Christian Persecution: Facts & History

Instructor: Jason Waguespack

Jason has taught Political Science courses for college. He has a doctorate in Political Science.

From the very early days, Christians have been persecuted somewhere in the world. We will explore the history of mistreatment against Christians from the early days of the religion's founding all the way to modern times.

In the Beginning

From its founding, persecution has been associated with Christianity. The primary symbol of Christians, the cross, is taken from the wooden frame that Jesus Christ was crucified on by the Romans. Shortly after Christ's crucifixion, his followers, taking the name 'Christians,' were persecuted by Jewish religious authorities and Roman magistrates and emperors. Even though many Christians today enjoy greater religious freedom in many countries, Christian persecution remains a fact of life in certain places in the world.

The Roman Empire

Accounts of Christian persecution are found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. According to the book of Acts, one of the first Christian martyrs was Stephen, a member of the early church who was brought before the Sanhedrin, the assembly of Jewish religious leaders, on charges of blasphemy. Stephen was subsequently stoned, touching off a mass persecution of Christians led by Saul of Tarsus. However, after claiming to have received a vision of Jesus in the clouds, Saul changed his name to Paul and became a convert to Christianity. His new faith would subject him to various imprisonments and beatings, some of which he recounted in New Testament writings.

The Stoning of Stephen
Martyrdom of St Stephen by Italian painter Giorgio Vasari. Painted in 1560s.

The first organized Roman persecution of Christians was ordered by Emperor Nero in 64 A.D. Nero blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome, although it is speculated by some historians that Nero was responsible for setting the fire in the first place. Christian persecution after Nero's reign was sporadic, carried out by local Roman magistrates responding to local prejudices. Because Christians did not worship the Roman gods, they were blamed for calamities that befell the empire, such as famines or pestilence. The last Roman persecution was the Diocletianic or Great Persecution starting in 303 A.D., when Roman Christians were systematically stripped of legal rights and commanded to worship Roman gods. Finally, with the passage of the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Roman-sponsored persecution was put to an end.

Persecution of Roman Christians
Persecution of the Christians, 1880

The Middle East

The rise of Islamic rule in the seventh century in the Middle East resulted in the conquests of large communities of Christians. To deal with how to rule the Christians, a set of principles was set forth that limited Christian practices. Christians were forbidden to display the cross on churches or use a bell to summon believers to prayer. Christians were given dhimmi, or 'protected' status. They were considered inferior to Muslims and had to pay a jiyza, a tax, but could still engage in non-Muslim practices such as drinking alcohol or eating pork. Christians were encouraged to convert to Islam, but a Muslim who converted to Christianity was considered apostate and faced strong penalties under the law, including execution.

The French Revolution

Christianity continued to spread throughout Europe and eventually attain dominance. Still, the 1790s would see a mass persecution of Christians in France.

The French Revolution overthrew the monarchy of Louis XVI and replaced it with a republican form of government. However, this was not good for the Catholic Church, which held such great power and wealth, including owning about 6 percent of the land in France, that the new government took steps to curb its power. Clergymen were forced to take an oath to the new French constitution over the Catholic Church.

The church was closely associated with the defunct monarchy, and the public viewed it with great suspicion. A mass 'dechristianization' of France took place during the ensuing Reign of Terror. Churches were closed and ravaged. Christian signs of worship, symbols and monuments were destroyed. Religious education was forbidden. It was not until the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as the new head of government that many of these practices came to an end in 1801.

Churches were desecrated during the French Revolution
Desecration of a church during the French Revolution

Persecution in 20th Century Europe

The 1922 establishment of the Soviet Union in Russia under Vladimir Lenin brought about government targeting of religious practice, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of religious adherents. The new communist government of Russia set an ideological goal to eliminate religion. Many clergymen were executed or sent to labor camps.

The invasion of Nazi Germany in 1941 caused the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to revive the Orthodox Church for a time to intensify patriotic fervor for the war effort, but crackdowns on religious worship would return under Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. Religious freedom for Russian Christians would not be revived until the end of the Cold War.

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