Christian History Persecution

Persecution of Religious Minorities

1 J I Persecution of Religious Minorities (Professor Terence P. Day) Among all the contemporary concerns for world peace and economic co-operation between nations and peoples, one of the most grievous issues is the violation of human rights, particularly of ethnic and religious minorities in lands which have hostile religious majorities. Behind all the conferences, meetings, declarations, and legal enactments on human rights, there is the fundamental philosophical assumption that individuals have rights which ought to be protected by legislation and its practical implementation. Unfortunately, it is evident that many countries which have religious minorities view religious rights and freedoms in partisan ways which usually affect those minorities adversely. On account of them, successive subcommissions of the United Nations on the prevention of religious discrimination and the protection of religious minorities have repeatedly effected international condemnation of specific violations of the religious rights of ethnic and religious minorities brought to the Commission’s attention. Such reprobations and condemnations have implicitly rejected the religious absolutism which justifies the repression of religious minorities and their religious beliefs and practices by branding them as “heretics, apostates, satanic deceivers, and enemies of the faith.” Although the human rights legislation which protects religious minorities is of relatively recent historical vintage, the right to freedom of conscience in religion has been earned during many centuries through the blood-sacrifice of religious martyrs. These representatives of minority religious positions suffered and died on account of their belief in the God-given right and duty to practice and to propogate one’s religious beliefs. Their numerous sacrifices also show, however, that their “right of conscience” has rarely been fully recognized and generally protected. Instead, their right has often been painfully repudiated and its retribution painfully enacted. The canvas of history shows that the three “absolutist” religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have the heaviest individual records of persecution of religious minorities. It could be admitted that, among these, Judaism has the least to answer for because it has been more victimised 36 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS against than the victimiser. Nevertheless, the historic tradition of Judaism shows that from the time of ancient Israel, the nature-religion of Israel’s pagan Canaanite neighbours was subjected to repeated and constant Israelite repression and opposition. The persecution and subjugation of non- Yahwistic neighbours continued under King David and the Israelite monarchy. The forceable conversion of non-Jews to Judaism was effected in the priestly kingdom of Judah during the Hellenistic period of the second and first centuries before Christ. On the other hand, throughout the ages, the Jews have been savagely persecuted on account of their ethnic and religious identity at least from the second century before Christ. Moreover, in medieval Christian Europe were forged the instruments and the patterns of torture, forced conversion from Judaism, humiliating governmental legislation, and the ghettoes of Jewish incarceration which culminated in the twentieth-century in the genocidal attrocities and wholesale sacrificial destruction of the Jews during the Nazi Holocaust of World War 11. Christianity itself, which began its career as a sect of Judaism was baptized in the blood of Jewish and pagan Roman persecution during the opening three centuries of its history. This Christian minority sect suffered the outrage of at least twenty general persecutions under successive Roman emperors during the closing centuries of a decadent, sick, and dying pagan imperial power. But, no sooner had this Christianity become “the religion of the Roman empire,” it too became a persecuting power and force of terror for the lives and the religion of ethnic and religious minorities present in the regions of its political and ecclesiastical sovereignty. This absolutist religion likewise rationalized its persecuting zeal by branding those minorities as “Jews, infidels, Turks, and heretics.” Particularly in the pre-Reformation period of medieval Christianity, the persecutions of Christian minorities decimated such Christian minority sects as the Lollards, the Hussites, the Cathari (Albigenses), and the Waldenses. These were popular religious movements whose leaders idealistically exposed to view the corruptions, the heresies, and the moral deviances, of the clergy and the Catholic Church. In turn, the Church typically branded these sectarian groups as heretics, and by laying against them charges of the grossest immorality, the Church also religiously rationalised and authorised the genocidal repression of those groups. In the post-Reformation period of West-European Christianity, the scourge of religious persecution decimated the Mennonites, the Ana baptists, and the French-Protestant Hugenots who were annihilated on St. Bartholomew’s night of August, 1572. The bloodbath of Catholic and Protestant martyrdom during this period is too large to recount at this time. But, it sickened the conscience of European Christians after some time and ; if I I ; , I I PERSECUTION OF RELIGIOUS MINORITIES 37 the tolerance of Christianity today toward its manifold sectarian differences can largely be attributed to the lessons learned through the struggles of freedom of conscience in religion which ushered in the Reformation. In the Islamic world of ancient, medieval, and modern times, the rights and privileges of religious minorities turned upon the rising and declining fortunes of the Islamic world order. During the earlier centuries of the expansion of Arabian Islam and during the later centuries of the growth of the Turkish Islamic empire, Old Catholic, Coptic, Nestorian, Jacobite, and Armenian Christian minorities suffered the repressions of persecution in the form of forced conversions to Islam, deprivations of rights and properties, and the denial of their religious freedoms particularly by zealous and ruthless Muslim rulers. In the Islamic world of today, that is, wherever there are large Muslim majorities, there is a tidal-wave of persecution of religious minorities. This is partly due to the absolutism of Islam itself whose faith in the One God and His Prophet can have no compromises and accommodations with deviations having the appearance of heresy, impure zeal, and disbelief. In the Middle East, the terror of persecution by Muslims has been experienced by such Christian minorities as the Maronite Roman Catholics of Lebanon who were massacred by the Druzes in 1860, and by the Christians of the Coptic Church in Egypt under the impact of Arab Islam. Turkish Muslims are being made presently answerable for the massive genocides of Armenian Christians in 1895 and 1915, and are remembered for their dispossession from North Cyprus of thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians. In modern times, and outside of the Middle Eastern region of Islamic predominance, the Christians of Southern Sudan have suffered decades of decimating persecution from northern Islamic Sudan in a civil conflict which the Western news-media have largely ignored. Elsewhere, Christian minorities are subjected to restrictions on the religious liberties and freedom of conscience in religion in the Islamic-majority countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Colonel Kadhafi of Libya is reported as declaring recently that no “non-Muslim” can have the right to live in the Middle East. If these “infidels” will not convert to Islam, then they must leave the territory of Islam or else be eliminated. Yet, not only non-Muslim minorities, but Muslim minorities also are experiencing today the terrors of genocidal suppression and religious persecution. Jean Pellerin drew attention in an article dated July/ August 1985 to the persistent rivalries between the Sunni’ite majority and Shi’ite minorities both in the ancient and the contemporary Islamic worlds. In Iran today, the mountain-dwelling Kurds and the urbane and sophisticated Baha’is are undergoing the fiery trials and tribulations of genocidal persecutions. In Syria recently, President Asad supported an alawite minority by exterminating 10,000 Syrian Sunni’ite muslims, and thereby created a scandal throughout the Islamic world. 38 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS In this connection, Pellerin admits that it is more unfortunate to belong to Muslim minority in the Islamic world today than to belong to a non-Muslim religious group. For there can be no greater terror than to be condemned as an “heretical” or as an “apostate” sect by a Muslim majority; for this is sufficient to place the minority in the front line of destruction in the “holy war” of the Islamic “jihad” against the enemies of Islam. On the other hand, the present plight of the Muslim minorities does not mean that Islam itself is a persecuting power. For many centuries following the dramatic creation of the Islamic world-imperial power, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians enjoyed freedom of conscience in religion and also the dignity of being respected by Muslim rulers and leaders as “people of the Book”. Only from the thirteenth-century following the destruction of the capital city of Baghdad and the violent partition and fragmentation of the Islamic empire did the negative forces of the persecution of non-Muslim religious minorities start to break out. This fact illustrates a consistent feature of religious persecution itself. The history of world religions shows that such persecutions have always reached “tidal-wave” proportions during the historic turning-points of cataclysmic or catastrophic political, social, and cultural change. The twenty imperially supported general persecutions of the early Christians by successive pagan Roman emperors coincided with the violent disruption, decline, and fall of the pagan Roman empire. The persecution of Christian minorities by the medieval Catholic church coincided with the enormous upheavals of foreign invasion, civil war, internal strife and unrest which brought the medieval Church to the brink of a spiritual and economic breaking-point. It now happens to be the case that the greatest social and political upheavals of our time are occuring in the Middle East, that is, in the region of the contemporary world which has significantly large Muslim majorities. The humiliations of non-Islamic colonialism in the region, and the aspirations for national independence and the recovery of a real Islamic social identity and integrity, have quickened the vitality and fervour of Islam at the time of a massive disruption of traditional religious and cultural values throughout the modern world. The radical moral and spiritual reorientations introduced by twentieth-century modernity and the technological revolution have impacted heavily upon the world in which the universal brotherhood of Islam came closest to historic fulfilment. The catastrophic changes which swept over the Muslim community in India and led to the formation of the nation of Pakistan, also engulfed the rest of the contemporary Islamic world. In the face of these disruptive conditions, Muslims are acutely sensitive to the threats and dangers surrounding the recovery of an authentic Islamic individual and social identity and withstanding the debilitating influences of the Western world’s anti-Islamic hedonistic and secular outlook and culture. In this situation, there is little tolerance for Muslim minorities caught between the tensions of the traditionalists who would restore the pristine I t i l PERSECUTION OF RELIGIOUS MINORITIES 39 Islam and shut out the Western world and the modernists who would reform Islam in twentieth-century Western-European terms. These in-between Muslim minorities are the first target in the Islamic struggle for its historic identity and integrity. Marshall G. Hodgeson, the most renowned of Western historians of Islam, has recognised within the stresses and conflicts within the Islamic world the aspiration toward an urgently needed larger vision of the character and world-mission of Islam. At the present time, the Islamic world has every cause to be sure of itself and confident of its world-mission. But, there is need for more stable and magnanimous expressions of this victorious emancipation particularly in regard to the Christian and the Muslim religious minorities in its midst. The world-cause of Islam is not well served by its oppression and persecution of religious minorities, but rather by the magnitude of its generosity toward the wards that are in its care. For, the duty to practice, to propogate, and to defend Islam implies also the right of Muslims to follow it according to their conscience, and the right of non-muslims to differ from it without disrespect to Islam, and not least, the obligation of Muslim powers and authorities to uphold the religious rights of others as well as of themselves. In the meantime, the present plight of persecuted religious minorities indicates that the technological sophistications of our present world-order are not yet matched by corresponding moral and spiritual sophistications serving a truly “universal” world-community of humankind in which the rights and liberties of religious minorities are legally protected and constitutionally safeguarded. References Jean Pellerin, “Moyen-Orient: minorities en danger”, ]onathan, Sommaire, No. 28, Juilletl Aout, 1985, pp. 8-10. Marshall G. S. Hodgeson, The Venture of Islam, Vol. 3, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.