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On religious persecution

Published on 04 December 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Religious minorities often have a hard time sustaining themselves in a hostile environment. Ethnic cleansing and micro-genocides occur. Over the last few decades, the Middle East has become a hearth of religiously motivated violence, and Christians are among the targets.[1] The current tide of fanaticism is threatening long established coexistence of religions in countries like Egypt, Syria, or Lebanon (but also Israel) going back thousands of years.[2] This is a tragedy. Western countries are right in condemning this wanton violence.

I chanced recently on laws against pagans and heretics enacted in the IVth century by Roman Emperors.[3] The picture is far from up-lifting. No sooner had Christianity won its place in the sun that the sun was made to set on the Pagans. Worship was curtailed; properties seized; pagans were excluded from public service and many professions. The full power of the state was unleashed against them – but also against “heretics” – however defined. Disambiguation of attitudes toward Jews began: at times they were protected; at times they were discriminated against. The state also became a shaper of orthodoxy. Emperors routinely settled theological questions – playing politics as they went.[4]

Charlemagne’s territorial expansion to the East – the first large scale expansion of the new Christian Roman Empire after long periods of retrenchment – was marred by the draconian means used to convert the Saxons and other ethnic groups. One need not dwell on the Crusades. The persecution of the Cathars led to the destruction of South of France’s culture.[5] Jews were expelled from Great Britain in 1290, and only readmitted in 1636.

Wars of religion were fought during the XVIth and XVIIth century all over Europe. The outcome was first set out in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and then confirmed in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648): The treaties established the principle Cuius regio, eius religio, which allowed princes to select either Protestantism of Catholicism within the domains they controlled, ultimately reaffirming the independence they had over their states. Subjects, citizens, or residents who did not wish to conform to the prince’s choice were given a period in which they were free to emigrate to different regions in which their desired religion had been accepted- a form of legitimized ethnic cleansing.

As Europe expanded its territorial control from Russia[6] to the Americas, conversion – either by suasion or coercion – was obtained, mostly by violence. In the 1860s, the Russian government emptied Caucasian villages of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, off-loading them from “floating graveyards” on Ottoman docks. As the Ottoman Empire shrank at the beginning of the XXth century, these populations were expelled once again.[7]

The “Unequal Treaties” forced on China in the XIXth century i.a. foresaw immunity not only for Missionaries in China, but also for the Christian converts. While the provision may have originally been introduced to prevent persecution, the similarities to current demands that sharia law be applied where Muslim minorities are settled in the West are striking. Missionary-inspired prevarication in Shangdong and Hebei led to tensions culminating in the Boxer Uprising in 1900.[8]

In historical perspective, Christianity has been intolerant of other religions. Until recently, religious minorities were absent, and the few surviving were oppressed. Certainly there has been nothing comparable to the degree of institutionalized toleration existing in the Middle East until recently.[9] Even now, the “cleansing” of religious minorities there is unlikely to be state policy – mostly it is perpetrated by fanatics (admittedly, sometimes with possibly the covert connivance of sections of the state).

Religious extremism is unacceptable. Standing up for religious freedom is fully justified. What is less justified is the current Western self-righteousness.

[1] https://bit.ly/1iyxKAa

[2] See e.g. Peter BROWN (2012): The Great Transition. New York Review of Books, May 10th.

[3] https://bit.ly/1cljMfU

[4] Harold A. DRAKE (2000): Constantine and the Bishopts. The politics of intolerance. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. See also: Charles FREEMAN (2009): A.D. 381 – Heretics, pagans, and the daqwn of the monotheistic state. The Overlook Press, New York.

[5] See e.g. Georges BORDONOVE (2011): La tragédie Cathare. Tallandier, Paris.

[6] See e.g. Peter TURCHIN (2007): War and peace and war. The rise and fall of Empires. Penguin, New York, for the Russian-sponsored expansion into Siberia and destruction of the Khanates.

[7] See e.g. Charles KING (2004): The Black Sea. A history. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Also, Neal ASCHERSON (1996): Black Sea. Hill & Wang, Boston.

[8] See e.g. Joseph ESHERICK (1988): The origins of the Boxer Uprising. University of California Press, Berkeley. For a work of historical fiction in manga form see Gene Luen YANG (2013): Boxers and Saints. Roaring Book Press, New York (2 voll.)

[9] Toleration does not mean “separate but equal”, of course. Nevertheless, there is no equivalent of the dhimmi in Christianity.

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