Often it is the alleged persecution of individuals within a group in the attempt to maintain their religion identity, or the exercise of power by an individual or organization that causes members of a religious group to suffer. Persecution in this case may refer to confiscation or destruction of property, incitement to hate, arrest, imprisonment, beatings, torture, and execution.
Denial of benefits and denial of certain civil rights and liberties are less severe, and are either described as mild forms of religious persecution or as religious discrimination. There clearly is a difference between denying a religious group tax-exempt status and threatening them with imprisonment.
The most infamous case of antisemitism in the 20th century, the systematic mass murder of millions of European Jews by the Nazis, was not religious persecution, since the Nazis persecuted the Jews as a race, not as a religion. The Shoah made no distinction between secular Jews, atheistic Jews, orthodox Jews and Jews that had converted to Christianity. Only the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Nazi Germany can be seen as religious persecution; About 12,000 of them were arrested. However, they were given the opportunity to renounce their faith and pledge to support the war in order to avoid being incarcerated. (For more information see the article Religion in Nazi Germany).
The most ambitious chronicle of that time is W.K.Jordans magnum opus The Development of Religious Toleration in England, 1558-1660 (four volumes, published 1932-1940). Jordan wrote as the thread of fascism rose in Europe, and this work is seen as a defence of the fragile values of humanism and tolerance.
The legal Separation of Church and State is a modern phenomenon. In modern western civil law any citizen may join and leave a religious organisation at will, but this understanding of religious toleration as civil toleration only emerged a few centuries ago. By contrast, in early modern Europe the subjects were required to attend the state church; This attitude can be described as territoriality or religious uniformity, and its underlying assumption is brought to a point by a statement of the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker: "There is not any man of the Church of England but the same man is also a member of the [English] commonwealth; nor any man a member of the commonwealth, which is not also of the Church of England.
Before a vigorous debate about religious persecution took place in England (starting in the 1640s), for centuries in Europe, religion had been tied to territory. In England there had been several Acts of Uniformity; in continental Europe the Latin phrase "cuius regio, eius religio" had been used. Persecution meant that the state was committed to secure religious uniformity by coercive measures, as eminently obvious in a statement of Roger L'Estrange: "That which you call persecution, I translate Uniformity".
However, in the 17th century writers like John Locke, Richard Overton and Roger William broke the link between territory and faith, which eventually resulted in a shift from territoriality to religious voluntarism. It was Locke, who, in his Letter Concerning Toleration defined the state in purely secular terms: "The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests." Concerning the church, he went on: "A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord."
The persecution of beliefs that are deemed schismatic is one thing; the persecution of beliefs that are deemed heretic or blasphemous is another. Although a public disagreement on secondary matters might be serious enough, it has often only led to religious discrimination. A public renouncement of core elements of a religious doctrine under the same circumstances, on the other hand, would have put one far greater danger. While a Dissenter from its official Church was only faced with fines and imprisonment in Protestant England, six people were executed for heresy or blasphemy during the reign of Elizabeth I of England, and two more in 1612 under James I of England.
More than 300 Roman Catholics were put to death by English governments between 1535 and 1681 for treason, thus for secular than religious offences. In 1570, Pope Pius V had issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis, which absolved Catholics from their obligations to the government. This dramatically worsened the situation of the Catholics in England. English governments continued to fear Popish Plot. An English act of government from the year 1585 declared that the purpose of Jesuit missionaries who had come to Britain was " to stir up and move sedition, rebellion and open hostility". Consequently Jesuit priests like Saint John Ogilvie were hanged. This somehow contrasts with the image of the Elizabethan era as the time of William Shakespeare, but compared to the antecedent Marian Persecutions there is an important difference to consider. Mary I of England had been motived by a religious zeal to purge heresy from her land, and during her short reign from 1553 to 1558 about 290 Protestants had been burned at the stake for heresy, whereas Elizabeth I of England "acted out of fear for the security of her realm.
Although his book was written before the September 11 attacks, John Coffey explicitly compares the English fear of a Popish Plot with the contemporary Islamophobia in the Western world. Among the Muslims imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp there also were Mehdi Ghezali and Murat Kurnaz who could not have been found to have any connections with terrorism, but had travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan because of their religious interests.
Meanwhile south and east of the Christian empires yet another monotheist religion had arisen: Islam. Generally following the Jewish tradition of tolerance towards non-believers provided they maintained the outward habits of believers, Muslims spread across northern Africa, the Middle East, northern India, and adjoining regions.
Since the 18th century there have been many occasions where religious persecution has occurred.
The Bahá'ís are a religious community deemed as heretic in Islam. An important element in Islam is the belief that Muhammad is the Seal of the prophets, and that there will be no other prophets after him. "This attitude serves to explain the extreme Muslim animosity toward Bahais, followers of Bahá'u'lláh (1844 - 1921), who Bahais believe to be the most recent messenger from God.
Bahá'ís and various third party entities such as the United Nations, Amnesty International, the European Union, the United States and peer-reviewed academic literature have stated that the members of the Bahá'í community in Iran, the nation of origin of the Bahá'í Faith, Iran's largest religious minority and the location of one of the largest Bahá'í populations in the world, have been subjected to unwarranted arrests, false imprisonment, beatings, torture, unjustified executions, confiscation and destruction of property owned by individuals and the Bahá'í community, denial of employment, denial of government benefits, denial of civil rights and liberties, and denial of access to higher education.
More recently, in the later months of 2005, an intensive anti-Bahá'í campaign was conducted by Iranian newspapers and radio stations. The state-run and influential Kayhan newspaper, whose managing editor is appointed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei , ran nearly three dozen articles defaming the Bahá'í Faith. The articles, which make use of fake historical documents, engage in a distortion of history to falsely describe Bahá'í moral principles in a manner that would be offensive to Muslims, thus inducing feelings of suspicion, distrust and hatred to members of the Bahá'í community in Iran.
Furthermore, a confidential letter sent on October 29 2005 by the Chairman of the Command Headquarters of the Armed Forced in Iran states that the Supereme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei has instructed the Command Headquarters to identify people who adhere to the Bahá'í Faith and to monitor their activiters and gather any and all information about the members of the Bahá'í Faith. The letter was brought to the attention of the international community by Asma Jahangir, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on freedom of religion or belief, in a March 20, 2006 press release
In the press release the Special Rapporteur states that she "is highly concerned by information she has received concerning the treatment of members of the Bahá'í community in Iran." She further states that "The Special Rapporteur is concerned that this latest development indicates that the situation with regard to religious minorities in Iran is, in fact, deteriorating."
The trend toward state atheism in Albania was taken to an extreme during the totalitarian regime, when religions, identified as imports foreign to Albanian culture, were banned altogether. This policy was mainly applied and felt within the borders of the present Albanian state, thus producing a nonreligious majority in the population. As the literary monthly "Nëndori" reported, the youth had thus "created the first Atheist nation in the world." From 1967 until the end of the totalitarian regime, religious practices were banned and the country was proclaimed officially Atheist, marking an event that happened for the first time in world history. Albanians born during the regime were never taught religion, so they grew up to become either Atheists or Agnostics. Although, now with Albania allowing the rights of individuals to practice religion, many Albanians have rekindled their beliefs in public and have admitted to practising religious ceremonies in secret during that time. Albanians that have fled from Albania during that time continued with their faith and have influenced a revival of religion back in Albania.