Acts of Religious Intolerance

Figure 1.--Tragically, religious intolerance is not a historucal matter, it is very much allive in our modern world. This has generally involved attacks by one religious group on minority religious groups. Here we see Muslim mobs torched the Christian neighbourhood known as Joseph Colony in Lahore, Pakistan (March 9, 2013). A new phenomenon appeared in the 20th century. The great totalitarian powers (Communists and Fascists) launched atheist campaigns assaulting all relgions. This was the case because of the nature of totalitarianism which requires monopolization of values and expression. Photo source: Irfan Ahmed/IPSA.

There have overtime been many notable incidents of religious intollerance. They have been conducted by both religious groups as well as state authorities. The first major incident was the policy of anti-Semtism adopted by the Catholic Church. Islam has neen gernerally more tollerant thab Christians, although there have been noted acts of intolerance beginning with attacks on Jewish tribes led by Mohammed himself. In the modern era, Islam has becone increasingly more repressive. A major act of intolerance in the medieval era was the suppression of the Cathars (13th century). This led to the creation ofvthe Holy Office of the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition is the best known, but the Inquisition offered in other countries as well. Another act was the Spanish expulsion of the Jews (1492) and subsequent expullsion of the Moors. The Revocation of the Edict Nantes was one of the several notable acts of religious intolerance.The English in cotrast persecuted the Catholics. The Japanese suppression of Christians is another example, Russian pogroms against Jews drove large numbers of Jews into Western Europe and America. The French Catholic campaign against the Huguenots is similar to the NAZI campaign against its Jewish citizens--only worse because the Hugenots were a much larger portion of the French population. In modern times, the Soviet aehism campaign is another exampe. The one recurrent thread through these different acts of religious intollerance besides the tragedy for the people targetted was how the country which expelled them was adversely affected. Perhaps the ultimate example here was the NAZI persecution of the Jews. The Jewish refugees played a major role building the atomic bomb. Ahd had the NAZIs not surrendered (May 1945), could have been used on Germany rather than Japan.

Religious Supression of Other Religions

Roman Empire

The Roman Empire because of the attempts to supress Christianity is often seen as intolerant. Actually the opposdite is true. The Romans were very tolerant in the lands they conquered. Subject people were free to continue worshiping their historic gods as long ascthey performed their civic duties--sacrifice to the emperor. The Empire was awash with new religions and sects which competed with Christianity. One msay woinder why it the Jews and Christians who were persecuted. The Roman Empire was huge. There were countless competing religions and sects besides the state religion. If the Empire was repressive, there would be accounts of widespread religious pesecution. The Jews and Christians ran into troule because they refused to sacrifice to the Emperor--a civic durty. While there were campaigns agasinst Christians, those affected were only those who publically proclaimed Christianity. Some emperors are noted for persecuting Christians, such as Nero and Dioclitian. But many emperors did not conduct aby major persecutions. The actual numbers of martyrs were actually quite limited. There was no effort to ferret out Christians, this would have involved much larger numbers of people. A nuch more pervasive campasign of religuous intolerance occured after Cinstantine's conversion. Constatine wanted a more united Empire. He thus encouraged the Christians to develop a more standard religious theology. This began with the Council of Nicea (323 AD) and the cannonization of the Bible. The Church used the power of the Roman state to supress both divergentChristian groups (the Aryans anf Gnostics) as well as other religious groups. This religious perscecution was on a far wider scale than what the Chrisdtianbs themselves had suffered.

Medieval European Anti-Semitism

The first major campaign of religious intolerance was the policy of Vhurch agaiunst other Chritians and other religions within the Roman Empire (4th century AD). The Church while oppressing the Jews did not insist on their conversion. Thus for many centuries the Jews were allowed to live in Chrisdtian Europe, although under limited conditions. The actual conditions vried over time and from country to country. The Jewish population was mostly in wester Europe within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Three major events resulting in driving the Jews eastwatd out of western Rurope. The first was the Crusades and the terrible acts of viloence against Jews that resulted from heightened religious atmosphere (11th and 12th century). Second was the Black Death which devestated Europe. No one knew what caused it, but terrified people began blaming the Jews--ignoring the fact that Jews were also affected (mid-14th century). Thirs was the expulsion of the Spnish and Portuguese Jews (late-15th century). Isabella and Ferdinand were not the first monarchs to expel Jews, but Spanish Jews were a articulasrly large and important part of the diaspora. The last area of Western Rurope with a Jewish community that traced its origins to the Roman era.

Islamic Policies Toward Other Religions

Islam has neen gernerally more tollerant than Christians, although there have been noted acts of intolerance beginning with attacks on Jewish tribes led by Mohammed himself. In the modern era, Islam has becone increasingly more repressive.

Crusades (11th-14th centuries)

For years in the West the Crusades were seen as a pure act of religious faith against infidel unbelievers. The very word "crusade" came to mean a nobel or just mission or enterprise. And Muslims have viewed the crusades as an unjustified act of aggression against a peaceful people. Neiither of these views are correct. The Crusaders had many motivations. Religion did move many, but there were also wordly inentives as well that motivated the Crusaders. And Muslims can not be seen as a peaceful people. For several centuries that had waged war on one Christian kingdom afrer another. The Crusades were in fact the first concerted Christian effort to strike back at the Muslim world. The Crusades at such can not be been as an act of religious intolerance any more than Muslim attacks on Christiam kingfoms can be classified as acts of intolerance. The Crusades were, however, accompanied by wonted acts of horific slaughter when the Crusaders overran Muslim towns and cities. There were instances in which the etire populations were killed, including Nuslims, Chrituans and Jews. The conquest of Jerusalem was a particularly agregious example. The sacking of Constaninople was another. A mother act of religious intollerance was what happened in Europe. In the hightened atmpsphere of intense religious feeling, Hews throughot Europe was were targeting both by the population as well as the Crusading armies.

Supression of the Cathars (13th-14th centuries)

Historians use the term Catahrists or Cathari to described a large number of widely defused sects and were related to Gnostic Christianity. The Novatians in the 3rd century who had heretical beliefs about baptism. Some include the 10th century Paulicians in Thrace. The sect by the 12th centiry was of considerable importance in thecBalkans (Albania, Bulgaria, and Slavonia) before the Turkish conquest. In the West the sect began to gain importance in Turin about 1035 and were called Patarini from a street in Milan where rag gatheres were common. The Catahrists gained their greatest influence in southern France, especially around Montaillou, where they were called Albigenses or Poblicants (a coruption of Paulicians). They are also associated with the Waldenses of France, Germany, and Italy. The Catharists held Manichaean view and held to an asectic life style. Their religious ritual was simple. The Church was apauled at the growing strength of this hersey by the 13th century. The Catharists refused to pay tithes or give obedience to the Roman Church. Religious leaders were called "perfects" or "Good Men". The Church's reaction was to organize the only Crusade ever carried out in Western Europe. [Weis] The Cathar books and scrolls were destroyed to an extent that there are virtually no surviving documents. All we have are the records of the Dominican inquisators who persecuted them. Slowly the Catharists fell into the hands of the Inquisition. Many Catharists themselves were also condemned to the flames. The Catharists were doomed by the 14th century Crusade supported by the French monarchy which coveted the lands of unruly nobels who supported them. One writer describes the Crusade that suppresed the Catharuists as the largest land grab in French history. The province of Languedoc where people spoke Occitan was seized by the French. [O'Shea]

The Inquisition(15th-18th centuries)

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel established the Spanish Inquisition as separate from the Roman Inquisition (about 1480). They and suceeding Spanish monarchs appointed the officers of the Spanish Inquisition and they were not responsible to the Church in Rome. After finally defeating the Moors in 1492, the Spanish monarchy embarked on an effort to purify Spain. Spanish authorities dealt harshly with suposedly insincere converted Moslems and Jews ( conversos ) as well as illuminists. The Spanish Inquisition with its massive public autos-da-fé became notorious throughout Europe. Unlike tge Roman Inquisition. death sentences in the Spanish Inquisition were quite common. Here there are no precise numbers. Estimates range from 3,000 to more than 40,000 individuals. The wide range results from the competing claims of Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. The most notorious Spanish Inquisator General was Tomás Torquemada. The Spanish Inquisition was persued with great ferocity in thec 16th century, throughout Spain and Spain's colonies in America and Europe such as the Netherlands. The Spanish Inquisition not only pursued heretics but became involved in not only politics, but other crimes including some without any religious connotations (polygamy, seduction, adultury, smuggling, usury, and other offenses). The barbarous methods used to extract confessions from the acused as well as witnesses apauled even contemporary Europe. While not as lurid as the enemies of Spain and the Church aleged, they were indeed apaling, especially for an arm of the Church. The intebnsity of the Inquisition relacked in the 17th century. Eventually inquisators were required to obtain rotal authority for an arrest (1770). The Spanish Inqusition was finally abolished until the 19th century (1834).

Spanish Expulsion of Jews and Moors (late-15th century)

Father Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inqisitor, concluded that if the Jews remained in Spain, then they would influence the Marranos, the new converts to Christianity. He reached this conclusion in part because he had participated in the disputations (debates) with Jews and was frustrated that he could not convert Jews by his arguments. With the fall of Granada (1492), the last Moorish outpost in Spain had been reduced. Father Torquemada advanced the idea with the Catholic monarchs (King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella) that the Jewish religion should be banned in Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella obtained financial support for the operation against Geanada from Don Isaac Abravanel and Don Abraham Senior, Senior Comptroller of Castile and Chief Rabbi of the kingdom. The Catholic Monarchs, none the less, were drawn to Torquemada's advice. Queen Isabella in particular was a fervant Catholic. Ferdinand may have been more attracted by the money to be made. Torquemada concinced the two soverigns to expel the Jews. They issued the fateful Edict of Expulsion on March 31, 1492. Don Isaac Abravanel pleaded for mercy, but his pleas were rejected. The order allowed the Jews 4 months to leave Spain. Those who refused to convert had to sell their homes, businesses, and other possessions at low prices. There are no definitive records, but scholars believe that about 100,000 Jews remained true to their religion and fleed fom Spain. The expulsion is today commemorated on the holiday of Tisha B’Av. The expelled Jews became known as Sephardic Jews. They played an important role in the economic success and cultural life in Muslim North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, the Netherlands, and other countries. The descendants of the Jews expelled by the Spanish and subsequently the Portuguese are referred to as Sephardim. "Sephardim" is the Hebrew word term for Spain and it appears in the Old Testament, one suggestion that Jews in Spain predate the Roman era.

Japanese Supression of Christians (early-17th century)

The Portuguese wre the first Europeans to reach Japan. They were soon followed by the Spanish, Dutch, English, and French. Christianity began to spread, especially in the south. The Shogun began to see them as a threat. The Japanese suppression of Christians is another example religious intolerance. Ar the direction of the Shogun, Christians were persecuted and killed in Japan, some by crucifixion. There were several major campaigns (1597, 1613, 1630 and 1632).

Aurangzeb (late-17th century)

The last of the Great Mogul rulers was Aurangzeb ( -1707). Unlike Akbar, Aurangzeb was intolerant of other religions. Aurangzeb was a devout Muslim ofrended by Hinduism and other religions. He sought to force all his subjects to convert to Islam. He destroyed many great works of art because he daw them as idolutrous. The result was Hindu uprisings which weakened the Empie by draining the royal treasury. As a result, Aurangzeb was the last of the great Mogul emperors.

French Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685)

The Revocation of the Edict Nantes was one of the several notable acts of religious intolerance. The French Catholic campaign against the Huguenots is similar to the NAZI campaign against its Jewish citizens--only worse because the Hugenots were a much larger portion of the French population. After years of persecution under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, Louis XIV finally took the ultimate step--revoking the Edict of Nantes (1685). As a result of these percecutions life for many Protestants became intolerable in France. It was not just the lack of religious freedoms, but many other matters. The state refused to recognize Protestant marriages leaving the children illegitimate. This affected property rights and inheritannces. Large numbers of Huguenots fled France, leaving for Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, England, and the English colonies in America (especially New York, Massachusetts, and South Carolina). A s a result, many Americans of French ancestry are Protestants. Except for the Huguenots few French people emmigrated to America. France is one of the few Europrean countries in which large numbers of did not emmigrants to America. Interesting in that the French showed such an enthusiasm for America, No one knows precisely how many French Protestants emigrated. Louis attempted to discourage emigrantion and force them to convert. Estimates range from 0.4-1.0 million. About 1.0 million Protestants remained in France. Many settled in the isolated Cévennes Mountains becoming known as the Camisards. Louis XIV ordered them removed, resulting in the Camisard War (1702-05). It proved to be a disaster to France that would be paid in installments down to the 20th century. France by conservative estimates lost More than 0.4 million of her finest citizens with all their talents and abilitities. It many ways it was comparable to the NAZI campaign against its Jewish citizens--only worse because the Hugenots were a much larger portion of the French population. Those that managed to emigrate would fight Louis in his attempt to take over the Netherlands and subsequently to return James II to the English throne. Their descendens would play a prominant role in the German armies that fought the French down to World War II.

English Supression of Catholics (16th-19th century)

The English in cotrast persecuted the Catholics.

The Mhadi (1880s)

T he status of the what is now Sudan was unsettled in the mid-19th cedntury. The khedive, desirng to gain control of the south, appointed General Charles "Chinese" Gordon as governor general of Equatoria (1873) His authority is extended to the entire Sudan (1877). Gordon puts his relentless energy to work gaining control of Sudan. Gordo works for 6 years to gsain control over rebelious tribes. Egyptian garrisons are establishes throughout the Sudan. When Goirdoin leaves for England, it looks like he has suceeded (1880). A year later, a charismatic tribal leader embued with Islam emerges in Sudan--Mohammed Ahmed who styled himself the Mahdi. He capitalizes on the widespreaddisdcontent anr resentment oward both the British snd Egyptians among the tribes. The Mahdi lived with disciples on an island in the White Nile. There he is inspired by the revelation that he is the long-awaited Mahdi. He procklsims his new role and calls for the creation of a strict Islamic state ryled by Shsaria. Egyptian authorities in Khartoum order his arrest. He and his small band of followers escape to the mountains. The Mahdi's skills and the religious fervor of his followers allow him to attack isolated Egyptian garrisons (1883). The Egyptians dispstch three sarmies to the Sudan, each of which are defeated. One is commanded by a Bitish general. He is able to take several importsnt tons, including El Obeid. Graduall Khartoum itself was threatened. Khartoum is populated by msny non-Sudanese civilians which face death at thevhands of the Mahdi and his followers. The British government headed by Primeminister Gladstone at the time is trying to limit the grot of the Npire. He does not want to send a British empire, dedspite increasing public pressure for sction. He decides to send General Gordon, but with very limited forces. Gordon sails down the Nile and reaches Khartoum (February 18, 1884). He sets up defenses with the small availavle force. Khartoum by this time is surrounded, except for the Nile. Gordon manages to evacuate about 2000 people (women, children and the sick). The Mahdi begins to besige the city (March 13). Girdom commands a small thorougly demoralized Egyptian garrison. The Mahdi cuts the telegraph and the British in Cairo have no communication with Gordon. He manages to hold out for 10 months. Gordon because of his work in China was an enormously popular figure. When the tegraph lines are cut, the Vritish papes begfin to demand Governent saxction. A reluctant Gladstone orders a relief mission to Khartoum, but does nor demand rapid action. Garnet Wolseley sails from London with an expeditionary force (September). The Mahdi's fanatic forces finally breach Goirdon's defenses and kill Gordon, massacring the starving troops and civiliand (January 26). The British vanguard reaches Khartoum (January 28, 1885). They are 2 days too late and find a massacered civilian population. Wolseley's small army withdraws north. The surviving Egyptian garrisons in the Sudan attempt to make their way north. This leave the Mahdi in control of the Sudan. The Mahdi set up his camp around the small village of Omdurman. This was accross the Nile from Khartoum. From here he administered the Sudan as as Islamic state along the lines of the Great Caliphate. The Mahdi envisioned a movement that woukld recreate the Caliphate steaching from Persia to Spain, but he rules Sudan for only a short priod. He does not long survive Gordon and dies (June 1885). He appoits Abdullahi ibn Mohammed to succeeded him as caliph. Abdullahi is known simply as the Khalifa. The Khalifa rules Sudan for 13 years. He administers an Islamic state ruled by the military Sharia azlongthe lines of the caliphate. He attemts to expand and achieves some success in Ethiopia. The Khalifa did mot, however, have access to nodern weapons. The Anglo-Egyptian alliance did. Lord Herbert Kitchener who as a young officer was with Wolseley's leads a modern force south (1898). Armed wth artillery and machine guns, the expedition decimates the Khalifa's Mahdist forces at Omdurman. This restablishes British-Egyptian control of the Sudan.

Tsarist Russian Pograms (late-19th century)

Russian pogroms against Jews drove large numbers of Jews into Western Europe and America. Alexander III was a rabid anti-Semire. Progroms began in Russia following the assasination of his father, the "Tsar liberator" Alexander II. It is difficult to say whther the pofroms were more a reflection of his ant-Semitism or a mater of political expediency. He soughht to use "folk anti-Semitism," to his political advantage. The clergy delivered hate-filled sermons in which Jews were portrayed as "Christ-killers" and the oppressors of the Slavic, Christian people. Mobs attacked Jewish communities, ransaking homes and shops and killing people. These progroms were especially common in the Ukraine. There were countless progroms of varying size and distructiveness. The worst was the Kishinov Pogrom (1881). There were many ways in which progroms were inspired. The clergy often gave hate-filled sermons. The Tsarist Government did little to prevent them and officials even instigated them. We believe these were mostly local officials such as the police, but have few details. One historian wrires, "Expulsions, deportations, arrests, and beatings became the daily lot of the Jews, not only of their lower class, but even of the middle class and the Jewish intelligentsia. The government of Alexander III waged a campaign of war against its Jewish inhabitants ... The Jews were driven and hounded, and emigration appeared to be the only escape from the terrible tyranny of the Romanovs." [Wein, p. 173.] . The result was an explossion of emmigration to Western Europe, especially Germany, and the United States. Pogroms continued under Alexander sons, Nicholas II.

The Partition of India (1946)

Arab Nationaslist Campaign Against Christians

All Arab countries are predominately Muslim. Up until World War II, there were sizeable Chritian populations in many Nuslim countries (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria). This was also the case in Palestine. Since the War the rise of Arab nationalism after World War II and the increasing influence of radical Islm has put great pressure on the Christian minorities, all of which are in decline.


Islamic media would have modern readers believe that their is a campaign ahainst Islam and Mulisms in the modern world. Here the West, primarily America and Israel are held up as the chief villan. This charge does is not sustained by the facts. Very few attacks occur on Muslims in Amererica or Western Europe. Most incidebts of violence against Muslims occur in Muslim countries. And the individuals responsible for the attacks are largely other Muslims. Islamicists have promoted a culture of death and violence justified by the Koranic institution of Jihad. Tragically large numbers of mostly innocent, peaceful Muslims have suffered the consequences.

Totalitarian Atheism

Soviet Aethism Campaign (20th century)

In modern times, the Soviet aehism campaign is another example.

NAZI Suprression of Religion

The Germany which the NAZIs seized control of was a largely Christian country with strong Protestant and Catholic communities. The Soviet assault on religion is much better known, but the NAZIs also saw religion as a threat and began to undermine established churches in a number of ways. Hitler and the NAZIs initiated an assault on not only Germany's traditional Christian values, but religions institutions as well. Christianity itself was suspect because of its Jewish roots. At first NAZI anti-religion policy was subtle, but it increseased in intensity once the NAZIs were firmly established in power. The war on the Jews was biological in nature, religion having little to do with it. Conversion to Cristianity was no protection. The NAZIs began to undercut both Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Chirch proved the biggest challenge for the NAZIs, in part because it was international in character and the Catholic Center Party had been a ajor political force. The NAZIs launched a spurious morals campaign to discredit Catholic prelates and laymen. Resistance to the T-4 Eithenasia program came largely from the Catholic community. Large numbers of priests in Germany were arrested and perished in concentration camps. The Protestant churches with some notable exceptions proved easier to control. Seven Say Ascentists were singled out because of their anti-War beliefs and objection to conscriptions. One religion seen in more positive terms by the NAZIs was Islam.

NAZI Holocaust (1930s-40s)

The NAZI Holocaust is perhaps the ultimate example of religious intolerance. In fact, however, it was a blend of historic religious-based anti-Semitism and a new focus on race. For the NAZIs who organized the Holocasust, race was an even more important factor than religion. Attack on Judaism, howeverm was an important aspect of NAZI propaganda against the Jews. Religious intolerance, however, can not be dismissed as playing a major role in leasing to the conditions that made the Holocaust possible. And in the many countries where the vHolovaustvubfolded, religion was often an important factor. The one recurrent thread through these different acts of religious intollerance besides the tragedy for the people targetted was how the country which expelled them was adversely affected. Perhaps the ultimate example here was the NAZI persecution of the Jews. The Jewish refugees played a major role building the atomic bomb. Ahd had the NAZIs not surrendered (May 1945), could have been used on Germany rather than Japan.


O'Shea, Stephen. The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars (Walker, 2001), 333p.

Wein, Berel. Triumph of Survival.


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Created: 9:56 AM 5/8/2009
Last updated: 8:38 PM 9/29/2018