of them were from India and the third was from the Philippines at the hands of a member of Al-Islah named Abdullah al-Nashiri, who argued that they were calling Muslims to convert to Christianity. In 2002, three Americans were killed in Baptists Hospital at the hands of another Al-Islah member named Abed Abdul Razak Kamel. Survivors say that the suspect (Al-Islah) was “a political football” who had been raised by Islamists, who talked about it often in mosques and who described hospital workers as “spies.” But they emphasized that these views are only held by a minority of Yemenis. In December 2015, an old Catholic church in Aden was destroyed.
Since the escalation of the Yemeni crisis in March 2015, six priests from John Bosco remained, and twenty workers for charitable missions in the country, described by Pope Francis by the courage to fortitude amid war and conflict. He called the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia to pray for all the oppressed and tortured, expelled from their homes, and killed unjustly. In all cases, regardless of the values and ethics of the warring forces in Yemen on religious freedom, it is proved that the Missionaries of Charity were not active in the field of evangelization according to the testimonies of beneficiaries of its services.
On 4 March 2016, an incident named Mother Teresa’s Massacre in Aden occurred, 16 were killed including 4 Indian Catholic nuns, 2 from Rwanda, and the rest were from India and Kenya, along with a Yemeni, 2 Guards, a cook, 5 Ethiopian women, and all of them were volunteers. One Indian priest named Tom Ozhonaniel was kidnapped. The identities of the attackers are unknown, and media outlets published a statement attributed to Ansar al-Sharia, one of the many jihadist organizations currently active in the country, but the group denies its involvement in the incident.
Bhutan is a conservative Buddhist country. Article 7 of the 2008 constitution guarantees religious freedom, but also forbids conversion “by means of coercion or inducement”. According to Open Doors, to many Bhutanese this hinders the ability of Christians to proselytize.
- In 2002: According to a 2002 report cited by the Bhutanese Christians Services Centre NGO, “the 65,000 Christians [in the country] have only one church at their disposal.”
- In 2006: According to Mission Network News, “it’s illegal for a Buddhist to become a Christian and church buildings are forbidden. (…) Christians in Bhutan are only allowed to practice their faith at home. Those who openly choose to follow Christ can be expelled from Bhutan and stripped of their citizenship.”
- In 2007: According to Gospel for Asia, “the government has recently begun clamping down on Christians by barring some congregations from meeting for worship. This has caused at least two Gospel for Asia-affiliated churches to temporarily close their doors. (…) Under Bhutan law, it is illegal to attempt to convert people from the country’s two predominant religions [Buddhism and Hinduism].”
- Since 2008: According to the “Open Doors” ONG, “Persecution in Buddhist Bhutan mainly comes from the family, the community, and the monks who yield a strong influence in the society. Cases of atrocities (i.e. beatings) have been decreasing in number; this may continue as a result of major changes in the country, including the implementation of a new constitution guaranteeing greater religious liberty.”
During the Cultural Revolution, Christian churches, monasteries, and cemeteries were closed down and sometimes converted to other uses, looted, and destroyed. The Chinese Communist Party and government and the Chinese Buddhist organ try to maintain tight control over all religions, so the only legal Christian Churches (Three-Self Patriotic Movement and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association) are those under the Communist Party of China control. Churches which are not controlled by the government are shut down, and their members are imprisoned. Gong Shengliang, head of the South China Church, was sentenced to death in 2001. Although his sentence was commuted to a jail sentence, Amnesty International reports that he has been tortured. A Christian lobby group says that about 300 Christians caught attending unregistered house churches were in jail in 2004.
In January 2016, a prominent Christian church leader Rev Gu Yuese who criticised the mass removal of church crucifixes by the government was arrested for “embezzling funds”. Chinese authorities have taken down hundreds of crosses in Zhejiang Province known as “China’s bible belt”. Gu led China’s largest authorised church with capacity of 5,000 in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang.
The Associated Press reported in 2018 that China’s leader and Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping “is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.”, which has involved “destroying crosses, burning bibles, shutting churches and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith”.
Modern-day persecution also exists and is carried out by Hindu nationalists. A report by Human Rights Watch stated that there is a rise in anti-Christian violence due to Hindu nationalism and Smita Narula, Researcher, Asia Division of Human Rights Watch stated “Christians are the new scapegoat in India’s political battles. Without immediate and decisive action by the government, communal tensions will continue to be exploited for political and economic ends.”
The United Christian Forum for Human Rights reported that in 1998, 90 separate acts of violence were committed against Christian churches or against Christians compared to only 53 attacks which took place from 1964 to 1997 in India. The Human Rights Watch reported that most of the reported instances of violence towards Christians took place in 1998 in the state of Gujarat, the same year that the Bhartiya Janata Party(BJP) came to state power. The Human Rights Watch reported that during the 1998 attacks on Christians in southeastern Gujarat from 25 December 1988 to 3 January 1999, at least 20 prayer halls and churches had been damaged or burned down, and Christians and Christian institutions had been attacked in the Dangs and its surrounding districts, and at least 25 villages had reported incidents of burning and damage to prayer halls and churches throughout Gujarat by Bajrang Dal, BJP, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM). More than 100 churches and church institutions were burnt down, vandalised or damaged during the 2007 Christmas violence in Kandhamal by mobs led by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, Bajrang Dal, VHP and the Kui Samaj, the incident also killed 3 Christians while other reports put the death toll to 50. The 2008 Kandhamal violence led to 39 Christians killed, according to government reports. More than 395 churches have been burnt down or vandalized, more than 5,600 Christian houses have been plundered or burned down, over 600 villages have been ransacked and over 54,000 Christians have been left homeless. Other reports put the death toll at nearly 100. Under threat of violence, many Christians were forced to convert to Hinduism. This violence was led by the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal. The 2008 Kandhamal violence led to several attacks against Christians and Churches in southern Karnataka in the same year by Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sena. The violence also spread to the state of Tamil Nadu, the police reported 20 graves desecrated and many churches vandalized by members of the Hindu Munnani. There have also been attacks on Christians in the states of Kerala and Madhya Pradesh.
Muslims in India who convert to Christianity have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and attacks by Muslims. In Jammu and Kashmir, a Christian convert and missionary, Bashir Tantray, was killed, allegedly by Islamic militants in 2006.
The organisations involved in persecution of Christians have stated that the violence is an expression of “spontaneous anger” of “vanvasis” against “forcible conversion” activities undertaken by missionaries. These claims have been disputed by Christians a belief described as mythical and propaganda by Sangh Parivar; the opposing organisations objects in any case to all conversions as a “threat to national unity”. Religious scholar Cyril Veliath of Sophia University stated that the attacks by Hindus on Christians were the work of individuals motivated by “disgruntled politicians or phony religious leaders” and where religion is concerned the typical Hindu is an “exceptionally amicable and tolerant person (…) Hinduism as a religion could well be one of the most accommodating in the world. Rather than confront and destroy, it has a tendency to welcome and assimilate.” According to Rudolf C Heredia, religious conversion was a critical issue even before the creation of the modern state. Mahatma Gandhi opposed the Christian missionaries calling them as the remnants of colonial Western culture. He claimed that by converting into Christianity, Hindus have changed their nationality.
In its controversial annual human rights reports for 1999, the United States Department of State criticised India for “increasing societal violence against Christians.” The report listed over 90 incidents of anti-Christian violence, ranging from damage of religious property to violence against Christians pilgrims. In 1997, twenty-four such incidents were reported. Recent waves of anti-conversion laws passed by some Indian states like Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh is claimed to be a gradual and continuous institutionalization of Hindutva by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour of the US State Department.
Violence against Christians have seen a sharp increase of 60 percent between 2016 and 2019, according to the annual report released by Persecution Relief. The Alliance Defending Freedom data shows that in 2019 alone, a record 328 violent attacks against Christians in India were reported.
North Korea is an atheist state where the public practice of religion is discouraged. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism states that “North Korea maintains a state-sanctioned and enforced atheism”.
North Korea leads the list of the 50 countries in which Christians are persecuted the most at the present time according to a watchlist by Open Doors. It is currently estimated that more than 50,000 Christians are locked inside concentration camps because of their faith, where they are systematically subjected to mistreatment such as unrestrained torture, mass-starvation and even imprisonment and death by asphyxiation in gas chambers. This means that 20% of North Korea’s Christian community lives in concentration camps. The number of Christians who are being murdered for their faith seems to be increasing as time goes on because in 2013 the death toll was 1,200 and in 2014, this figure doubled, rendering it close to 2,400 murdered Christians. North Korea has earned the top spot 12 years in a row.
The establishment of French Indochina once led to a high Christian population. Regime changes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries led to increased persecutions of minority religious groups. The Center for Public Policy Analysis has claimed that killings, torture or imprisonment and forced starvation of local groups are common in parts of Vietnam and Laos. In more recent years they have said there is growing persecution of Christians.
- Criticism of Christianity
- Sectarian violence among Christians
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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