Martyrdom and the persecution of Christians concerned not only the early Church, but has accompanied all branches of Christianity throughout history. The history of the Church is also the history of her persecution. Of the twentieth century, Chuck Colson writes, “More Christians have been martyred for their faith in this century alone than in the previous nineteen centuries combined.”1
Most of the persecution and killing of Christians can be attributed to one of three groups of persecutors: Islamic states, totalitarian secular states, and countries fighting Christian missionary work.
1. Persecution in Islamic Countries
From the foundation of Islam and the expansion of the early Muslim empires through the Ottoman Empire with its “satellites,” Christians were conquered, killed, enslaved, or suppressed as second-class citizens. Today, this kind of persecution is most obvious in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Northern Nigeria, and to a much lesser extent in more securalised countries like Egypt, Indonesia, Tunisia, and Turkey.
Constantinople was conquered and destroyed by the Ottomans in 1453, who then took over large areas of the Byzantine Empire with its Orthodox churches as they had conquered the regions of many old oriental churches, like the Copts in Egypt or the Syrian Christians.
Christians were deemed second-class citizens; however, policies of oppression changed from sultan to sultan—from severe and cruel persecution to subtle pressure through extra tax, lack of access to education, and riots. The height of the persecution was reached only at the end of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the modern Turkish Republic when Armenians were killed directly or through starvation and illness while on huge marches in 1895, 1908, and 1909 to 1916 (peaking in 1915).
Between 1909 and 1916, 155 million Armenians died. Similarly, Assyrian Christians faced persecution in 1895, 1933, and then again in the 1970s and 1980s. When all was said and done, 750,000 Assyrians had died. As of today, only four thousand Assyrains and forty thousand Armenians live in Turkey. When Turkey had to give back Smyrna to Greece in 1921, severe programs of persecution against the Greeks in Asia Minor resulted in the deaths of two million Greeks. In 1922, 120,000 Greeks were killed in Smyrna on one day alone. This put an end to a 4,000-year history of Greeks in Asia Minor. The overall percentage of Christians in Turkey also declined from thirty percent prior to World War I to 0.3% today.
2. Persecution by Atheist and Secular Governments
From the French Revolution and other right-wing totalitarian nationalistic governments like Mexico, national socialism in Germany, and some African despots like Idi Amin in Uganda, to left-wing totalitarian governments mainly in communist countries like the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, or Eastern Europe, Christians have been persecuted. Since 1989, the number of communist countries has greatly declined; however, this kind of persecution is still obvious today in China and North Korea, and to a lesser degree in Cuba and Libya.
The war against religion by the French Reign of Terror in the 1700s reached its first peak in 1792 with the killing of two hundred clergy and thirty thousand people having to leave the country. In 1793, the so-called “Dechristianisation” started; churches were closed or destroyed, laws were changed, priests and nuns were forced to marry, and church possessions were plundered. Thousands of priests were deported to Guyana or French prison islands in 1797. The concordate between France and the Vatican reduced the persecution, and Napoleon’s “separation of church and state” ended it in 1805—although Christianity never again played a major role in politics, education, or public life in France.
The greatest persecution of Christians in history took place during the seventy years of the Soviet Union (1917-1989). In 1917, Lenin started his war against the Orthodox and Catholic churches, which led to the deaths of 8,100 clergy in 1922 and a decision in 1928 that the Communists would wipe out any religion.
In Moscow alone, 150 churches were destroyed, three hundred churches were converted for secular purposes, and two hundred Orthodox bishops were killed. During that time and up until 1943, approximately fifteen million Christians died—many of them in persecution not directly aimed at the churches, but against the “Kulaks” or other supposedly “political enemies.” Besides the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic Church, victims of persecution were mainly German, Estian, and Lithuanian Lutherans, Baptists, and Mennonites.
During the war against Germany, restrictions against Christians were lowered; even so, severe persecution went on in the satellite states of Latvia and Ukraine—mainly against those in the Catholic Church. From 1945 to 1956, persecution intensified again throughout all of Communist Europe. Christians were rarely murdered directly, but rather were sent to the “Gulags” and psychiatric clinics. Nikita Khrushchev closed thirteen thousand Russian Orthodox churches and fifty-three cloisters. Only in Hungary and Yugoslavia was there agreement between state and church; in all other countries persecution stayed severe and effective until the 1980s.
Persecution of Christians is often mixed with other economic, political, social, and racial problems. To choose but one example, the heavy persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico under Benito Juarez (1861-1872) and Plutarco Calles (1926-1938), as well as in Spain (1931 and 1936-1939), had a social revolutionary background, as the Catholic Church was the greatest landowner and was seen as the enemy of the poor. But this is only one side of the coin. The other side is the atheistic grounding of the fight against the Church. In Mexico, all bishops had to leave the country, priests were not allowed to be educated, and the education of young people was monopolised by the atheist government. The number of martyrs in Mexico during that period is estimated have been around 5,300. At the same time in Spain, two thousand churches and monasteries were destroyed and six thousand clergy murdered.
3. Reactions to Christian Mission Work and Christianity as a Supposed Western Religion2
Most instances of persecution can be found in Asia, with additional occurrences (but to a lesser extent) in Africa. In Asian history we see persecution of Christians taking place during specific periods of time: Japan (1587-1635; Christianity was forbidden 1635-1854), China (1617, 1665, 1723, 1724, 1736, 1811, 1857, 1900-1901), Korea (1784, 1791, 1801, 1815, 1827, 1839, 1846, 1866, 1881, 1887), and Madagascar (since 1835). Today’s examples in Asia are: China, North Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and certain regions of India. In some Asian countries, like Indonesia and India, severe persecution erupted only recently; however, in other Asian countries it has a long-standing history over centuries.
Persecution of Christians by Christians
There has also been considerable persecution of Christians by other Christians. Christianity is not a homogeneous group, and the different confessions have fought each other often in war, by the criminal system, or through other types of persecution.
In 1179, the Third Lateran Council ordered secular rulers to punish heretics, and in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council gave the same command to the bishops. Pope Gregor IX established the Inquisition in 1231. In the medieval age the Roman Catholic Church or Catholic kings and rulers cruelly suppressed revival movements as well as other movements; it is still debated how much they actually differed from orthodox Christianity (the Cathars, the Albigensians, the Beziers, and others). Also, pre-Reformation movements like the Waldenses or the Hussites were subdued with fire and sword. The Crusades often included war against Eastern Orthodox and Old Oriental churches by Western Christians.
After the Reformation, Catholics fought and persecuted Protestants, especially following the so-called “Counter Reformation” in 1546. On St. Bartholomew's Day 1572, the French king ordered the murder of all Protestants in France. In Spain or Italy it was virtually impossible to live as a Protestant for centuries. At the same time, however, Protestants suppressed Catholics—although often not as cruelly or well-organised (with the exception of the English Reformation, where any act of allegiance to the Pope was considered treason under the Anglican kings and queens).
Both Catholics and Protestants in Europe cruelly suppressed the Anabaptists and similar movements, leading to many adherents later emigrating to America and other countries to find religious freedom. As the idea of religious freedom gained ground among evangelicals in the middle of the nineteenth century (among mainline Protestants after World War I, Catholics after World War II, and Orthodox only recently), persecution of Christians by Christians is gradually fading away and is no longer happening on a large scale today.
Persecution of believers is a central topic and a cruel but omnipresent reality in the Old and New Testament. It is written into the history not only of the Church, but of world history in general. It is a worldwide reality today—spiritually, statistically, and politically. It is time to give it the room in our teaching, thinking, and action that it deserves.
For further reading on the topic of Christian persecution, please see other articles in this issue of Lausanne World Pulse, as well as the bibliography below.
Ball, Ann, et al. 1990. The Persecuted Church in the Late Twentieth Century. Avon, New Jersey, USA: Magnificat Press.
Brother Andrew. 1979. Destined to Suffer? African Christians Face the Future. Orange, California, USA: Open Doors.
Chandler, Andrew, ed. 1998. The Terrible Alternative: Christian Martyrdom in the Twentieth Century. London, New York: Cassell.
“Christenverfolgung.” 1993-2006. Theologische Realenzyklopädie. Vol 8. Berlin: de Gruyter, 23-62.
Colson, Chuck. 1997. “Foreword.” In The Lion's Den: A Shocking Account of Persecution and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond. Nina Shea, ix-xii. Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Broadman & Holman.
Courtois, Stéphane. 1999. The Black Book of Communism. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard University Press.
David, Mohan Devapriya, ed. 1988. Western Colonialism in Asia and Christianity. Bombay: Himalaya Publishing House.
Frizen, Edwin L. and Wade T. Coggins, eds. 1979. Christ and Caesar in Christian Missions. Pasadena, California, USA: William Carey Library.
Gómez, Medardo Ernesto. 1990. Fire against Fire: Christian Ministry Face-to-Face with Persecution. Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: Augsburg Publishers.
Hefley, James C., Marti Hefley, and James Hefley. 1994. By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Book House.
Hian, Chua Wee, Frank Saphir Khair-Ullah, and Subodh Sahu. 1975. “Evangelism in the Hard Places of the World.” In Let the Earth Hear His Voice: International Congress on World Evangelization Lausanne, Switzerland. Ed. J. D. Douglas, 464-473. Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: World Wide Publishers.
Kivengere, Festo. 1977. I Love Idi Amin: The Story or Triumph under Fire in the Midst of Suffering and Persecution in Uganda. London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott.
Lange, Martin and Reinhold Iblacker, eds. 1981. Witnesses of Hope: The Persecution of Christians in Latin America. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books.
Lesbaupin, Ivo. 1987. Blessed Are the Persecuted: The Early Church Under Siege. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books.
Marshall, Paul. 1997. Their Blood Cries Out. Dallas, Texas, USA: Word Publishers.
Ro, Bong Rin, ed. 1989. Christian Suffering in Asia. Taichung, Taiwan: Evangelical Fellowship of Asia.
Schirrmacher, Thomas. 2001. The Persecution of Christians Concerns Us All: Towards a Theology of Martyrdom. Bonn: VKW.
_________. 2007. Hilters Kriegsreligon. 2 vol. Bonn: VKW.
Shea, Nina. 1985. In The Lion's Den: A Shocking Account of Persecution and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond. Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Broadman & Holman: Nashville.
Spaulding, Jonah. 1819. A Summary History of Persecution from the Crucifixion of Our Saviour to the Present Time. Hallowell, Maine, USA: S. K. Gilman.
Wood, Diana, ed. 1993. Martyrs and Martyrologies. Papers read at the 1992 summer meeting and the 1993 winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society. Oxford: B. Blackwell.
Ye’or, Bat. 1996. The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. Madison, New Jersey, USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
1. Shea, Nina. 1997. In the Lion's Den: A Shocking Account of Persecution and Martyrdom of Christians Today. Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Broadman & Holman, xi.
2. We do not include the Islamic countries here.