“Father forgive them”

“FROM ABEL TO THE END OF TIMES, the people of God will always suffer persecution on their journey through time,” Augustine once said. And Jesus forewarned his followers: “Your lot won’t be any better than that of your master” (Matt. 10:25). 

Persecution of Christians tends to make the headlines only when it is violent and systematic and when governments perpetrate it. But the reality is more complex. On the human level, persecution comes from worldviews competing for influence, ruling powers feeling threatened by people who hold to a higher power, human greed and envy, and the threat of something new and strange. Not all persecution tries to smash the church violently (see “Start seeing persecution,” pp. 33–37).

Persecution of Christians is not restricted to the early church, nor to places far away. Church statistician David Barrett defined martyrs as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.” He estimated that around 70,000,000 Christians have been martyred since the church began. Severe episodes of martyrdom are found throughout church history, but there has been an increase in such incidents and in the number of Christians killed since 1900. Christian missionary work has been seen as a foreign intrusion and Christians regarded as a fifth column of the West (undermining societies from within) or accused of being agents of the CIA. 

 It is not always easy to distinguish between victims of war or upheaval and those killed because of their faith. Many not killed primarily from religious motives have become victims due to their Christian identity or behavior inspired by Christian ethics—such as protecting other civilians from rape and harm. Groups fighting Christian missionary work, Islamic rulers, and totalitarian secular states have committed most modern persecution. And, regrettably, Christians have sometimes persecuted other Christians. 

How eastern Christians died

From the founding of Islam in the early 600s and the expansion of the early Muslim empires, through the long dominance of the Ottoman Empire (1300–1922), Christians were often captured, killed, made slaves, or suppressed. Constantinople was conquered and destroyed by the Ottomans in 1453. The Ottomans took over large areas of the Byzantine Empire—and its Orthodox churches, even converting Orthodoxy’s “mother church,” Hagia Sophia, to a mosque. They removed everything from bells to altars and plastered over ancient Christian mosaics. 

Islamic armies also conquered Old Oriental churches, including Copts in Egypt and Christians in Syria. Christians under Ottoman rule were always second-class citizens. Some sultans relied on severe and cruel persecution, some used subtle pressure through extra taxes, and some restricted access to education. 

A steady stream of Orthodox Christians were killed from the time Constantinople fell; their stories abound. One, Patriarch Gregory V, was removed from his cathedral by Ottoman soldiers in 1821 after the Easter service and hanged for three days from the main gate of his house in his vestments. 

The bloody suppression of the Bulgars, an ethnic group within the Ottoman Empire, included the killing of over 110,000 Orthodox. But peak persecution actually came in the early twentieth century with the beginning of the modern Turkish Republic. Massacres cost the lives of over 900,000 Armenians (many Christian); 600,000 more were deported, many dying of starvation or illness by the roadside or in the Syrian desert. The percentage of Christians in Turkey decreased from 30 percent before World War I to a third of 1 percent by the twenty-first century.

The Ottoman Empire also killed over 750,000 Assyrian and Maronite (Lebanese) Christians. Only about 1,000 Assyrian Christians were left by the twenty-first century in their homeland. 

After the Greco-Turkish war (1919–1921) and resulting population exchange between Greece and Turkey, rulers launched severe pogroms against Greeks in Asia Minor. In 1922, 120,000 Greeks were killed in Smyrna on one day alone, putting an end to 4,000 years of Greeks in Asia Minor. Two thousand years of that history were Christian. Smyrna is mentioned in the book of Revelation—ironically, as a church that would suffer persecution (Rev. 2:10).

Islamic militance was also a force in Africa, especially after the decline of Communism in 1989 (see “Hard pressed but not crushed,” pp. 42–44). For example, a civil war in Sudan that started in 1963 led to the killing of 600,000 Sudanese Christians and 64 missionaries at the hands of government-backed forces. A newspaper at the time reported, “Some one hundred missionaries—Italian, American, British and Australian—were expelled from the southern Sudan without any given reason during the last two months. They were told they were ‘just unnecessary.’”

In the twenty-first century, Islamic persecution was harshest in Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and northern Nigeria, and to a much lesser extent in secularized countries with a large Muslim contingent: Egypt, Indonesia, Tunisia, and Turkey. 

Liberty, equality, fraternity?

Ever since the French Revolution, totalitarian nationalistic governments have existed somewhere in the world; right-wing ones in such countries as Mexico, Germany, and Uganda, and left-wing ones mainly in Communist countries (the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe). Both extremes have been hostile to Christianity.

The French Revolution began in 1789 with the rallying cry “liberty, equality, fraternity,” but many of the Revolution’s leaders soon felt the church stood in the way of those goals. In 1792 French leaders executed 200 Catholic clergy and forced 30,000 more to leave

the country.

“Dechristianization” started in 1793.Churches were closed or destroyed, priests and nuns forced to marry, and church possessions plundered. The goddess “Reason” was even enthroned in Notre Dame Cathedral in November 1793. 

Among French martyrs were nuns from a Carmelite convent at Compiègne condemned to death as traitors in July 1794. As they mounted the scaffold, they renewed their monastic vows and began singing “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come Holy Spirit”), the hymn sung when they first made those vows. They were singing as they died. 

In 1797 thousands of priests were deported to Guyana or to French prison islands. A concordat between France and the Vatican reduced the persecution, and the separation of church and state by Napoleon in 1805 ended it, but Christianity never again played a major role in politics, education, or public life in France. 

“When you win your crown”

Karl Marx (1818–1883), Communism’s founding father, famously wrote that religion is the “opiate of the masses” and that “Communism begins where atheism begins.” The state was to be the only object of devotion. 

In 1917, when the Russian monarchy collapsed, Vladimir Lenin came to power. Lenin shared Marx’s dislike of Christianity, writing once in a letter, “Any religious idea, any idea of any God at all, any flirtation even with a God is the most inexpressible foulness.” From 1921 to 1950, 15,000,000 Russian Orthodox Christians died in prison camps, many in persecutions ostensibly aimed at “political enemies.” 

In 1928, for example, Communist secret police arrested and tortured young Orthodox laywoman Lydia. Her father told her, “See, daughter, when you win your crown, that you tell the Lord that although I myself proved too weak for battle, still I did not restrain you, but blessed you.”

The Soviets began to liquidate the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, costing the lives of 1,200,000. Persecution hit the “underground church” as well: 1,000,000 evangelicals and Pentecostals may have lost their lives. Among the persecuted were German, Estonian, and Lithuanian Lutherans, Baptists, and Mennonites. 

In 1948 the Ministry for State Security attacked the “True Orthodox Church,” a group that had split in the 1920s from the official Orthodox Church, protesting state control of the official church. Of its 2,000,000 underground Russians, half a million died. 

Before World War II in Ukraine, 200,000 Ukrainian Orthodox believers lost their lives in one single year (1927), including 34 bishops and 2,000 priests. In many cases their tormentors crucified them on iconostases (the wooden screens in Orthodox churches which display icons). Eventually 95 percent of Orthodox parishes were destroyed.

After the war persecution intensified in Communist Europe. Christians were rarely murdered directly but were often sent to gulags (forced labor camps) and psychiatric clinics. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, famous Russian author who suffered in one gulag, said in an interview, “Communist propaganda would sometimes include statements such as ‘we include almost all the commandments of the Gospel in our ideology.’ The difference is that the Gospel asks all this to be achieved through love, through self-limitation, but socialism only uses coercion.” 

Branded with a “p”

Only in Hungary and Yugoslavia was there some agreement between state and church; in other Eastern European countries, persecution remained severe and effective until the 1980s. In the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), many Christians died at Soviet hands through deportation, although a number were shot or killed in prison. In Lithuania 100,000 were among those killed by Nazis and later by Soviets.

In Yugoslavia first Nazis and then the civil war of the 1990s killed an estimated 100,000 Roman Catholic clergy and laity; 350,000 Serbian Orthodox were massacred by the Croatian state. Serbs were forbidden to use their (Cyrillic) alphabet and were made to wear the letter “P” to indicate they were Pravoslavac (“Orthodox”).

A 1999 proclamation venerating a group of Belorussian bishops, priests, and deacons as Orthodox martyrs exclaimed, “Verily God is glorified in his saints! Just as in the first centuries after the birth of Christ the church glorified the feats of martyrs and their blood was the seed of Christianity . . . so in the current second millennium, tribulations sent by the Lord to our Holy church have revealed to the world new martyrs in our fatherland.” 

Forgiving his enemies

Persecution of Christians often accompanied broader economic, political, social, and racial issues. Sometimes the church’s position of power made it a target of political and economic unrest. For instance, the Catholic Church held most of the land in Mexico and Spain. Heavy persecution in Mexico in the late 1800s and the 1930s, as well as in Spain in the 1930s, had a social revolutionary background; persecutors wanted to gain land. 

In Mexico all bishops had to leave the country, no education of priests was allowed, and the government monopolized all education of young people. In Spain 2,000 churches and monasteries were destroyed, and 107,000 Christians were executed or assassinated.

Fr. Miguel Pro, priest of an underground church, was one Mexican martyr. Condemned to execution without trial, he allegedly faced his executioners proclaiming, “May God have mercy on you! May God bless you! Lord, Thou knowest that I am innocent! With all my heart I forgive my enemies!” 

Nazism, like Communism, saw itself as an ideology to replace Christianity. Persecution of the Confessing Church (Protestant) and of Catholics in Germany from 1933 to 1945 cost the lives of 125,000 Christians, including famous missiologist Joseph Schmidlin and Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the latter executed for his connection to a plot to kill Hitler. 

While in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote: “Lord Jesus Christ, You were poor and in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am. You know all man’s troubles; you abide with me when all men fail me; you remember and seek me; It is your will that I should know you and turn to you. Lord, I hear your call and follow; Help me.”

During the Holocaust 5,000,000 Jews and 1,000,000 Christians died in concentration camps. Among them was Jewish convert to Christianity Edith Stein, who wrote after her conversion, “O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage and strength to serve You. Enkindle Your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me. I do not see very far ahead, but when I have arrived where the horizon now closes down, a new prospect will open before me, and I shall meet it with peace.” 

“May God be magnified”

The Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the twentieth century targeted both foreigners and Christians (see “Stubborn saint,” pp. 21–24). In the twentieth century, 200,000 Christians were martyred in China in civil wars or by bandits and guerillas. Missionaries John and Betty Stam were famously taken from their home in 1934 along with their three-month-old daughter, Helen, and led down the street clothed only in their underwear.

During their captivity John got a letter off to his mission board: “My wife, baby and myself are today in the hands of communist bandits. Whether we will be released or not no one knows. May God be magnified in our bodies, whether by life or by death. Philippians 1:20.” The couple was murdered in the night; baby Helen, hidden in a pile of bedding, was rescued by Chinese pastor Lo Ke-chou.

From 1950 to 1980, Chinese leaders attempted to liquidate churches in the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Nearly 700,000 Christian workers, pastors, priests, and laypeople died, churches were razed, and believers imprisoned. 

In the Korean War (1950–1954), Communist troops massacred 150 Catholic priests and 500 Protestant pastors, and since 1950 hundreds of thousands of laypeople have been killed. By the twenty-first century, North Korea had outdone any other persecutor of Christians in cruelty and intensity. Countless Christians died in prison and labor camps, and an estimated 200,000 still languished there in the early twenty-first century (see “The Jerusalem of the East,” pp. 47–49). 

The violence of love

When Ethiopia was conquered by Italian forces in 1937, 500,000 Ethiopian Orthodox believers lost their lives, scores of priests and monks were massacred, and churches were razed. Orthodox bishops Petros and Mikael were murdered by being pushed out of an aircraft.

Under the seven-year terror of Idi Amin in Uganda (1971–1978), 300,000 Christians were killed, including many Anglican and Catholic clergy. The most prominent victim was Anglican archbishop Janani Luwum. Bishop Festo Kivengere, often called the “Billy Graham of Africa,” had to flee (see “Did you know?,” inside front cover). In his widely read book I Love Idi Amin, he told of evangelizing soldiers as they assassinated Christians: “On the cross, Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.’ As evil as Idi Amin was, how can I do less toward him?”

In Colombia the civil war called “La Violenza” (1948–1958) killed 300,000, mainly Protestant evangelicals. In the decades following, over 300,000 Christian radicals inspired by liberation theology and fighting against exploitation of peasants and the poor were killed by troops in various Latin American countries. Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered in El Salvador, became the symbolic figure representing them. In his book The Violence of Love, he wrote, “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross.”

Christian vs. Christian

Christians are not a homogeneous group, and different confessions often fought each other. In 1179 the Third Lateran Council ordered secular rulers to punish heretics, and in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council commanded bishops to do so as well. Medieval church hierarchy suppressed various revival movements with fire and sword: Cathars, Albigensians, Beguines, Waldenses, and Hussites. The Crusades often included war against Eastern Orthodox and Old Oriental churches by Western Christians.

After the Reformation Catholics persecuted Protestants in the Counter-Reformation (1540s–1640s). On St. Bartholomew’s Day 1572, the French king ordered the murder of all Protestants in France. In Spain and Italy, it was virtually impossible to live as a Protestant for centuries. 

At the same time, Protestants suppressed Catholics—especially in England, where after Catholic queen Mary I died, an act of allegiance to the pope was considered treason under Anglican kings and queens, punishable by death. Both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists. The favorite way to murder Anabaptists was to drown them, mocking their belief in adult baptism. 

Persecution of Christians by Christians has faded in the modern era, but Rwanda’s 1994 civil war provides one example. After the exiled Tutsi tribe tried to wrest power from the ruling Hutus, extremist Hutus massacred Tutsis and moderate Hutus—among them 520,000 Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and evangelicals. Terribly, Christians turned against other Christians, even in their own churches.

These staggering numbers and inspiring stories both tell the world that, from a Christian standpoint, persecution is to be expected at all times and everywhere. It can to some degree be interpreted through human causes, but Christians see an additional dimension. That dimension may begin in terror, but it ends at the foot of the cross. CH 

Christof Sauer and Thomas Schirrmacher are codirectors of the International Institute for Religious Freedom.

By Christof Sauer and Thomas Schirrmacher

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #109 in 2014]

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