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Persecution of Christians

The persecution of Christians refers to the religious persecution of Christians, both historically and in the current era.

Persecution of Christians in the New Testament

Early Christianity, which began within ancient Judaism, arose out of the Nazarene schism, dividing the followers of Jesus, the Nazarenes, from the Jewish majority. According to Walter Laqueur, these Nazarenes did not break with the religious laws and rituals of the ancient Hebrews, "this came only with the appearance of Paulus, who had not known Jesus. From this point on, Christianity was the new Israel.

The New Testament relates the Christian accounts of the Pharisee rejection of Jesus and accusations of the Pharisee responsibility for his crucifixion. The Acts of the Apostles depicts instances of early Christian persecution by the Sanhedrin, the Hebrew religious establishment of the time. This theme plays an important part in a number of Christian doctrines ranging from the release of Christians from obeying the many strictures of the Old Testament Law (see Antinomianism) to the commandment to preach to all nations meaning to Gentiles as well as the Hebrew people (see Great Commission).

Reliable evidence of events accompanying the schism between the Pharisees and the Nazarenes is not available. Laqueur argues that hostility grew over the generations. By the Fourth century John Chrysostom was arguing that the Pharisees alone, not the Romans, were responsible for the murder of Christ. However, according to Laqueur: "Absolving Pilate from guilt may have been connected with the missionary activities of early Christianity in Rome and the desire not to antagonize those they want to convert.

At least by the fourth century, the consensus amongst scholars is that persecution by Jews of Christians has been traditionally overstated; according to James Everett Seaver,

Much of Christian hatred toward the Jews was based on the popular misconception... that the Jews had been the active persecutors of Christians for many centuries... The... examination of the sources for fourth century Jewish history will show that the universal, tenacious, and malicious Jewish hatred of Christianity referred to by the church fathers and countless others has no existence in historical fact. The generalizations of patristic writers in support of the accusation have been wrongly interpreted from the fourth century to the present day. That individual Jews hated and reviled the Christians there can be no doubt, but there is no evidence that the Jews as a class hated and persecuted the Christians as a class during the early years of the fourth century.

According to the New Testament, Jesus' death was demanded by the Pharisee Sanhedrin and Roman authorities acquiesced, carrying out a Roman sentence of crucifixion. The New Testament also records that the first martyr was Stephen, who was stoned by the Jews, Saul heartily agreeing (the man who later converted and was renamed "Paul.") The New Testament goes on to say that Paul was himself imprisoned on several occasions by the Roman authorities, stoned by Pharisees and left for dead on one occasion, and was eventually taken as a prisoner to Rome. Peter and others were also imprisoned, beaten and generally harassed. Because of severe persecution in Jerusalem, most of the Nazarenes were forced to leave. James was said to have been put to death around that time.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs reports that, of the eleven remaining apostles (Judas Iscariot having killed himself), only one- John, the son of Zebedee and Salome, the younger brother of James and the writer of the Book of Revelation- died of natural causes in exile. The other ten were reportedly martyred by various means including beheading, by sword and spear and, in the case of Peter, crucifixion upside down following the execution of his wife.

Persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire

Persecution under Nero, 64-68 A.D.

The first documented case of imperially-supervised persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire begins with Nero (37-68). In 64 A.D., a great fire broke out in Rome, destroying portions of the city and economically devastating the Roman population. Nero himself was suspected as the arsonist by historian Suetonius, claiming he played the lyre and sang the 'Sack of Ilium' during the fires. In his Annals, Tacitus (who claimed Nero was in Antium at the time of the fire's outbreak), stated that "to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace" (Tacit. Annals XV, see Tacitus on Jesus).

Persecution from the second century to Constantine

By the mid 2nd century, mobs could be found willing to throw stones at Christians, and they might be mobilized by rival sects. The Persecution in Lyon was preceded by mob violence, including assaults, robberies and stonings (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.1.7).

Further state persecutions were desultory until the third century, though Tertullian's Apologeticus of 197 was ostensibly written in defense of persecuted Christians and addressed to Roman governors The "edict of Septimius Severus" familiar in Christian history is doubted by some secular historians to have existed outside Christian martyrology.

The first documentable Empire-wide persecution took place under Maximinus, though only the clergy were sought out. It was not until Decius during the mid-century that a persecution of Christian laity across the Empire took place. Christian sources aver that a decree was issued requiring public sacrifice, 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 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 certificates, called libelli. Several councils held at Carthage debated the extent to which the community should accept these lapsed Christians.

The Great Persecution

The persecutions culminated with Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century. Their persecution, the Great Persecution is considered the largest. Beginning with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy, the persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commandeded to sacrifice to the gods or face immediate execution. Over 20,000 Christians are thought to have died during Diocletian's reign. However, as Diocletian zealously persecuted Christians in the Eastern part of the empire, his co-emperors in the West did not follow the edicts and so Christians in Gaul, Spain, and Brittania were virtually unmolested.

This persecution lasted, until Constantine I came to power in 313 and legalized Christianity. It was not until Theodosius I in the latter fourth century that Christianity would become the official religion of the Empire. Between these two events Julian the Apostate did temporarily renew Pagan and Christian hostilities.

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."193 One man shouted to the Roman officials: "I want to die! I am a Christian," leading the officials to respond: "If they wanted to kill themselves, there was plenty of cliffs they could jump off."194 Such seeking after death is found in Tertullian's Scorpiace but was certainly not the only view of martyrdom in the Christian church. Both Polycarp and Cyprian, bishops in Smyrna and Carthage respectively, attempted to avoid martyrdom.

The conditions under which martyrdom was an acceptable fate or under which it was suicidally embraced occupied writers of the early Christian Church. Broadly speaking, martyrs were considered uniquely exemplary of the Christian faith, and few early saints were not also martyrs.

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". Estimates of Christians killed for religious reasons before the year 313 vary greatly, depending on the scholar quoted, from a high of almost 100,000 to a low of 10,000.

Persecutions of early Christians outside the Roman Empire

In 341, Shapur II ordered the massacre of all Christians in Persia. During the persecution, about 1,150 Christians were martyred under Shapur II. In the 4th century, the Terving King Athanaric began persecuting Christians, many of whom were killed.

Persecution of Christians by Christians

As with many religions, Christianity is not a homogenous group; there exist many sects of Christianity, which often find themselves at odds with each other.

Upon the establishment of official ties between the state and Christianity, the state and the Church turned their considerable attention to those deemed heretics. The first nonconforming Christian executed was Priscillian. Many 4th century examples of such a situation involved Arianism, which held, against the orthodox tradition, that Jesus was not "one in unity with the Father", but instead was a created being, not on the same level with God, above humans but below God the Father.

In the Eastern Roman Empire Emperors were established as both Orthodox and Arian as Constantine's own sons Constantius II, Constantine II (who proceeded Constantine I) were Arian. Later still, the Emperor Valens also was an Arian. The Germanic Goths and Vandals adhered to Arian Christianity, establishing Arian states in Italy and Spain. Orthodox Christians defended themselves vigorously against these foreign Arians.

In 429 the Vandals (who were Arians) conquered Roman Africa. Catholics were discriminated against; Church property was confiscated. Thousands of Catholics were banished from Vandal held territory.St. Augustine, for example, died while in a town besieged by the Arian Vandals. As it was the fall of Rome to the Goths, tribes who throughout their histories, were a mix of Pagan and Arian Christians.

In the medieval period the Roman Catholic church moved to suppress the Cathar heresy, the Pope having sanctioned a crusade against the Albigensians; during the course of which the massacre of Beziers took place, with between seven and twenty thousand deaths. (This was the occasion when the papal legate, Arnaud Amalric, asked about how Catholics could be distinguished from Cathars once the city fell, famously replied, "Kill them all, God will know His own."). Over the twenty year period of this campaign an estimated 200,000 to 1,000,000 people were killed.

John Huss, a Bohemian preacher of reformation, was burned at the stake on July 6 1415. Pope Martin V issued a bull on 17 March 1420 which proclaimed a crusade “for the destruction of the Wycliffites, Hussites and all other heretics in Bohemia".

The Crusades in the Middle East also spilled over into conquest of Eastern Orthodox Christians by Roman Catholics and attempted suppression of the Orthodox Church. The Waldenses were as well persecuted by the Catholic Church, but survive up to this day. The Reformation led to a long period of warfare and communal violence between Catholic and Protestant factions, leading to massacres and forced suppression of the alternative views by the dominant faction in many countries. In the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre the French king ordered the murder of Protestants in France.

Intolerance of dissident forms of Protestantism continued, as evidenced by the exodus of the Pilgrims who sought refuge in America, founding the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. In the modern period, such events include violence between Mormons and Protestants in the United States during the 19th century. That century also saw the martyrdom of St. Peter the Aleut at the hands of Roman Catholic clergy in San Francisco, California.


Anti-Catholicism officially began in 1534 during the English Reformation; the Act of Supremacy made the King of England the 'only supreme head on earth of the Church in England.' Any act of allegiance to the latter was considered treason. It was under this act that Thomas More was executed. Queen Elizabeth I's scorn for Jesuit missionaries led to many executions at Tyburn. As punishment for the rebellion of 1641, almost all lands owned by Irish Catholics were confiscated and given to Protestant settlers. Under the penal laws no Irish Catholic could sit in the Parliament of Ireland, even though some 90% of Ireland's population was native Irish Catholic when the first of these bans was introduced in 1691. Catholic / Protestant strife has been blamed for much of "The Troubles," the ongoing struggle in Northern Ireland.

This attitude was carried "across the pond" to the American colonies, which would leave England, forming the United States. In the English colonies, Catholicism was introduced with the settling of Maryland in 1634; this colony offered a rare example of religious toleration in a fairly intolerant age, particularly amongst other English colonies which frequently exhibited a quite militant Protestantism. (See the Maryland Toleration Act, and note the pre-eminence of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in Catholic circles.) However, at the time of the American Revolution, Catholics formed less than 1% of the population of the thirteen colonies.

Although there has been a strong anti-Catholic sentiment in North America since before the dawn of the US, the feeling grew stronger during waves of Catholic immigration from old Europe. These huge numbers of immigrant Catholics came from Ireland, Southern Germany, Italy, Poland and Eastern Europe. Nationalist, nativist feeling was represented by the Know-Nothing Party. Father James Coyle, a Roman Catholic priest, was murdered in 1921 by the Ku Klux Klan.


Anti-Protestantism originated in a reaction by the Catholic Church against the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Protestants were denounced as heretics and subject to persecution in those territories, such as Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, in which the Catholics were the dominant power. This movement was orchestrated by Popes and Princes as the Counter Reformation. This resulted in religious wars and eruptions of sectarian hatred such as the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

Persecution of the Anabaptists

When the disputes between Lutherans and Roman Catholics gained a political dimension, both groups saw other groups of religious dissidents that were arising as a danger to their own security. The early "Täufer" (lit. "Baptists") were mistrusted and rejected by both religio-political parties. Religious persecution is often perpetrated as a means of political control, and this becomes evident with the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555. This treaty provided the legal groundwork for persecution of the Anabaptists.

Muslim persecution of Christians


In Turkey, the Istanbul pogrom was a state-sponsored and state-orchestrated pogrom that compelled Greek Christians to leave Constantinople (Turkish Istanbul), the first Christian city in violation to the Treaty of Lausanne (see Istanbul Pogrom). The issue of Christian genocides by the Turks may become a problem, since Turkey wishes to join the European Union. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is still in a difficult position. Turkey requires by law that the Ecumenical Patriarch must be an ethnic Greek, holding Turkish citizenship by birth, although most of the Greek minority has been expelled. The state's expropriation of church property and the closing of the Orthodox Theological School of Halki are also difficulties faced by the Church of Constantinople. Despite appeals from the United States, the European Union and various governmental and non-governmental organizations, the School remains closed since 1971. Persecution of Christians is continuing in modern Turkey. On February 5, 2006, the Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was murdered in Trabzon by a student influenced by the reactions following the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. On April 18, 2007, 3 Christians were brutally murdered in Malatya, the hometown of Mehmet Ali Ağca, the assassin who shot and wounded Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981.


Although Christians represent less than 5% of the total Iraqi population, they make up 40% of the refugees now living in nearby countries, according to UNHCR. Northern Iraq remained predominantly Christian until the destructions of Tamerlane at the end of the 14th century. The Church of the East has its origin in what is now South East Turkey. By the end of the 13th century there were twelve Nestorian dioceses in a strip from Peking to Samarkand. When the 14th-century Muslim warlord of Turco-Mongol descent, Tamerlane (Timul Lenk), conquered Persia, Mesopotamia and Syria, the civilian population was decimated. Timur Lenk had 70,000 Assyrian Christians beheaded in Tikrit, and 90,000 more in Baghdad.

In the 16th century, Christians were half the population 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.

Recently, Christians have seen their total numbers slump to about 500,000 today, of whom 250,000 live in Baghdad. An exodus to the neighboring countries of Syria, Jordan and Turkey has left behind closed parishes, seminaries and convents. As a small minority without a militia of their own, Iraqi Christians have been persecuted by both Shi’a and Sunni Muslim militias, and also by criminal gangs.

As of June 21, 2007, the UNHCR estimated that 2.2 million Iraqis had been displaced to neighboring countries, and 2 million were displaced internally, with nearly 100,000 Iraqis fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month. A May 25 2007 article notes that in the past seven months only 69 people from Iraq have been granted refugee status in the United States.

Chaldean Catholic priest Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni and subdeacons Basman Yousef Daud, Wahid Hanna Isho, and Gassan Isam Bidawed were killed in the ancient city of Mosul last year. Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni was driving with his three deacons when they were stopped and demanded to convert to Islam, when they refused they were shot. Six months later, the body of archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was found buried near Mosul. He was kidnapped on February 29 2008 when his bodyguards and driver were killed.

Christian casualties of the War in Lebanon

The war in Lebanon saw a number of massacres of both Christians and Muslims. Among the earliest was the Damour Massacre in 1976 when Palestinian militias attacked Christian civilians in retaliation for the Karantina Massacre, in which around one thousand civilians (Palestinian, Shi'ite, and others) were murdered by Lebanese Christian militias. The persecution in Lebanon combined sectarian, political, ideological, and retaliation reasons. The Syrian regime was also involved in persecuting Christians as well as Muslims in Lebanon.


In Sudan, it is estimated that over 1.5 million Christians have been killed by the Janjaweed, the Arab Muslim militia, and even suspected Islamists in northern Sudan since 1984.

It should also be noted that Sudan's several civil wars (which often take the form of genocidal campaigns) are often not only or purely religious in nature, but also ethnic, as many black Muslims, as well as Muslim Arab tribesmen, have also been killed in the conflicts.

It is estimated that as many as 200,000 people had been taken into slavery during the Second Sudanese Civil War. The slaves are mostly Dinka people.


In Pakistan 1.5% of the population are Christian. Pakistani law mandates that "blasphemies" of the Qur'an are to be met with punishment. 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.

The Christian community in Pakistan is the target of attacks by Islamic extremists.

On September 25, 2002 two terrorists entered the "Peace and Justice Institute", Karachi, where they separated Muslims from the Christians, and then murdered eight 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 November 2005 3,000 militant Islamists 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 June 5 2006 a Pakistani Christian stonemason named Nasir Ashraf was working near Lahore when he drank water from a public facility using a glass chained to the facility. He was assaulted by Muslims for "Polluting the glass". A mob developed, who beat Ashraf, calling him a "Christian dog". Bystanders encouraged the beating and joined in. Ashraf was eventually hospitalized.

One year later, in August 2007, a Christian missionary couple, Rev. Arif and Kathleen Khan, were gunned down by militant Islamists in Islamabad. The "official" position in Pakistan is that the killer was a fellow Christian, and that the killings were "justified" as an honor killing under the false pretext that the missionaries were engaged in sexual harassment, an assertion widely doubted in the international media, as well as by Pakistani Christians.

In other Muslim nations

In Egypt the government does not officially recognize conversions from Islam to Christianity; because certain interfaith marriages are not allowed either, this prevents marriages between converts to Christianity and those born in Christian communities, and also results in the children of Christian converts being classified as Muslims and given a Muslim education. The government also requires permits for repairing churches or building new ones, which are often withheld. Foreign missionaries are allowed in the country only if they restrict their activities to social improvements and refrain from proselytizing. The Coptic Pope Shenouda III was internally exiled in 1981 by President Anwar Sadat, who then chose five Coptic bishops and asked them to choose a new pope. They refused, and in 1985 President Hosni Mubarak restored Pope Shenouda III, who had been accused of fomenting interconfessional strife. Particularly in Upper Egypt, the rise in extremist Islamist groups such as the Gama'at Islamiya during the 1980s was accompanied by attacks on Copts and on Coptic 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 anti-Christian incidents carried out in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority. Some claim that this represents a pattern of deliberate mistreatment by the PA; others hold that these are isolated incidents that reflect the beliefs of the individuals involved, but not the society in general. Two American courts, one in Illinois and the other in North Carolina, accepted the threat of "religious persecution" as grounds for granting asylum to Evangelical converts fleeing PA territory. There is an ongoing trend for emigration among Palestinian Christians doubling that of Muslims. The ratio of Christians among Palestinians went from 18%-20% in 1947 to 13% in 1966 to 2.1% in 1993.

Though Iran recognizes Assyrian and Armenian Christians as a religious minority (along with Jews and Zoroastrians) and they have representatives in the Parliament, after the 1979 Revolution, Muslim converts to Christianity (typically to Protestant Christianity) have been arrested and sometimes executed. See also: Christianity in Iran.

In Saudi Arabia Christians are arrested and lashed in public for practicing their faith openly. Bibles and other non-Muslim religious books are captured, piled up and burned by the religious police of Saudi. No non-Muslims are allowed to become Saudi citizens. Prayer services by Christians are frequently broken up by the police and the Christians are arrested and tortured without even allowing them to be released on bail.

In the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf has attacked and killed Christians.

In Indonesia, religious conflicts have typically occurred in Western New Guinea, Maluku (particularly Ambon), and Sulawesi. The presence of Muslims in these 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.

Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Afghan citizen, was charged in Afghanistan with rejecting Islam (apostasy), a crime punishable by death under Sharia law. He has since been released into exile in the West under intense pressure from Western governments.

Dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution

The Dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution is a conventional description of a campaign, conducted by various governments of France beginning with the start of the French Revolution in 1789, waged against

The program included the following policies:

  • the deportation of clergy and the condemnation of many of them to death,
  • the closing, desecration and pilaging 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 abjurement of priesthood, and
  • the enactment of a law on October 21, 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 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.

Persecution in Communist nations or by the left

Soviet Union

After the Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks undertook a massive program to remove the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church from the government and Russian society, and to make the state atheist. Tens of thousands of churches were destroyed or converted to other uses, and many members of clergy were imprisoned for anti-government activities. An extensive education and propaganda campaign was undertaken to convince people, especially the children and youth, to abandon religious beliefs. This persecution resulted in the martyrdom of millions of Orthodox followers in the 20th century by the Soviet Union, whether intentional or not.

This persecution spread not only to the Orthodox, but also other groups, such as the Mennonites, who largely fled to the Americas.

Before and after the October Revolution of November 7, 1917 (October 25 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 being a leftist type of slavophilism. 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 peoples and their church were targeted by the Soviet and its 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 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 executed include Metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd, Priest and scientist Pavel Florensky and Bishop Gorazd Pavlik.

The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed. It is estimated that some 20 million Christians (17 million Orthodox 3 million Roman catholic) died or were interned in gulags. Some actions against Orthodox priests and believers along with execution included torture being sent to prison camps, labour camps or mental hospitals. The result of this militant atheism was to transform the Church into a persecuted and martyred Church. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed.

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. 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 1925-1943.

After Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church 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 closing 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 into 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. Outside of sermons during the celebration of the divine liturgy it could not instruct or evangelise to the faithful or its youth. Catechism classes, religious schools, study groups, Sunday schools and religious publications were all illegal and or banned. This persecution continued, even after the death of Stalin until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. This caused many religious tracts to be circulated as illegal literature or samizdat. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has recognized a number of New Martyrs as saints, some executed during Mass operations of the NKVD under directives like NKVD Order No. 00447.

People's Republic of China

The communist government of the People's Republic of China tries 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. Sunday school is illegal.

The Chinese government has recently and repeatedly cracked down on Christian activities in groups that meet at home and not the government sanctioned and edited Churches. The government also blocks all access to most Christian materials on the internet as part of its policies of control.

19th and 20th century Mexico

In the nineteenth century, Benito Juárez confiscated a large amount of church land. The Mexican government's campaign against the Catholic Church after the Mexican Revolution culminated in the 1917 constitution which contained numerous articles which Catholics considered violative of their civil rights: outlawing monastic religious orders, forbidding public worship outside of church buildings, restricted religious organizations' rights to own property, and taking away basic civil rights of members of the clergy (priests and religious leaders were prevented from wearing their habits, were denied the right to vote, and were not permitted to comment on public affairs in the press and were denied the right to trial for violation of anticlerical laws). When the Church publicly condemned these measures which had not been strongly enforced, the atheist President Plutarco Calles sought to vigorously enforce the provisions and enacted additional anti-Catholic legislation known as the Calles Law. Weary of the persecution, in many parts of the country a popular rebellion called the Cristero War began (so named because the rebels felt they were fighting for Christ himself).

The effects of the persecution on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed. Where there were 4,500 priests serving the people before the rebellion, in 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million people, the rest having been eliminated by emigration, expulsion and assassination. By 1935, 17 states had no priest at all.

During the Spanish Civil War

Persecution of Catholics before and at the beginning of the Spanish Civil war, resulted in the deaths of almost 7,000 priests and other clergy, as well as thousands of lay people, because of their faith. The Republican government which had come to power in Spain in 1931 was strongly anti-Catholic, secularising education, prohibiting religious education in the schools, and expelling the Jesuits from the country. On June 3, 1933 Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Dilectissima Nobis, in which he described the expropriation of all Church buildings, episcopal residences, parish houses, seminaries and monasteries. By law, they became property of the Spanish State, to which the Church had to pay rent and taxes in order to continuously use these properties. "Thus the Catholic Church is compelled to pay taxes on what was violently taken from her Religious vestments, liturgical instruments , statues, pictures, vases, gems and similar objects necessary for worship were expropriated as well. Numerous churches and temples were destroyed by burning, after they were nationalized. All private Catholic schools from Religious Orders and Congregations were expropriated. The purpose was to create solely secular schools there instead. Pope Pius XI, who faced similar persecutions in the USSR and Mexico, called on Spanish Catholics to defend themselves against the persecution with all legal means.

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, and especially in the early months of the conflict, the faithful, including individual clergymen and entire religious communities were executed by leftists, which included 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, for a total of 6,832 clerical victims.

In addition to murders of clergy and the faithful, destruction of churches and desecration of sacred sites and objects were widespread. On the night of July 19 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. All Catholic churces in the Republican zone were closed. The desecration was not limited to Catholic churches, as syagogues and Protestant churches were also pillaged and closed. Some small Protestant churches were spared.

The terror has been called 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 Nationalists, even more than would have been expected, as these defended their religious interests and survival.

Franco's Spain

In Franco's authoritarian Spain, Protestantism was deliberately marginalized and persecuted. During the Civil War, the government persecuted the country's 30,0000 Protestants, and forced many Protestant pastors to leave the country. Once authoritarian rule was established, non-Catholic Bibles were confiscated by police and Protestant schools were closed. Although the 1945 Spanish Bill of Rights purportedly granted freedom of private worship, Protestants suffered legal discrimination and non-catholic religious services were not permitted publicly, to the extent that they could not be in buildings which had exterior signs indicating it was a house of worship and that public activities were prohibited.

Nazi Germany

Hitler and the Nazi regime attempted to usurp Christianity and found their own version called Positive Christianity which made major changes in its interpretation of the Bible which said that Jesus Christ was the son of God, but was not a Jew and claimed that Christ despised Jews, and that the Jews were the ones solely responsible for Christ's death. The Nazi government consolidated religious power, using allies to consolidate protestant churches into the Protestant Reich Church, which was effectively an arm of the Nazi Party.

Dissenting Christians went underground and formed the Confessing Church, which was persecuted as a subversive group by the Nazi government. Many of its leaders were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and left the underground mostly leaderless. Church members continued to engage in various forms of resistance, including hiding Jews during the Holocaust and various attempts, largely unsuccessful, to prod the Christian community to speak out on the part of the Jews.

The Catholic Church was particularly suppressed in Poland. Between 1939 and 1945, an estimated 3,000 members, 18% of the Polish clergy, were murdered; of these, 1,992 died in concentration camps. In the annexed territory of Reichsgau Wartheland it was even harsher than elsewhere. Churches were systematically closed, and most priests were either killed, imprisoned, or deported to the General Government. The Germans also closed seminaries and convents persecuting monks and nuns throughout Poland. In Pomerania, all but 20 of the 650 priests were shot or sent to concentration camps. Eighty percent of the Catholic clergy and five of the bishops of Warthegau were sent to concentration camps in 1939; in the city of Wrocław (Breslau), 49% of its Catholic priests were killed; in Chełmno, 48%. One hundred eight of them are regarded as blessed martyrs. Among them, Maximilian Kolbe was canonized as a saint.

Protestants in Poland did not fare well either. In the Cieszyn region of Silesia every single Protestant clergy was arrested and deported to the death camps.

Not only in Poland were Christians persecuted by the Nazis. In the Dachau concentration camp alone 2,600 Catholic priests from 24 different countries were killed.

Beyond mainstream Christianity, the Jehovah's Witnesses were direct targets of the Holocaust, for their refusal to swear allegiance to the Nazi government. Many Jehovah's Witnesses were given the chance to deny their faith and swear allegiance to the state, but few agreed. Over 12,000 Witnesses were sent to the concentration camps, and estimated 2,500-5,000 died in the Holocaust.

Neo-Nazi and white power skinheads

The white power skinhead movement in the United States and Europe (especially Scandinavia) has some anti-Christian factions. These factions, stemming from racist Nazi doctrines, see Christianity as weak, Jewish-influenced and futile. They consider Nazism as the perfect combination of Nordic symbology and Satanic will-to-power. White power skinheads are often responsible for vandalizing Christian churches, but have little mainstream influence.

Persecution of Christians in 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 1600's 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 Shiro Tokisada, took place in 1637. After the Hara Castle fell, the shogunate 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 of Japan continued for two centuries to maintain their religion as Kakure Kirishitan, or hidden Christians, without any priest or other pastor. Some of those who were killed for their Christianity are venerated as the Martyrs of Japan by the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church.

Although Christianity was later allowed under the Meiji era, Christians again were pressured during the period of State Shinto.

Persecution of Christians in India

In India, there is an increasing amount of violence being perpetrated by Hindu Nationalists against Christians. The increase in anti-Christian violence in India bears a direct relationship to the ascendancy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Incidents of violence against Christians have occurred in many parts of India. It is especially prevalent in the States of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and New Delhi. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are the most responsible organizations for violence against Christians. These organizations, often referred to collectively under the name of their umbrella organization, the Sangh Parivar, and local media were involved in promoting anti-Christian propaganda in Gujarat. The Sangh Parivar and related organisations have stated that the violence is an expression of "spontaneous anger" of "vanvasis" against "forcible conversion" activities undertaken by missionaries, a belief described as mythical and propaganda by Sangh Parivar; the Parivar objects in any case to all conversions as a "threat to national unity".

In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in violent attacks on Christians in India. From 1964 to 1996, thirty-eight incidents of violence against Christians were reported. In 1997, twenty-four such incidents were reported. In 1998, it went up to ninety. Between January 1998 and February 1999 alone, there were one hundred and sixteen attacks against Christians in India. Between 1 January and 30 July 2000, more than fifty-seven attacks on Christians were reported. The acts of violence include arson of churches, forcible conversion of Christians to Hinduism, distribution of threatening literature, burning of Bibles, murder of Christian priests and destruction of Christian schools, colleges, and cemeteries. The attacks often accompanied by large amounts of anti-Christian hate literature.

In some cases, anti-Christian violence has been co-ordinated, involving multiple attacks. In 2007 Orissa violence Christians were attacked in Kandhamal, Orissa, resulting in 9 deaths and destruction of houses and churches. Nearly twelve churches were targeted in the attack by Hindu activists. Human rights groups consider the violence as the failure of the state government that did not address the problem before it became violent. The authorities failed to react quickly enough to save human lives and property.

Foreign Christian missionaries have also been targets of attacks. In a well-publicised case Graham Staines, an Australian missionary, was burnt to death while he was sleeping with his two sons Timothy (aged 9) and Philip (aged 7) in his station wagon at Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district in Orissa in January 1999. In 2003, the Hindu nationalist activist Dara Singh was convicted of leading the gang responsible.

In its 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.

According to Rudolf C Heredia, religious conversion has remained a critical issue even before the creation of the modern state. Whereas Nehru wanted to establish a "a secular state in a religious society 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.

Anti-Conversion Laws

Recent wave of anti-conversion laws in various Indian states passed by some states is actually seen as gradual and continuous institutionalization of Hindutva. Some extremist Hindu groups accuse Christian missionaries of using inducements such as schooling to lure poor people to the faith, and have also launched movements to reconvert many tribal Christians back to Hinduism.

Most of the Anti Conversion laws are brief and leave a lot of ambiguity, which can be mis-used for inflicting persecution. Legal experts believe that both conversion activities and willful trespass by missionaries upon the sacred spaces of other faiths can be prosecuted under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, and as such there is no need for anti-conversion laws by individual states and they should be repealed. A consolidation of various Anti-Conversion or "Freedom of Religion" Laws has been done by the All Indian Christian Council.

In the past, several Indian states passed anti-conversion bills primarily to preventing people from converting to Christianity. Arunachal Pradesh passed a bill in 1978. In 2003, Gujarat State, after religious riots in 2002 (see 2002 Gujarat violence), passed an anti-conversion bill in 2003.

In July 2006, Madhya Pradesh government passed legislation requiring people who desire to convert to a different religion to provide the government with one-month's notice, or face fines and penalties.

In August 2006, the Chhattisgarh State Assembly passed similar legislation requiring anyone who desires to convert to another religion to give 30 days' notice to, and seek permission from, the district magistrate.

In February 2007, Himachal Pradesh became the first Congress Party ruled state to adopt legislation banning illegal religious conversions.

Persecution in Orissa, India, is still taking place in 2008, and a current update can be found at

Persecution of Christians in Africa


Queen Ranavalona I (Ranavalona the Cruel) issued a royal edict prohibiting the practice of Christianity in Madagascar, expelled British missionaries from the island, and persecuted Christian converts who would not renounce their religion. People suspected of committing crimes — most went on trial for the crime of practising Christianity — had to drink the poison of the tangena tree. If they survived the ordeal (which few did) the authorities judged them innocent. Malagasy Christians would remember this period as ny tany maizina, or "the time when the land was dark". By some estimates, 150,000 Christians died during the reign of Ranavalona the Cruel. The island grew more isolated, and commerce with other nations came to a standstill.


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 Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria.

Recent Christian persecution in other countries

A partial list of countries not already mentioned above where significant recent persecution of Christians exists includes North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, Afghanistan, Burma, Lebanon, Syria and Cambodia.



  • Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India. Rudolf C Heredia. Penguin Books. 2007. ISBN 0143101900
  • W.H.C. Frend, 1965. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church
  • Let My People Go: The True Story of Present-Day Persecution and Slavery Cal. R. Bombay, Multnomah Publishers, 1998
  • Their Blood Cries Out Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert, World Press, 1997.
  • In the Lion's Den: Persecuted Christians and What the Western Church Can Do About It Nina Shea, Broadman & Holman, 1997.
  • This Holy Seed: Faith, Hope and Love in the Early Churches of North Africa Robin Daniel, Tamarisk Publications, 1993. ISBN 0-9520435-0-5
  • In the Shadow of the Cross: A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship Glenn M. Penner, Living Sacrifice Books, 2004
  • Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History by Robert Royal, Crossroad/Herder & Herder; (April 2000). ISBN 0-8245-1846-2
  • Islam's Dark Side - The Orwellian State of Sudan, The Economist, 24 June 1995.
  • Sharia and the IMF: Three Years of Revolution, SUDANOW, September 1992.
  • Final Document of the Synod of the Catholic Diocese of Khartoum, 1991. [noting "oppression and persecution of Christians"]
  • Human Rights Voice, published by the Sudan Human Rights Organization, Volume I, Issue 3, July/August 1992 [detailing forcible closure of churches, expulsion of priests, forced displacement of populations, forced Islamisation and Arabisation, and other repressive measures of the Government].
  • Khalidi, Walid. "All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages cupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948." 1992. ISBN 0-88728-224-5.
  • Sudan - A Cry for Peace, published by Pax Christi International, Brussels, Belgium, 1994
  • Sudan - Refugees in their own country: The Forced Relocation of Squatters and Displaced People from Khartoum, in Volume 4, Issue 10, of News from Africa Watch, 10 July 1992.
  • Human Rights Violations in Sudan, by the Sudan Human Rights Organization, February 1994. [accounts of widespread torture, ethnic cleansing and crucifixion of pastors].
  • Pax Romana statement of Macram Max Gassis, Bishop of El Obeid], to the Fiftieth Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, February 1994 [accounts of widespread destruction of hundreds of churches, forced conversions of Christians to Islam, concentration camps, genocide of the Nuba people, systematic rape of women, enslavement of children, torture of priests and clerics, burning alive of pastors and catechists, crucifixion and mutilation of priests].

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