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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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