Persecution of Christians

The persecution of Christians is as old as the Christian Church itself - according to tradition, the apostle John was the only apostle who did not die a martyr's death. Ironically, the Church grew exponentially during times of severe persecution and trauma.

ABOVE: Early Christians waiting to be torn apart by lions in the Colosseum in Rome.

Stephan - the first martyr

As far as can be ascertained, Stephan, a young believer and member of the first congregation in Jerusalem, was the first Christian that was executed because of his faith. In 32 AD he was found guilty of blasphemy by the Jewish Council (religious leaders of the Jews) because he proclaimed that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. He was stoned to death outside the city walls while praising God and praying for his persecutors.
Stephan's death was the start of the full-scale persecution of Christians in Palestine by their fellow Jews. The result was that many believers left Jerusalem to settled in other parts of the Roman Empire. In the process they spread the gospel in areas where it has never before been heard.

Persecution in the Roman Empire

The Age of the Martyrs can be divided into ten "persecutions". Each persecution was launched by one or more of the Roman Emperors.

First Persecution: Nero (64 AD)

The first full-scale persecution of Christians in the non-Jewish world started in 64 AD when a part of Rome was destroyed by a fire. Nero, the Roman Emperor at the time, accused Christians of starting the fire to protect himself against rumours that he was responsible for the fire.

He gave instructions that Christians in Rome must be killed in the most gruesome and unthinkable ways possible. According to reports, some Christians were enswathed in animal skins and torn apart by dogs; others were crucified and burned alive to light up the Emperor's garden. It was also recorded that the apostles Paul and Peter both died martyrs' deaths in Rome. (Peter died in 68 AD when Nero ordered that he be crucified upside down.)

Second Persecution: Domitian (81 AD)

During the regime of Domitian (81-96 AD) the persecution of Christians spread to other parts of the Roman Empire.

ABOVE: Domitian insisted to be worshiped as “Lord and God”.

Domitian was the first Roman Emperor who insisted on being honoured and worshipped as Dominus et Deus (Lord and God). Christians had to choose between denouncing their faith and dying.

According to sources Domitian gave orders that the apostle John be tortured in oil before being banned to the island of Patmos. Simon, the leader of the congregation in Jerusalem, Nicodemus (John 3:1 - 21) a member of the Jewish Council before converting to Christianity, and Timothy (Acts 1:1), one of Paul's co-workers, all died as martyrs during this time.

Third Persecution: Trajan en Hadrian (108 AD en 135 AD)

Trajan, Emperor from 98 to 117 AD, was a brilliant militarist and statesman. During his rule, Christians were not persecuted on a large scale. Persecution did take place when accusations or rumours about the undermining of the state's authority reached the Emperor's ears. Alexander, the bishop of Rome, and other church leaders were among those killed because Trajan feared that they were becoming too powerful.

Trajan was succeeded by his nephew, Hadrian, against whom the Jews, lead by Simon Bar Kochba, revolted in 135 AD. After heavy fighting, the Jewish rebels were crushed by his army. Jews who remained in Palestine were killed, sold as slaves or banned. Although Hadrian generally tolerated the Christians, it was mostly the Jewish Christians who suffered the most during the persecution after the unsuccessful revolt.

Fourth Persecution: Mark Aurelius Anthony (162 AD)

The persecution of Christians, started by Emperor Mark Aurelius Anthony, was characterized by its cruelty. Christians who refused to denounce their beliefs or worship Roman gods were forced to walk barefoot over thorns, nails and sharp shells. Afterwards they were skinned until their muscles and organs were clearly discernable before they were killed.

At the end of Mark's rule some of the northern nations revolted against him and he and his armies had to advance on them. The Imperial army was led into ambush from which they could not escape. After calling on the Roman gods for help without success, a small group of Roman Christian soldiers took it upon themselves to pray to their God for help. The Imperial army was saved by an unexpected rainstorm. Apart from the Christians in Lyon, France, who were still persecuted and killed, the persecution of Christians in most parts of the Roman Empire came to a temporary end.

Fifth Persecution: Severus (192 AD)

Although Emperor Severus tolerated the Christians after a Christian prayed for his healing when he contracted a serious illness, certain laws were passed during his reign that resulted in the renewed persecution of Christians. Followers of the Roman religion considered the Christian Church as a threat to their own religion and used these laws to persecute Christians.

Three bishops of the congregation in Rome - Victor (210 AD), Calistus (224 AD) and Urban (232 AD) - died as martyrs during this time. During Severus' reign the persecution of Christians for the first time spread to congregations in Northern Africa.

Sixth Persecution: Maximin (235 AD)

Maximin was a tyrant who persecuted Christians without mercy. During his reign many Christians were murdered without so much as a hearing and were buried in mass graves.

Church leaders were drowned or tied to wild horses and dragged until they died. Two bishops from the congregation in Rome - Pontian and Anteros - as well as two Roman senators and their families were murdered by Maximin because of their faith.

Seventh Persecution: Decius (249 AD)

During the reigns of Emperors Gordian and Phillip Christians were free from persecution for almost ten years. At the end of the ten years, the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was renewed with vigour when Decius became Emperor.

Many Christians were murdered on the islands of Crete and in the city of Ephesus. At the end of Decius' rule a plague hit the Roman Empire, killing thousands of people. Groups of Christians who refused to worship idols in an attempt to end the plague were killed. Among those killed were two more bishops from the congregation in Rome - Cornelius and Lucius.

Eighth persecution: Valerian (257 AD)

During the three-year reign of Valerian (257-260 AD) thousands of Christians were persecuted and murdered because of their faith. In North Africa, Italy, Greece and Spain, believers were murdered in the cruellest ways imaginable. They were trampled by bulls, fed to lions and tigers, burned and skinned alive, smeared with chalk and beheaded.

ABOVE: Valerian being visited by kings from Persia.

In one instance more than three hundred Christians were burned alive in an oven because they refused to bring offerings to the god Jupiter.
Many church leaders, among them two bishops from Rome - Stephen and Sextus - as well as Cyprian, the bishop from Carthage and Fructiosius, the bishop from Tarragon (Spain), died for their faith during the reign of Valerian.

Ninth persecution: Aurelian and Maximian (274 and 286 AD)

The persecution under the reign of Aurelian was minor in comparison with previous persecutions that took place in the Roman Empire. Felix, the bishop of Rome, became the first martyr under the reign of Aurelian when he was beheaded on 22 December 274 AD.

One of the most amazing accounts of perseverance and courage played itself out in 268 AD after Maximian had succeeded in obtaining power over a part of the Roman Empire two years earlier. He ordered all Roman soldiers to swear an oath of allegiance to the state, undertaking to help them destroy the Christian religion in Gallia.

The members of one legion, comprising some seven thousand men from the city of Thebes (Greece), were Christians and refused to obey this order. Maximian ordered every tenth man to step forward. They were all beheaded. He repeated his order and when the men step forward again, they were also beheaded. The remaining men still refused to obey and the entire legion was beheaded.

Tenth Persecution: Diocletian

The last and possibly the worst persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire started in 303 AD during a Roman holiday - 23 February. Emperor Dioclenian was persuaded by his adopted son, Galerius, to destroy the Christian religion "for once and for all".

Diocletian gave orders that the church in Nicodemia must be stormed, plundered and destroyed. Afterwards he also issued a decree according to which all Christian churches and literature in the Roman Empire must be confiscated and destroyed. This was followed by another decree, which declared Christians outlaws to be arrested on sight.

The result was a tragic genocide. Thousands of Christian men, women and children were arrested and murdered. Houses were torched and entire families perished in the flames. Others had rocks tied around their necks and were forced to jump into the sea to drown.

In Frigia an entire city, mostly inhabited by Christians, was burned to the ground. Aurinus, the bishop of Siscia, as well as Marcellus, the bishop of Rome, and Peter, the sixteenth bishop of Alexandria, were among the thousands who died as martyrs under the reign of Diocletian.

Constantine ends persecution

The persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire came to an end in 306 AD when Constantine became Emperor. In 313 AD he issued the Edict of Milan, according to which the Christian religion was legalised (see "Constantine legalises the Christian Religion"). In 380 AD Theodosius the Great (346-395 AD, the last emperor of the united Roman Empire, declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Persecution by other Christians

Although Christians were persecution by non-Christian groups (for example the followers of old Roman gods, communist governments and Islam extremists), thousands of Christians also died at the hands of other Christians, for example during the Inquisition and the persecution of Protestants during the Reformation (see articles: "The Inquisition" and "The Reformation").

Although the continuing violence in Northern Ireland is considered to be a political conflict, it is in fact a war between two groups of people who both consider themselves Christians. In the process many Protestants as well as Roman Catholics have died during outbreaks of armed conflict.

Persecution today

More than two thousand years since the founding of the Christian Church, Christians are still being persecuted. In fact, Christians are still considered as the most persecuted group amongst the world's other major religions. According to research approximately 150 000 Christians die annually as martyrs because of their faith.

In more than sixty countries across the globe - mostly in countries with communist governments or fundamentalist Islamic governments - Christians are faced daily with persecution. This basically means that approximately 2 million Christians are currently actively persecuted, while an additional 350 million are threatened in one way or the other because of their Christianity.

Persecution can take on many forms, including discrimination in the workplace, rejection by family members, incarceration and even death. It is estimated that more Christians died as martyrs in the 20th century than in the previous two thousand years since the founding of the Church.

Saudi Arabia is considered to be the country where the persecution of Christians is the cruelest. All forms of Christian worship are forbidden (even in foreign embassies) and the conversion to Christianity by Saudi citizens is punishable by death. In other Islamic countries, such as Iran and Afghanistan, it is a crime for Muslims to convert to Christianity.

In the 1940s some 8 000 missionaries were killed in Communist China or deported while ten or even hundreds of thousands of Chinese Christians were detained, tortured and killed in punishment camps. Today members of China's house churches - an expansive "underground" church organisation - are still regularly harassed, arrested and sent to work camps. Notwithstanding these punishments, the Chinese Church is still growing strongly and currently more than 8 000 new converts join the church daily!

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution, more and more incidences of persecution by Muslim extremists against Christians are reported. Christians are attacked and in many instances killed. In Pakistan and India some Muslim extremists consider it their unofficial duty to kill family members because of the "shame" their conversion to Christianity has caused.

Other countries where persecutions are a daily occurrence include Chechnya, Yemen, Northern Korea, the Maldives and Morocco.

Religious wars

Sudan is often cited as the country where Christians are persecuted openly and cruelly. It is often refered to as a “religious war” between Christians and Muslims.

Foreign correspondents regularly reports on the inhuman methods used by the Islamic government against Christian rebels. There are known incidences where entire village have been bombed by fighter planes, Christian prisoners sold as slaves and rebels crucified upside-down and burned alive.

ABOVE: South-Sudanese soldiers.

However, the situation in Sudan differs from that in the other countries already mentioned because the civil war between the Arabian Muslims in the north and the Christians are motivated by political rather than religious differences.

The conflicts in Northern Ireland and in Indonesia is similar to the one in Sudan. Although it has the appearance of a religious “war”, the different parties are in fact fighting a political war. Religion as such has very little to do with the issues at sake.


Article by Manie Bosman

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