Religious Persecution

By I. Marc Carlson. First published on Belief-L

It has been suggested on Belief-L that Christianity is the only religion that has ever proseltyzed, tried to convert other peoples, tortured, burned, executed, or murdered human beings purely on religious grounds. I confess that I have simplified the learned opposition's position somewhat that I may better address their various viewpoints. What I have constructed here, then, is a listing and description of some of history's highlights of religions proselytizing, converting, being intolerant of other religions, and so forth. Just to make this a challenge, and since we have all heard the list of grievences often enough, I will refrain from using examples of Christianity being intolerant to other groups, and even other versions of itself. Unfortunately, this does force me to ignore such marvelous historical incidents such as the 4th Crusade, the bulk of Tudor History, the burning of witches, and so forth. However, I still maintain the right to use instances of other religions being intolerant of Christianity, in any of its myriad forms.

Just to begin, there was the conquest of Canaan by the Mosaic/Hebrew tribes, and the overruning of the agricultural worship there previously. If you have doubts about the historiocity of this, we can move it up a few years to the Joshiah reformation, the "discovery" of the Books of the Law, and the Rise of "Yahwehism", which was was instrumental in the behavior of Israel and Judea to one another, until the Assyrians solved the whole question by causing the Tribes of Israel to "disappear". Skipping over some history, I would like to mention the treatment of non-Jews and even non-Orthodox Jews in Israel today. I read in the paper this morning where the ban on Palestinian entry is being extended. It might be argued that keeping these people from their jobs and penned on their reservation is due to non-religious reasons, but rather Nationalistic, regardless, in either case, it certainly smells like repression to me. I should mention the efforts of certain ultraorthodox Jewish sects to convert other members of the tribe to their world view. Meyer Kahane, for example, said that the argument between the orthodox is a battle of world views which can only end in the defeat of one or the other. He also tried to narrow the definition of Jew to mean only orthodox. Further, the rabbinate failed to recognize the Jewishness of the immigrants from Ethiopia because they were not able to provide three witnesses to their Judaism (excepth each other). Naturei Karta, admittedly a small fringe group, cooperates with terrorists in order to destroy Israel because they think it is a sacrilege for there to be an Israeli state before the coming of the messiah. In Mea Shearrim (an orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem) an ambulance was stoned on yom kippur when the driver tried to get to the house of a woman who needed to go to the hospital, and this despite the fact that there is a Jewish law which says that, if it is a matter of life and death, all the other laws are overruled.

Sticking with the theme of Middle Eastern Monotheism for a moment, I would like to mention Inkhnaten's intolerance for the polytheistic Egyptian religion, as well as the religious restoration after that Pharoah's death. Regarding Mazdaism, aka Zoroastrianism, historically there was a significant amount of persecution of Christians in Persia for centuries, which only increased after the official Roman religion became Christian in the 380s under Theodosius. This persecution remained in place until the Moslems invaded Persia, and Mazdaism suddenly became the minority religion, persecuted in its turn by Islam. Speaking of Islam, I would be remiss at not noting Islam's success at eradicating nearly all indications that there were ever any other religions on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Islam's general success at spreading across Africa and Asia. As for repressions, etc., aside from the treatment of subject populations and their religions, I would like to mention the intermittant suppression of the Sufic Orders by the more Orthodox authorities. You might wonder who are the Orthodox authorities, and Sunni/Shi'ia conflicts and reciprocal treatment over the centuries, it's a fair question.

Before leaving this quick look at Islam, I should mention the relationship of the Moslems of India and their Hindu neighbors, whose quarrels culminated most notably in the formation of both Pakistans, and their separation from India. While the treatment of Moslems by the Hindus has generally been seen as an example of tolerance, one might note the treatment of Hindus in Pakistan, for an example of religious repression, particularly since Hindus aren't recognized as one of the "Peoples of the Book." Since the inception of the Baha'i faith the mid Nineteenth Century, 20,000 members have been murdered, tortured, slaughtered and executed for their beliefs. 200 have been executed just since 1979 for the crime in being a Baha'i and refusing to recent their faith. On the other hand, I can find no instances of Bahai persecuting anyone. They do, however, just keep on growing, which does imply some form of proselytizing, or active recruiting practices.

Now if I may be allowed to move back to the Mediterranean for a moment, I would like to mention that after the Akhean/Mycenean invasions of Crete, all Minoan religious rites that were not absorbed by the later Hellenes, disappeared. Eventually, the early Hellenic religion was carried to the Etruscans, who in turn passed it on to the Romans. In each case, the new religion assumed many of the forms of its predecessor, while totally replacing the substance. By the time of the Empire, it can be argued that the Romans had a fairly egalitarian religion, which helped the Romans rule their empire. The fact that the Roman dislike for the Jews of Palestine, and their successors, the Christians came from the monotheist unwillingness to acknowledge other deities, and specifically the divinity of the Emperor does not make the Roman response any less repression. Totally setting aside the destruction of Palestine and the Diaspora for a moment as arguably mere politics, the Roman Pagans persecuted the early Christians fairly consistantly for nearly three centuries, gradually worsening their restrictions. Eventually, during the reign of Diocletian, and edict was passed that anyone who would not sacrifice to the emperor as a god was to be put to death. Whether the tens of thousands of people the Roman pagans tortured, burned, and otherwise executed were all Christians is unimportant; they refused the offical cult of the Emperor. Many of these are still recognized as Martyrs for the Christian cause. Rather than delve into the Christian reprisals of the Pagans, after they achieved power, I think we'll just move back over to India, where I will mention that after the Aryas invasion of the Indian subcontinent around 2000 - 1500 BCE, the Dasus, an ancient culture and its religion, vanished as the old urban society was supplanted by that of the invaders. In fairness, though, I must admit that the archaeological record remains unclear about what role the Aryas had in the collapse of the Dasus civilization. It is probable that they were just the last link in a long chain of events. Also, I must point out it is the case with many of these invasions/religious extinctions, that echoes of the earlier religion will survive on in the later culture. Which does imply a certain converting, doesn't it? The Vedic literature contains references to "hostile" Panis, who for a long time refused to patronyze the Aryan priests rituals. Eventually though, they and the broad regions at the base of the Himalayas fell under the sway of the Aryan religion. About 800 BCE, the old Vedic religion that emerged after the invasion of the Aryas began to undergo a transformation into a new, more spiritual form that gradually replaced the older form. This was, by the way, when the Upanishads were begun. About 500 BCE, from the works of Great Teachers, Buddhism and Jainism emerge, and begin to spread rapidly. Note that in their purest forms both religions lack a "Central" god figure. Buddhism underwent a wide variety of schisms and doctrinal variations. The first of these took place at the legendary Council of Rajagaha, that was responsible for establishing the vinaya and Dhamma, or which of the sutras were canonical. The second Council led to the schism between the Sthaviras and the Mahasanghikas, or "monks", over laxity of conservatism of orthodoxy. Over the years, these schisms and the myriad that followed have lead to disputes and fights as unpleasant as any between the later Christians. In fact, between the 10th and 13th centuries Japanese Buddhists fielded large armies to dispute differences with rival groups. Even today, the varying sects of Buddhists have missionaries spread across the face of the Earth. In China, Buddhism initially recieved a dim reception by the official Confucianist and Taoists, who were still fighting among themselves at the time. Eventually, after centuries of political bickering betweenthe Confusionists and the Buddhists, a quasi- syncretic system was worked out. Even so, there were problems. For instance, in 574, the Chinese Emperor launched a full scale suppression of both Buddhism and religious Taoism, including a full secularization of the monks and destruction of the monasteries. In 843-5, The Taoist rulers destroyed all Buddhist Temples, and Manichean Churches, during one of the many times that the emperors banned Christianity. The Chinese Moslems have been repressed, most notably in the early 19th century. There are a number of scholars who question whether Chinese and Tibetan forms of Buddhism can survive the iconoclastic persecutions of the Modern Chinese government. In Japan, on the other hand, Buddism received a much better reception than it had in China. That is, until the popular movement against the Buddhists (Haibutsu-Kishaku, or Anti-Buddhists) during the Meiji reforms. Christianity was fairly well recieved in Japan initially. However, the Tokugowa Shogunate closed its doors to foreigners, and began an official persecution of the Kakure Kirishtan, or hidden Christian population of Japan. This persecution lasted for two centuries until 1873, when the official authority for the repression was ended. Even so, Japanese Christians as well as Buddhists are currently not the most popular people in Japan today.

Well, before I end this, I would like to mention all of the historical cases of human sacrifice to the gods, including the Celtic burning of prisoners, the strangulation of the ancient Bog mummies, the Assassins of the Middle Ages, the Thugee, the Aztecs, the evidence of human sacrifice on Easter Island, just to name a few instances. In addition, I could well include the massacres of September 3-4, 1792 during which over 1,300 priests and nuns were raped, tortured and slaughtered in Paris all in the name of "liberte, egalite and fraternite". And last, but not least, please let us not forget our new friends in the Former Soviet Union, and the State-sponsored repression of religion in general that they endured for much of this century.

So while it is clear that Christianity, as a whole, has the most popularly acknowledged history of aggression against their fellow humans, they have not been the only religious group in history to partake in this sort of behavior.

What follows is a by-no-means comprehensive bibliography, however, these are fairly accessible:

Berry, Gerald L., 1915-. Religions of the world. New York, Barnes & Noble, 1956.
Clemen, Carl Christian, 1865-. Religions of the world, their nature and their history. Dallas. New York, Harcourt, Brace, c1931.
Etruscan life and afterlife, a handbook of Etruscan studies. edited by Larissa Bonfante. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1986.
Frazier, Sir James. The Golden Bough. London: 189_-1927
James, E. O. ( Edwin Oliver ), 1886-. Myth and ritual in the ancient Near East, an archaeological and documentary study. London, Thames and Hudson, 1958.
James, E. O. ( Edwin Oliver ), 1886-. The ancient gods, the history and diffusion of religion in the ancient near east and the eastern Mediterranean. New York. G.P. Putnam's sons, 1960.
McAfee, Ward. A history of the world's great religions. San Bernardino. California State College, 1983.
Nilsson, Martin Persson, 1874-1967. The Minoan-Mycenaean religion and its survival in Greek religion. 2d., rev. ed. New York, Biblo and Tannen, 1971.
Noss, David S. A history of the world's religions. New York, Macmillan; London, Collier Macmillan, c1990.

Other material may be found in: Encyclopedia Britannica. An Empire Conquered (A Discovery Channel documentary about the Roman persecutions of Christians and the eventual success of the Christians at gaining political power.)