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

Even those who consider religiosity in general to be declining (i.e. those believe secularization is progressing) would agree that religious persecution continues to be a serious issue worldwide. Global media coverage of increasing numbers of participants in religious fundamentalism and religiously related terrorism obviate the prevalence of such persecutions worldwide. Indeed, in many countries of the world today, religious persecution has resulted in so much violence that it is considered a human rights problem.

Forms of religious persecution

A situation in which religious persecution occurs is the opposite of freedom of religion. However, freedom of religion is not necessarily identical with the separation of church and state and religious pluralism. In a country that is not a secular state, freedom of religion can exist if the state religion grants religious toleration to all other religions and denominations.

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.

Religious persecution and ethnicity

Other acts of violence, such as war, torture, and ethnic cleansing might not necessarily be aimed at religion. Populations that belong to different ethnic groups often also belong to different religions or denominations. Although the difference between religious and ethnical identity might sometimes be obscure (see: Ethnoreligious), the infamous cases of Genocide of the 20th century could not be explained by religious differences.

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.

Reasons of religious persecution

The descriptive use of the term religious persecution is rather difficult. Religious persecution has taken place a least since the Persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire, and has happened in completely different historical, geographical and social contexts, but still, some generalizations are necessary. One period of religious persecution which has been studied extensively is early modern Englandmarker, 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."

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 thread of fascism rose in Europe, and this work is seen as a defence of the fragile values of humanism and tolerance. 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."

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, 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 organisation 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.

Religious uniformity in early modern Europe

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."

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." 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

See also: Christian heresy, Heresy in Orthodox Judaism

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.

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

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 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 campmarker there also were Mehdi Ghezali and Murat Kurnaz who could not have been found to have any connections with terrorism, but had travelled to Afghanistanmarker and Pakistanmarker because of their religious interests.

Historical persecution

Out of Egyptmarker, according to Jewish tradition, came monotheistic Judaism, under Moses, one of its prophets. Among the Ten Commandments of that religion was one that forbade the worship of any other god than Yahweh. When Imperial Romemarker extended its reach to their area, various conflicts arose.

Out of Judaism came Christianity, which because it was monotheistic and also encouraged conversion was a much more powerful threat to the established pantheistic order than had been Judaism. The Jewish exemption from the requirement to participate in public cults was lifted and the anti-monotheistic religious persecution of the Christians began under Nero.

By the eighth century Christianity had attained a clear ascendancy in Europe and neighboring regions and a period of consolidation began marked by the pursuit of heretics and various other forms of monotheistic religious persecution. Christian monotheistic religious persecution perhaps reached its apex with the Inquisition.

Meanwhile south and east of the Christian empires yet another monotheist religion had arisen: Islam. Generally tolerant towards non-believers provided they maintained the outward habits of believers, Muslims spread across northern Africa, the Middle East, northern Indiamarker, and adjoining regions.

See also: Historical persecution by Christians, Persecution of Ancient Greek religion, Persecution of Christians.

Present Period

Since the 18th century there have been many occasions where religious persecution has occurred.

Bahá'ís in Iran

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 Statesmarker 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 [26480], 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. [26481].

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 [26482].

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."[26483].

Bahá'ís are also being persecuted in Egypt.[26484]

State Atheism


Communist Albania imposed state atheism and had an objective for the eventual destruction of all religion in Albaniamarker, including a constitutional ban. The government nationalized most property of religious institutions and religious literature was banned. Many clergy and theists were tried, tortured, and executed. All foreign Roman Catholic clergy were expelled in 1946.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Unionmarker imposed state atheism and antireligious campaigns were directed at all faiths, including Christian, Buddhist and Shamanist religions. The government nationalised all church property, executed clergy, prohibited the publication of most religious material and persecuted members of religious groups. The result of this was the death of 21 million Russianmarker Orthodox Christians by the Soviet government, not including torture or other religious ethnicities killed.

See also


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


  1. Still, cases such as the Greek genocide, the Armenian Genocide, the Assyrian Genocide or the current Darfur conflict (see: Janjaweed) are sometimes seen as religious persecution.
  2. Coffey 2000: 14.
  3. Coffey 2000, 2
  4. John Coffey (2000), p. 12
  5. John Coffey (2000), p. 33
  6. The Works of Richard Hooker, II, p. 485; quoted after: John Coffey (2000), p. 33
  7. quoted after Coffey (2000), 27
  8. Coffey 2000: 58.
  9. Coffey 2000: 57.
  10. John Locke (1698): A Letter Concerning Toleration; Online edition
  11. .
  12. John Coffey (2000), p. 26
  13. Benjamin j. Kaplan (2007), Divided by Faith, Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, p. 3
  14. Coffey 2000: 85.
  15. Coffey 2000: 86.
  16. Coffey 2000: 81.
  17. Coffey 2000: 92.
  18. "Like the extremist Islamic clerics who today provide inspiration for terrorist campaigns, the [Catholic] priests could not be treated like men who only sought the spiritual nourishment of the flock." Coffey 2000: 38&39.
  19. People of the book
  24. World Christian trends, AD 30-AD 2200, p.230-246 Tables 4-10 By David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, Christopher R. Guidry, Peter F. Crossing
  27. World Christian trends, AD 30-AD 2200, p.230-246 Tables 4-5 & 4-10 By David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, Christopher R. Guidry, Peter F. Crossing NOTE: They define 'martyr' on p235 as only including christians killed for faith and excluding other christians killed

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

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