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Persecution of Christians

Christians have experienced persecution throughout the history of Christianity. Persecution may refer to unwarrented arrest, imprisonment, beating, torture, or execution. It also may refer to the confiscation or destruction of property, or incitement to hate Christians.

Table of contents
1 Persecutions in the New Testament
2 Early Persecutions in Other Sources
3 Islamic Persecution of Christians
4 Discrimination and persecution in the Soviet Union and East Bloc nations
5 Persecution of Christians in China
6 Hindu Persecution of Christians
7 Discrimination in Israel
8 References
9 External links

Persecutions in the New Testament

The New Testament reports that the earliest Christians suffered persecution at the hands of the Jewish leadership of the day, commencing with Jesus himself. It also reports the beginning of persecutions by the Romans.

Persecutions by the Jews

According to NT accounts, Judas Iscariot was paid by the priesthood and officers of the Temple to lead them to Jesus when he was alone and away from the crowds (Luke 22:4-6). He was then arrested (Luke 22:54) and taken before the Sanhedrin (ecclesiastical court) (Luke 22:66), who then took him before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, claiming that he was subverting Roman rule (Luke 23:2). According to the NT, Pilate did not want to give Jesus the death penalty, but Jewish crowds convinced him to have Jesus executed (Luke 23:13-24, 33). According to Matthew 27, Pilate's wife told him of a dream warning him against any dealings with Jesus, which may be supposed to have influenced his judgement.

Historians dispute the picture of Pilate painted in the New Testament. Sources outside the New Testament state that Pilate was known for callous disregard toward public opinion, crucifictions of hundreds of Jews, and brutal suppression of Jewish revolts. Some historians speculate that the New Testament account may have been purposely distorted by its authors to curry favour with Rome, by switching primary responsibility for Jesus' execution from the Roman authorities to the Jews.

According to the New Testament accounts, persecution of Jesus' followers continued after his death. Peter and John were imprisoned by the Jewish leadership, including high priest Annas, who however later released them (Acts 4:1-21). Another time, all the apostles were imprisoned by the high priest and other Sadducees, only to be freed by an angel (Acts 5:17-18). The apostles, after having escaped, were then taken before the Sanhedrin again, but this time Gamaliel (a Pharisee well known from Rabbinic literature) convinced the Sanhedrin to free them (Acts 5:27-40), which the Sanhedrin did, after having flogged them.

The New Testament recounts the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8-7:60) by the members of the Sanhedrin. Stephen is remembered in Christianity as the first martyr (derived from the Greek word "martyros" which means "witness"). Stephen's execution was followed by a major persecution of Christians (Acts 8:1-3), led by a Pharisee named Paul of Tarsus (also called Saul), throwing many Christians into prison. According to the New Testament, this persecution continued until Paul converted to Christianity, after reportedly seeing a bright light and hearing the voice of Jesus on the road to Damascus, where he was travelling to carry out more imprisonment of Christians (Acts 9:1-22). Acts 9:23-25 reports that "the Jews" in Damascus then tried to kill Paul. They were waiting for him at the town gates, but he evaded them by being lowered over the city wall in a basket by other Christians and then escaped to Jerusalem. Understandably, he had difficulty at first convincing the Christians in Jerusalem that he, their persecutor, had truly converted and was now being persecuted himself (Acts 9:26-27). Another attempt on his life was made, this time by "the Grecians" (KJV), referring to a group of Hellenistic Jews (Acts 9:29), whom he debated while in or around Jerusalem.

There is some debate over why Paul, before his conversion, persecuted Christians. One possibility is that he was punishing Jews who no longer observed Jewish Law. This seems unlikely, though, in part because the arrival of the messiah was not at that time a reason for abandoning the law; indeed, some scholars believe it was not until after Paul converted that Christians began preaching this. Moreover, there is evidence that the apostles observed at least parts of Jewish law for some time. Another possibility is that he was punishing Jews who were blaspheming God by claiming God became a man, and who were slandering Jewish authorities by accusing them of killing both God and the prophets who foretold His coming. Another possibility is that he was punishing Gentiles who did not observe Jewish law. This is less likely, since Jews never expected Gentiles among them (even visitors in their synagogues) to observe Jewish law. Another possibility has to do with intense missionary activity on the part of Christians in the years immediately following Jesus' death. Jesus was crucified as a rebel; for Christian missionaries to use synagogue pulpits to preach the claim that he would soon return, leading the armies of Heaven, to establish his kingdom, would have made the Jewish community vulnerable to accusations of treason, and thus to Roman punishment. Jewish leaders would have to suppress any apparent insurrection, or risk Roman wrath.

A separate article exists on Jews in the New Testament.

Persecution of Early Christians by Romans

According to the New Testament, Jesus' crucifixion was authorized by Roman authorities and carried out by Roman soldiers. The NT also records that Paul on his missions was imprisoned on several occasions by the Roman authorities. Once he was stoned and left for dead. Finally he was taken as a prisoner to Rome. The New Testament account does not say what then became of Paul, but Christian tradition reports that he was executed in Rome by being beheaded. Christian tradition reports that Peter was likewise executed in Rome, by crucifixion (upsidedown, at his request because he did not feel he deserved the 'honor' of dying in the same way as Christ died).

Early Persecutions in Other Sources

Several major persecutions of Christians would later be launched during the Empire, including that of Nero, and worst of all that of Diocletian. These were generally characterized by arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution by various means. Christians were often given opportunities to avoid further punishment by publicly offering sacrifices or burning incense to Roman gods, and were accused by the Romans of atheism when they refused.

Yet some scholars believe some early Christians sought out and welcomed their persecutions:

Jesus, too, says John, really committed suicide, and Augustine spoke of "the mania for self-destruction" of early Christians192. Roman authorities tried hard to avoid Christians because they "goaded, chided, belittled and insulted the crowds until they demanded their death.";193; One man shouted to the Roman officials: "I want to die! I am a Christian," leading the officials to respond: "If they wanted to kill themselves, there was plenty of cliffs they could jump off.";194; But the Christians, following Tertullian's dicta that "martyrdom is required by God," forced their own martyrdom so they could die in an ecstatic trance: "Although their tortures were gruesome, the martyrs did not suffer, enjoying their analgesic state."195 The Emotional Life of Nations

Such interpretations may be impossible to conclude within a Christian point of view. Martyrs are uniquely exemplary of the Christian faith. However, suicide is murder, and is associated with treason to the faith - the very opposite of martyrdom - the way of Judas the traitor, not of Jesus the savior. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, in paragraph four, it records the story of a Christian named Quintus who handed himself over to the Roman authorities, but turned coward and sacrificed to the Roman gods when he saw the wild beasts in the colosseum. It then reads, "For this reason therefore, brothers, we do not praise those who hand themselves over, since the gospel does not so teach." This was written in the second century. John the Evangelist never accused Jesus of suicide or self-destruction, but rather says that Jesus chose not to resist arrest and crucifixion.

In 337 a war broke between the kingdom of Persia and the Roman Empire; this led to anti-Christian persecutions by the Persians. Over the next few decades, thousands of Christians died. In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, Christian missionaries attempted to convert the Goths, which the Goths saw as an attack on their religion and culture. The Visigoth King Athanaric began persecuting Christians, many of whom were killed. In the 5th and 6th century, Arianism became prevalent among the Goths; during their forays into Italy, Gaul (France) and Spain they destroyed many churches and killed a number of Christian clergy.

In 429 CE the Vandals (who were Arians) conquered Roman Africa. Catholics were discriminated against; Catholic Church property was confiscated. Thousands of Catholics were banished from Vandal held territory.

The New Catholic Encyclopaedia notes that "Ancient, medieval and early modern hagiographers were inclined to exaggerate the number of martyrs. Since the title of martyr is the highest title to which a Christian can aspire, this tendency is natural". Estimates of Christians killed for religious reasons before the year 313 vary greatly, depending on the scholar quoted, from a high of almost 100,000 to a low of 10,000.

Islamic Persecution of Christians


Ottoman Empire

Enslavement of Christians in the Sudan today

Murder of Christians by Islamists in Pakistan

Oct. 28, 2001 - Lahore, Pakistan - terrorists murder 15 Christians at a church. On Sept. 25 2002 two terrorists went into the "Peace and Justice Institute", Karachi. They separated Muslims from the Christians, and then executed eight Christians by shooting them in the head.

Murder of Christians by Islamists in Indonesia

1998 - 500 Christian churches burned down in Java.

November 1998 - 22 churches in Jakarta are burned down. 13 Christians killed.

Christmas Day 1998 - 180 homes and stores owned by Christians are destroyed in Poso, Central Sulawesi.

Easter 2000 - 800 homes and stores owned by Christians are destroyed in Poso, Central Sulawesi.

May 23 2000 - Christian fight back against a Muslim mob. 700 people die.

June 2001 - the Laskar Jihad declares Jihad against Christians. Muslim citizens are recruited by the thousands to exterminate Christians.

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Discrimination and persecution in other Arab and Muslim nations

Saudi Arabia regularly imprisons Christians from other nations. Christians are arrested and lashed for practicing their faith in public. No one is allowed to be a citizen in this nation unless they are Muslim. Prayer services by Christians are broken up by the police, and people who convert to Christianity are often arrested. " class="external">

Egypt regularly imprisons Christians. Muslims are severely punished if they convert to Christianity. Government funded newspapers and magazines regularly publish hatespeech towards both Christians and Jews. For example, an Egyptian government funded magazine published an interview with three Islamic clerics. They state that "another form of infidelity, namely the denial of Islam, and the message of Mohammed. All those who do not believe that Mohammed is Allah's prophet, and that the Qur'an was Allah's words revealed to him, are infidels, even if they were people of the Book, i.e. Jews, or Christians." The context of the article was that all people in the Western world are, by the Muslim definition, infidels. (Al-Musawwar, 11/24/01) Christians and Jews labeled as infidels

Christians are persecuted in Malaysia. " class="external">

Islamic fundamentalists oppress and murder Christians in the Philippines. " class="external">

Discrimination and persecution in the Soviet Union and East Bloc nations

Richard Wurmbrand, author of Tortured for Christ described the systematic persecution of Christians in one East Bloc nation. Many Christian believers in the Soviet Union have told of being imprisoned for no other reason than believing in God - a fate shared no less by Jewish believers. Many have recently been canonized as saints following their death at the hands of Soviet authorities; they are collectively referred to in the Orthodox church as the "new martyrs".

Persecution of Christians in China

Emperor Tang Wu Zong of China

Known as a Taoist zealot, he suppressed all other religions within China. Nestorianism, a first Christian branch in China, left China for good.

This occurred during the Tang Dynasty.

Qing Dynasty

When Emperor Jiaqing of China declared the close door policy, Christianity suffered the first drawback. After the Opium War, Christians became a target of hatred and many Christians were killed in the Boxer Rebellion.

People's Republic of China

The Communist government tries to maintain tight control over religions, so it outlaws all Christian churches, except those under the Communist Party's control (see article on Chinese House Churches).

Hindu Persecution of Christians

23 Jan 1999 - Graham Staines, an Australian Christian missionary aged 55 years, and his two sons, aged 8 and 10, were burned to death in the state of Orissa by members of Hindutva Parivar, a Hindu nationalist group

In Sept. 2002 eight Christian missionaries were beaten during worship services by Hindu fundamentalists. In Oct. 2002 the governor of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu issued an ordinance aimed at preventing people from converting to Christianity, under the guise of such conversions occurring due to "fraud". Christians may be sentenced to up to three years in jail if convicted of such a "crime".

It should be noted that the majority of instances of persecutions of Christians in India do not involve the native Saint Thomas Christians, but rather Catholics and Protestants.

Christian News Source with several articles on persecution of Christians in India

Discrimination in Israel

At various times, right-wing ultra-Orthodox Jewish political groups have proposed anti-Christian legislation in the Knesset (Israel's parliament); each attempt has been defeated.

Since its inception, the government of Israel has funded not only Jewish institutions, but has also provided significant funding for Muslim, Christian and Druze institutions and churches/mosques. However, Israel provides proportionally greater financial support to institutions in the Jewish sector; For example, only 2.4 percent of the Ministry of Religious Affairs budget for 1999 was allocated to the non-Jewish sector, although Muslims, Christians, and Druze constitute 20 percent of the population. Some Israelis hold that any funding for these faiths at all is not necessary, but given Israel's social and civic structure, more people hold that budget must be distributed on a purely proportional basis. In 1998 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the budget allocation constituted "prima facie discrimination" but that the plaintiff's petition did not provide adequate information about the religious needs of the various communities. The court refused to intervene in the budgetary process on the grounds that such action would invade the proper sphere of the legislature.

The status of a number of Christian organizations with representation in Israel heretofore has been defined by a collection of ad hoc arrangements with various government agencies. Several of these organizations seek to negotiate with the Government in an attempt to formalize their status.

Missionaries are allowed to proselytize, although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints voluntarily refrains from doing so under an agreement with the Government. A 1977 anti-proselytizing law prohibits anyone from offering or receiving material benefits as an inducement to conversion; however, there have been no reports of its enforcement. On December 6, a law prohibiting some missionary activity and the dissemination of some missionary material passed a first reading in the Knesset.

Jehovah's Witnesses suffered verbal abuse, assaults, theft, and vandalism; however, they reported that the police response to their complaints improved significantly during the year.

See also: Religious intolerance -- History of Christianity -- Religious pluralism


Let My People Go: The True Story of Present-Day Persecution and Slavery Cal. R. Bombay, Multnomah Publishers, 1998

Their Blood Cries Out Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert, World Press, 1997.

In the Lion's Den: Persecuted Christians and What the Western Church Can Do About It Nina Shea, Broadman & Holman, 1997.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967 (15 volume set)

External links