Religious oppression

Religious persecution is the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group of individuals as a response to their religious beliefs or affiliations or lack thereof.

The tendency of societies or groups within society to alienate or repress different subcultures is a recurrent theme in human history. Moreover, because a person's religion often determines to a significant extent his or her morality and personal identity, religious differences can be significant cultural factors.

Religious persecution may be triggered by religious bigotry (i.e. the denigration of practitioners' religions other than those of the oppressors) or by the State when it views a particular religious group as a threat to its interests or security. At a societal level, this dehumanization of a particular religious group may readily turn into violence or other forms of persecution. Indeed, in many countries, religious persecution has resulted in so much violence that it is considered a human rights problem.


Religious persecution can be considered the opposite of freedom of religion. Religious persecution may also affect atheists in that they may be denounced as being amoral or be persecuted by the religious on the grounds that they are godless.

Often it is the alleged persecution of individuals within a group - in the attempt to maintain their religious 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 civil rights on the basis of religion is most often described as religious discrimination, rather than religious persecution.


Other acts of violence, such as war, torture, and ethnic cleansing not aimed at religion in particular, may nevertheless take on the qualities of religious persecution when one or more of the parties involved are characterized by religious homogeneity; an example being when conflicting populations that belong to different ethnic groups often also belong to different religions or denominations. The difference between religious and ethnic identity might sometimes be obscure (see: Ethnoreligious); cases of genocide of the 20th century cannot be explained in full by citing religious differences.[1]

Nazi antisemitism provides another example of the contentious divide between ethnic and religious persecution, because Nazi propaganda tended to construct its image of Jews as race, and de-emphasized Jews as being defined by their religion. The Shoah made no distinction between secular Jews, atheistic Jews, orthodox Jews and Jews that had converted to Christianity.


The descriptive use of the term religious persecution is rather difficult. Religious persecution has taken place at least since the antiquity, and has happened in different historical, geographical and social contexts. Until the 18th century, some groups were nearly universally persecuted for their views about religion, such as atheists,[2] Jews[3] and zoroastrians.[4]

Early modern England

One period of religious persecution which has been studied extensively is early modern England, since the rejection of religious persecution, now common in the Western world, originated there. The English 'Call for Toleration' was the turning point in the Christian debate on persecution and toleration, and early modern England stands out to the historians as a time in which literally "hundreds of books and tracts were published either for or against religious toleration."[5]

The most ambitious chronicle of that time is W.K.Jordan's magnum opus The Development of Religious Toleration in England, 1558-1660 (four volumes, published 1932-1940). Jordan wrote as the threat of fascism rose in Europe, and this work is seen as a defense of the fragile values of humanism and tolerance.[6] More recent introductions to this period are Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England, 1558–1689 (2000) by John Coffey and Charitable hatred. Tolerance and intolerance in England, 1500-1700 (2006) by Alexandra Walsham. To understand why religious persecution has occurred, historians like Coffey "pay close attention to what the persecutors said they were doing."[5]

Ecclesiastical dissent and civil tolerance

No religion is free from internal dissent, although the degree of dissent that is tolerated within a particular religious organization can strongly vary. This degree of diversity tolerated within a particular church is described as ecclesiastical tolerance,[7] and is one form of religious toleration. However, when people nowadays speak of religious tolerance, they most often mean civil tolerance, which refers to the degree of religious diversity that is tolerated within the state.

In the absence of civil toleration, someone who finds himself in disagreement with his congregation doesn't have the option to leave and chose a different faith - simply because there is only one recognized faith in the country (at least officially). In modern western civil law any citizen may join and leave a religious organization at will; In western societies, this is taken for granted, but actually, this legal separation of Church and State only started to emerge a few centuries ago.

In the Christian debate on persecution and toleration, the notion of civil tolerance allowed Christian theologians to reconcile Jesus' commandment to love one's enemies with other parts of the New Testament that are rather strict regarding dissent within the church. Before that, theologians like Joseph Hall had reasoned from the ecclesiastical intolerance of the early Christian church in the New Testament to the civil intolerance of the Christian state.[8]

Religious uniformity in early modern Europe
Main article: Religious uniformity

By contrast to the notion of civil tolerance, 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."[9]

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".[10]

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.[11] It was Locke, who, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, defined the state in purely secular terms:[12] "The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests."[13] 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."[13] With this treatise, John Locke laid one of the most important intellectual foundations of the separation of church and state, which ultimately led to the secular state.

Persecution for heresy and blasphemy

Main article: Heresy
Main article: Blasphemy

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, and two more in 1612 under James I.[14]

Similarly, heretical sects like Cathars, Waldensians and Lollards were brutally suppressed in western Europe, while, at the same time, Catholic Christians lived side-by-side with 'schismatic' Orthodox Christians after the East-West Schism in the borderland of eastern Europe.[15]

Persecution for political reasons

More than 300 Roman Catholics were put to death by English governments between 1535 and 1681 for treason, thus for secular than religious offenses.[14] In 1570, Pope Pius V had issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis, which absolved Catholics from their obligations to the government.[16] 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".[17] 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 had been motivated by a religious zeal to purge heresy from her land, and during her short reign from 1553 to 1558 about 290 Protestants[18] had been burned at the stake for heresy, whereas Elizabeth I of England "acted out of fear for the security of her realm."[19]


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.[20] 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 traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan because of their religious interests.

Early persecution of and by monotheisms

According to Jewish tradition, monotheistic Judaism arose in Egypt under the direction of Moses. Among the Ten Commandments of that religion was one that forbade the worship of any other god than Yahweh; this led to conflict when Imperial Rome extended its reach into the Middle East.

Early Christianity also came into conflict with the Roman Empire, and may have been more threatening to the established polytheistic order than had been Judaism, because of the importance of evangelism in Christianity. Under Nero, the Jewish exemption from the requirement to participate in public cults was lifted and Rome began to actively persecute monotheists. This persecution ended in 313 C.E. with the Edict of Milan, and Christianity was made the official religion of the empire in 380 C.E.. By the eighth century Christianity had attained a clear ascendancy across Europe and neighboring regions, and a period of consolidation began marked by the pursuit of heretics, heathens, Jews, Muslims, and various other religious groups.

Persecution of Christians

Persecution of Christians can be traced both historically and in the current century.[21] Early Christians were persecuted for their faith, at the hands of both Jews from whose religion Christianity arose, and the Roman Empire which controlled much of the land over which early Christianity was distributed. This continued from the 1st century until the early 4th, when the religion was legalized by the Edict of Milan, eventually becoming the State church of the Roman Empire. Michael Gaddis wrote:

Persecutions of Jews

Major component of Jewish history, persecutions have been committed by Seleucids,[22] ancient Greeks,[3] ancient Romans, Christians (Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant), Muslims, Communists, Nazis, etc. Some of the most important events constituting this history include the 1066 Granada massacre, the Persecution of Jews in the First Crusade (by Catholics but against papal orders, see also : Sicut Judaeis), the Alhambra Decree after the Reconquista and the creation of the Spanish Inquisition, the publication of On the Jews and Their Lies by Martin Luther which initiated the Protestant antisemitism and strengthened German antisemitism, the pogroms and the Holocaust.

Persecution of Muslims

Main articles: Persecution of Muslims, Persecution of Muslims by the Meccans, Bosnian Genocide, Persecution of Shia Muslims, Persecution of Muslims in Burma, USSR anti-religious campaign (1928–1941), USSR anti-religious campaign (1970s–1987), Persecution of minority Muslim groups, Demolition of Babri Masjid, Islamophobia and Islamophobic incidents.

Persecutions of atheists

Used before the 18th century as an insult,[23] atheism was punishable by death in ancient Greece, in ancient Israel,[24] in Christian countries during the Middle Ages and in Muslim countries. Today, Atheism is a crime in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia,[25] Pakistan, and some other Muslim countries.

Persecution of minorities in Islamic lands

Victims of Muslim persecution include Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahá'ís, and Atheists with detailed description in articles according to victim classification. Muslim persecution of fellow Muslims include as victims Shia, Ahmadis, Sufi, Alevis.

State atheism

Main article: State atheism

State atheism has been defined by David Kowalewski as the official "promotion of atheism" by a government, typically by active suppression of religious freedom and practice.[26] It is a misnomer referring to a government's anti-clericalism, which opposes religious institutional power and influence, real or alleged, in all aspects of public and political life, including the involvement of religion in the everyday life of the citizen.[27]

State atheism was first practised during a brief period in Revolutionary France and repeated only in Revolutionary Mexico and some communist states. The Soviet Union had a long history of state atheism,[28] in which social success largely required individuals to profess atheism, stay away from churches and even vandalize them; this attitude was especially militant during the middle Stalinist era from 1929-1939.[29][30][31] The Soviet Union attempted to suppress religion over wide areas of its influence, including places like central Asia,[32] the post-World War II East bloc and the Socialist People's Republic of Albania under Enver Hoxha went so far as to officially ban all religious practices.[33]

Bahá'ís in Iran

The Bahá'ís are Iran's largest religious minority, and Iran is the location of one of the largest Bahá'í populations in the world. Bahá'ís in Iran have allegedly been subject 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 [2].

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." [3].


Main articles: Serer religion and Serer history (medieval era to present)

Persecution of the Serer people of Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania is multifaceted, and include both religious and ethnic elements. Religious and ethnic persecution of the Serer people dates back to the 11th century when King War Jabi usurped the throne of Tekrur (part of present-day Senegal) in 1030, and by 1035, introduced Sharia law and forced his subjects to submit to Islam.[34] With the assistance of his son (Leb), their Almoravid allies and other African ethnic groups who have embraced Islam, the Muslim coalition army launched jihads against the Serer people of Tekrur who refused to abandon Serer religion in favour of Islam.[35][36][37][38] The number of Serer deaths are unknown, but it triggered the exodus of the Serers of Tekrur to the south following their defeat, where they were granted asylum by the lamanes.[38] Persecution of the Serer people continued from the medieval era to the 19th century, resulting in the Battle of Fandane-Thiouthioune. From the 20th to the 21st centuries, persecution of the Serers is less obvious, nevertheless they are the object of scorn and prejudice.[39][40]

See also


Further reading

  • John Coffey (2000), Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689, Studies in modern History, Pearson Education

External links

  • United Nations - Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on freedom of religion or belief
  • United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
  • section on Religious Intolerance
  • U.S. State Department 2006 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom
  • xTome: News and Information on Religious Freedom
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