The Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on Friday raises troubling questions about the future of religious freedom in the United States. Most ominously, Justice Kennedy writing for the court seemed to circumscribe the freedom of religion as no longer the exercise of one’s faith, but merely the profession of it. All four of the dissenting justices wrote vehemently about the danger that this decision presents to the entire project of ordered liberty. Meanwhile, progressive organizations have made it clear that religious freedom is their next target now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land.
Still, as we enter into this brave new world, it is worth keeping some perspective. There is not a corner of the earth which has not been soaked in the blood of Christian martyrs and yet we are still here. Indeed, today we observe the memory of the First Martyrs of Rome and they were certainly not the last. What follows is a summary of the most notable persecutions of the past two millennia, all of which have failed to stop the followers of Christ from carrying out His great commission to, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
1. Jewish Kings – 1st Century
Like Christ Himself, St. Stephen Protomartyr and St. James the Greater were among the many apostles who were met with hostility and eventually executed for preaching the Gospel to the Jewish people. The earliest Christians were not accepted by the Jewish orthodoxy of their time and were severely punished to the point of death for what was considered blasphemy.
2. Roman Empire – 1st through 4th Centuries
As Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean, Roman emperors saw the new religion as incompatible with their traditional pagan practices. Roman society reveled in their bloodthirsty lust for violence, but Emperors Nero and Diocletian were especially perverted and cruel towards the Christian faithful and there are tens of thousands of martyrs from this period.
3. Visigoths and Vandals – 4th and 5th Centuries
The early Goths were converted to Arianism, which held that Jesus was a created being separate and subordinate to the Godhead. In the contest between Arians and the Catholic faith, many clergy were slaughtered and churches ransacked by the Arian Goths. Later, another Arian Germanic tribe, the Vandals, would sack Rome and plunder its Trinitarian Catholic churches and the clergy were exiled from Vandal territories.
4. Persian Empire – 4th and 7th centuries
The treatment of Christians depended wholly on the whims of the emperor at the time. In particular, Emperor Shapur II ordered the slaughter of Assyrian Christians in 341. Later, in the conflict between Persia and Rome in the year 614, the siege of Jerusalem resulted in tens of thousands of Christians being killed and the remaining survivors were deported.
5. Byzantine Iconoclasm – 8th and 9th Centuries
Perhaps due to the presence of large numbers of Muslims in the eastern reaches of the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Emperors and religious leaders increasingly supported the destruction of religious images. During the first of two main periods of iconoclasm in 730-787, many clergy and faithful were tortured and put to death for defending sacred icons from destruction. Veneration of icons was finally restored in 843, but by then the crisis had opened divisions between the Eastern and Western Church which have still yet to be healed.
6. Vikings – 8th through 11th Centuries
The pagan Vikings exploited the weak and decentralized state of continental Europe during the Carolingian period to carry out raids on the Christian population. Coastal monasteries were especially vulnerable to Viking attacks and many monks were killed and their libraries set on fire. The attacks would not end until the Vikings were ultimately converted to Christianity.
7. Islamic Caliphate – 8th through 19th Centuries
Under sharia, Christians were technically allowed to practice their faith, but they were heavily taxed and enjoyed few rights in Muslim society. Despite this de jure tolerance, in fact many massacres took place and Christians were often abducted and forced into military service or slavery. Muslim raids of Christian villages would not come to a complete end until the Barbary Wars of the early 1800’s.
8. Penal Laws – 17th through 20th Centuries
The conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the Reformation were bitter and deadly, but the repression of Irish Catholics was especially malicious. At the worst, priests or anyone who helped hide them were hanged as traitors, and although such overt persecutions stopped in later years, the anti-Catholic restrictions on trade and ownership of property ultimately led to the great famine of 1845-1852 which reduced the population of Ireland by 20-25% through death and emigration.
9. Chinese Missionaries – 18th through 20th Centuries
In initial contacts with the West, Chinese scholars showed interest in Christianity and the work of Jesuit missionaries did much to foster mutual understanding and the exchange of ideas between cultures. However, when Pope Clement XI prohibited Catholic converts from veneration of Confucius, the Chinese Emperor responded by outlawing Christianity. Later Emperors would add further restrictions which made evangelization punishable by death. Later, during the Boxer Rebellion in 1899-1901 and the Tibetan Rebellion of 1905, many Catholics were murdered by the rebels.
10. Japanese Martyrs – 17th Century
Although receptive to Portuguese emissaries in the 16th century, after the ascension of Tokugawa in 1600, Christianity was banned and almost all contact with European powers was cut off for more than 200 years. Japanese converts who remained faithful mounted a rebellion in 1637 which was ruthlessly crushed. Tens of thousands of martyrs were beheaded and their base of operation, the Hara Castle in what is now Nagasaki, was burned to the ground. From that time, surviving Christians practiced their faith in absolute secrecy until it was legalized in 1890.
11. Indian Muslims – 18th Century
In southern India, Muslim Tipu Sultan captured tens of thousands of Christians and forcibly converted them to Islam beginning in 1780-1784. After the fall of the British fort at Mangalore in 1784, thousands of non-British Christians were killed, all property of Christians was confiscated, and the churches were razed. Anyone caught trying to escape was physically mutilated. The surviving captives were not freed until 1799 when the Sultan was killed in a British raid.
12. French Revolution – 18th and 19th Centuries
Unlike previous persecutions which were primarily conflicts between Christianity and other religions or heretical sects, the French Revolution marked the first deliberate ideological effort by a government to completely erase all religion from society. The scale of the carnage was staggering, especially in the counter-revolt of the Vendée. By the time the persecution of Christians ended with Napoleon’s Concordat of 1801, hundreds of thousands of Catholics had been massacred, thousands of priests executed, and churches throughout France were desecrated or destroyed.
13. Nativist Riots – 19th Century
Anti-Catholic mobs sporadically attacked the homes of Irish Catholics in the 1820’s and ‘30’s and the animosity erupted in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834 and in Philadelphia in 1844. In both events, Catholic churches were destroyed and many Catholics were killed. In 1854, work was halted on the Washington Monument after anti-Catholic “Know-Nothings” destroyed a commemorative stone that had been contributed by Pope Pius IX and were subsequently unable to obtain any funding. Work would not resume until 1879 when Congress raised funds for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take over construction.
14. Armenian Genocide – 19th and 20th Centuries
In 1894, Sultan Abdul Hamid II massacred Assyrian and Armenian Christians during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire in an effort to rally Islamic feeling. Another massacre of Armenians was ordered during the counter-coup of 1909. Then, in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, the nationalist Young Turks government ordered the deportation of more than 2.5 million Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians, most of whom perished from exposure and starvation on forced death marches into the Syrian Desert.
15. Cristero War – 20th Century
After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the socialist Mexican government adopted policies aimed at elimination of the influence of the Catholic Church. To achieve this, Church property was confiscated, clergy were disenfranchised and their activities heavily restricted, and religious orders were outlawed. Catholic faithful responded initially with peaceful protests, but escalated in violence in 1926 when government soldiers seeking to enforce the anticlerical laws stormed a parish in Guadalajara, killing the priest. This resulted in a mass uprising which claimed the lives of 30,000 Cristeros before it ended in 1929 when the government stopped enforcing the anticlerical laws and church bells rang again for the first time in three years.
16. Soviet Union – 20th Century
After the Bolsheviks seized power, they promoted atheism as the official state religion and destroyed tens of thousands of Orthodox churches. Members of the clergy were murdered, tortured, or sent to mental institutions or prision camps. Over 100,000 priests were arrested and the death toll of Orthodox faithful murdered in the de-Christianization campaign is estimated at over 500,000.
17. Spanish Civil War- 20th Century
The far-left Republican faction came to power in Spain in 1931 and sought to eliminate the power of the Catholic Church. Pro-Catholic factions loyal to the monarchy resisted these policies which resulted in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. Prior to and during the war, thousands of priests were murdered by the leftists and the destruction of churches was widespread, with 50 churches being gutted and burned on the night of July 19, 1936 alone. In Republican-held Barcelona, only one of the 58 churches was spared from desecration and destruction.
18. Nazi Germany – 20th Century
In addition to the Jewish Holocaust, the Nazis sought to suppress the Catholic and Lutheran churches. A few bishops spoke out against the Nazi murders of the mentally and physically disabled which prefigured the Holocaust itself and managed to survive under house arrest, but after the war began, thousands of German and Polish Catholic clergy and religious were sent to the concentration camps including Saints Maximilian Kolbe and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross who were both killed at Auschwitz. At Dachau, 2,600 Catholic priests were executed, many by forced starvation.
19. Communist China – 20th and 21st Centuries
The People’s Republic of China official policy only allows state-sanctioned churches to operate where their activities are closely monitored and their leaders are selected by and loyal to the government. Despite this, independent churches have sprung up in recent decades, but the current government is cracking down on these congregations, arresting their leaders and seizing their meeting places which are typically private homes.
20. North Korea- 20th and 21st Centuries
The North Korean government is the most oppressive totalitarian regime in the world today, so it is impossible to know for sure how many people are imprisoned in reeducation, labor, and death camps there. However, it is certain that thousands upon thousands of Christians are among their number. As an American tourist discovered when he left a Bible in a bathroom, the North Korean regime does not tolerate any form of religion whatsoever except for the official state cult of personality and he was imprisoned for six months before being released, but he was lucky; North Koreans would be punished with death for the same crime.
21. Communist Cuba – 20th and 21st Centuries
Although Fidel Castro enacted restrictions on religious activities when he came to power in 1959, his efforts have not been very successful and 60% of the people remain faithful to the Catholic Church. The Catholic clergy have advocated for the release of political prisoners and the Ladies in White who walk in silent protest through the streets of Havana after Mass have been attacked and beaten by supporters of the Communist Party and many of them have been arrested in periodic crackdowns by the government, which continue to this day.
22. Islamic Extremists – 20th and 21st Centuries
Across the globe, Islamic terrorists have seized territory where they have consolidated power and are able to launch attacks against Christians and other Muslims who do not share their murderous ideology. The modern-day Caliphate claims parts of Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as their own where the only law is sharia and conversion is by the sword. Every day, more Christians are slaughtered for their faith and the black flag of jihad is raised above churches, but through it all the resolve of the Christians who have inhabited these places for centuries is unshaken.
23. Secularism – 18th through 21st Centuries
Beginning with the Enlightenment, increasing numbers of people have turned away from the Christian faith, especially in recent decades, to pursue the seductive empty promises of the individualist and atheist path to personal fulfillment. In some parts of Europe, Christians could soon be a minority for the first time in more than a thousand years. Even though this seems like a bleak state of affairs, a new generation of young and holy priests is rising up to keep the faith alive, no matter how dark the world becomes.
From this, the lesson of history is clear; persecutions have come and gone before and will undoubtedly continue until the end of time, but the Universal Church remains. Our God is the Alpha and the Omega. What He has created, no man can destroy. As St. Paul wrote in the Second Epistle to Timothy as he drew near his martyrdom, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith,” and likewise, that is all we can hope to do now.