A once persecuted and oppressed community of ‘the faithful’, considered to be a seemingly innocent sect. The early Christians faced years of severe persecution and hardships, brought upon them by the very same Empire which would later prove to be its greatest ally. The early Christians suffered heavy oppression under the rule of the dominant Roman Empire. Forced to live in the renowned catacombs, the Christians were forced to practice their faith in secret. However, after 300 years of oppression and persecution, these ‘pious’ followers of Christ were saved from their torment through seemingly heavenly intervention. God the Supreme brought the Roman Emperor Constantine to the faith, who consecrated Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. All forms of persecution ceased to exist and religious tolerance and freedom returned to the empire.
At least that is what we are led to believe by the numerous historical accounts written by famous historians such as Eusebius of Caesarea (a Roman Christian author who lived around the same time as Constantine), author of ‘Ecclesiastical History’. However, recent research into this era of history (an era which can be rightly credited as the turning point in Christian history), reveals a hidden history of the church, which ultimately proves that these very Christians who were persecuted for their faith, after the conversion of Constantine, became the persecutors themselves.
Before further elaborating into the mysterious history, it is important to remember that not all Christians ended up becoming the persecutors, and despite their vengeful actions against those who persecuted them, the Christians nonetheless faced extreme difficulty during the first three centuries, as the Holy Qur’an testifies in Surah Al-Kahf:
أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَابَ الْكَهْفِ وَالرَّقِيمِ كَانُوا مِنْ آيَاتِنَا عَجَبًا إِذْ أَوَى الْفِتْيَةُ إِلَى الْكَهْفِ فَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا آتِنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ رَحْمَةً وَهَيِّئْ لَنَا مِنْ أَمْرِنَا رَشَدًا
‘Dost thou think that the Companions of the Cave and the Inscription were a wonder among Our Signs? When the young men betook themselves to the Cave for refuge they said, ‘Our Lord, bestow on us mercy from Thyself, and furnish us with right guidance in our affair.’The Holy Qur’an (18:10&11)
Not only do these verses testify to the existence of ‘the People of the Cave’, in fact their (the early Christians) piety and dedication to Allah Almighty are also proclaimed. Despite this fact, due to the conversion of Constantine, the newly acclaimed religion of the Empire was granted temporal power, as a result of which the very ‘hunters’ (Pagan clergy, Jews and Pagan Roman officials) who ‘hunted’ followers of ‘Christ’ became ‘the hunted’ themselves.
In order to understand (somewhat, if possible) the motive or ‘justification’ of the Roman Christians to seek vengeance on their persecutors, it is important to briefly outline some events which portray the level of severity of persecution faced by early Christians.
Persection faced by early Christians
The nature of persecution faced by the early Christians differed during the reigns of different Emperors. Due to the fact that this persecution lasted for almost three centuries, naturally each Emperor ruled as he saw fit during his reign. This included the manner of which the Christians were dealt with. Although there were a few years where persecution and oppression almost ceased completely, most of these years the severity escalated to life-threatnng situations.
The reign of Emperor Nero is often attributed to the persecution of Christians. It was in fact Nero himself who claimed two major ‘victims’ of the Christian faith; namely the apostle Peter and the personage of Paul. His persecution did not end here. The city of Rome was devastated by the Great Fire of 64 CE, as a result of which the unpopular Nero faced accusations that he had in fact orchestrated the disaster himself. In response to these allegations, Nero sought to use this opportunity to blame the ‘infamous’ Christian faith. The nature of the persecution is described by the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote his famous ‘Annals’ almost fifty years after Nero’s death. He writes:
‘Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace……Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, were crucified or were doomed to the flames and burnt to illuminate the night when daylight failed’
The fact that Tacitus himself did not hold the Christians responsible for the fire, his evident hatred for the faith and its followers simply solidifies his account of Nero’s persecution.
In 177 CE one of the greatest acts of persecution occurred where a violent attack was carried out on a local Christian community in Lyon, Gaul. This resulted in the ‘martyrdom’ of forty-eight Christians, including the bishop Pothinus.
Born on 8 May 1737 in Putney, England, Edward Gibbon was an English rationalist, historian and scholar. He is most famously known as the author of the volumous book entitled ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, an extensive research piece into the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century A.D to the eventual collapse of Constantinople in 1453. It took him twelve years to complete this research (1776-1788).
This book was particularly scandalous for some Christians due to the way in which he dealt with great irony with the rise of Christianity.
Gibbon died on January 6 1794 in a house in St James’ Street London.
The account was preserved through a letter written by the surviving Christians of this attack, which was preserved by the ecclesiastical historian Eusebius of Caesarea.
However, up until this stage, the persecution had not been on an imperial scale. The persecution that the early Christians faced was mainly inspired by the Jews and local communities. The authorities themselves tried their utmost to avoid the whole issue altogether, which is why it was decided that Christians were not to be hunted down. Indeed, if they were brought to the authorities, they were most definitely convicted, due to the fact that Christianity was illegal. However, as stated before, the outbreaks of violence that occurred before the midthird century were mainly due to Jewish and local communities having a hostile approach towards the new theology. The mid-third century, however, was the turning point where Christians were systematically persecuted by the imperial authorities.
The nature of this oppression (similar to the state-sponsored persecution of minorities in some countries in this day and age) was ruthless. The systematic persecution of the Christians began during the reign of Decius (249- 251 CE) who ordered his subjects to display their piety by offering public sacrifices to the gods. Naturally, the Christians refused to comply. It was this which led to outright and state-sponsored persecution.
One of the most infamous acts of persecution which left behind a trail of both martyrs and ‘legacy’ (for Christians) occurred on the dawn of 23 February 303 CE, when under the orders of the emperor, the prefect took a handful of his military leaders to a local church, then destroyed, burnt and plundered the whole place. On the next day, 24 February, the first persecuting edict was published, which stated that churches were to be destroyed, sacred books and vessels seized, congregations were to be banned and Christians lost their official positions and social and legal privileges.
The level of persecution and oppression was at such a grand scale, that one might almost agree to the justification of later events that took place in the empire in response to this persecution.
By the end of the third century, some events occurred which completely shifted the power balance of the empire.
The Turning Point: Constantine’s Conversion
As mentioned earlier, the treatment of the early Christians in the first three centuries was despicable. Little did the Christians know that an incident was about to occur which would turn the tables of the whole situation and lay out the foundations for the spread of ‘their’ faith (further on in the article it shall be explained why the predominantly practised version of christianity was far from its true form).
By the end of the third century, some events occurred which completely shifted the power balance of the empire. At one stage, the empire was deemed too large to be successfully governed by one Caesar, which is why a system was put in place in which four Caesars controlled different parts of the empire.
One of these ‘junior Caesars’ was a man named Constantius. Upon his death, he left his son, Constantine, with an empire which spanned from Britain all the way through France and down to Spain. However, after being hailed as the ‘sole’ emperor by his loyal legions in York, Constantine set out to conquer the rest of the empire and become the ‘Caeser’ of the Roman Empire.
It was during one of the battles of this expedition where Constantine supposedly saw a vision. The vision is described by Eusebius:
‘In one of the marches of constantine, he is reported to have seen with his own eyes the luminous trophy of the cross, placed above the meridian sun, inscribed with the following words: ‘‘BY THIS, CONQUER’’. This amazing object in the sky astonished the whole army, as well as the emperor himself, who was yet undetermined in the choice of a religion; this astonishment was converted into faith by the vision of the ensuing night, Christ appeared before his eyes and displaying the same celestial sign of the cross, he directed Constantine to frame a similar standard, and to march, with an assurance of victory, against Maxentius and all his enemies.’
The victory gained by Constantine at the battle which followed this was credited to this very vision, in which he was supposedly instructed to fight in the name of Christ. The fact that he fought in the name of Christ and won the battle, making him the sole emperor of the whole empire, was considered to be a favour of the Lord Himself, proving that Constantine’s decision to fight in the name of Christ was supposedly correct. As Edward Gibbon states:
‘The Piety of Constantine was admitted as an unexceptionable proof of the justice of his arms and his use of victory confirmed the opinion of the Christians that their hero was inspired, and conducted, by the Lord of Hosts.’
However, the interpretation and fulfilment aside, the credibility of this vision is a matter disputed amongst historians themselves. As David Gwynn states that the occurrence of this event is so doubtful that only a few manuscripts seem to have preserved this. Regardless, the fact that such a majestic victory was never even discussed amongst the commonfolk of the empire, nor the elites or anyone else for that matter, and only mentioned by Constantine later on in his life causes historians to doubt. Even prominent ecclesiastical figures who were alive not long after Constantine, such as Ambrose (better known as St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan) claim to not know anything of this incident, and Rufinus puts it in the setting of a dream.
The credibility of this account aside, the fact still remains that practically the most powerful figure of the time had just accepted Christianity, and despite the Empire’s recent hostilities against the faith, he did not waste any time in consecrating Christianity as the official religion of the empire. As Gibbon states:
‘…and as soon as the defeat of Licinius had invested Constantine with the sole dominion of the Roman world, he immediately, by circular letters, exhorted all his subjects to imitate, without delay, the example of their sovereign, and to embrace the divine truth of Christianity.’
Such a dramatic change shook the very foundations of the empire, which was based on pagan theology and philosophy throughout its history. Christianity, a religion with a mere following of only one in twenty Roman citizens, was now the official religion of the empire.
The Tables Have Turned: The vengeance of the Christians
‘With the conversion of Constantine, the course of Christianity changed. At first by persuasion and then by persecution the ranks of Christianity began to swell. The persecuted became themselves the cruellest of persecutors.’
The conversion of Constantine brought a dramatic shift in the social hierarchy. For the first time in three centuries, after decades of severe persecution, Christianity at last gained temporal power, and it did not take long for the thirst of revenge to take control of the Christians.
Treatment of Pagans:
‘With temporal power in their hands, the Christians deemed it their duty to destroy idolatry.’
The time had at last come, when the pagans would suffer for their ill-treatment of the Christians. As Gibbon states, the only example of total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition was in fact the ruin of paganism during this era of ‘revenge’.
However this was not done through bloodshed. The pagans were not, in fact, given the ultimatum of baptism or death. This was due to the reason that their slavish nature allowed them to submit to their Christian masters. The pagans lacked the zeal and passion to defend their religion at the cost of their lives, which is partly due to the loose and careless temper of polytheism. Gibbon states:
‘The terrors of a military force silenced the faint and unsupported murmurs of the Pagans…’
In any case, despite the fact that the pagans were not in a life-threatening situation, it would be incorrect to dismiss their persecution and oppression by the Christians. More than their lives, the pagans had to worry about their property being confiscated by the Christian authorities, or even worse, their temples being destroyed in a most horrific manner. In 390 CE, Emperor Theodosius received a letter from the pagan apologist Libanus, in which he complained bitterly about the behaviour of Christian monks:
‘You did not order the temples to be closed, but the men in black – they eat like elephants and keep the servants busy with their drinking – attack the temples with stones, poles and iron crowbars or even their bare hands and feet. Then the rooves are knocked in and the walls levelled to the ground, the statues are overturned and the altars demolished. The temple priests must suffer in silence or die. These outrages occur in towns; it is worse in the country.’
Eventually, due to the weak beliefs and loose structure of paganism, and the lack of zeal to defend the religion, the pagans gradually decreased in numbers whilst the Christian ranks swelled up. Soon enough, the Empire had truly become the first Christian Empire in ecclesiastical history.
Theodosus I, also known as Theodosus the Great was born on 11 January 347 CE, in modern day Spain. He was the Roman Emperor of the East (379-392) and later became the sole Emperor of the East and West (392-395).
He was a staunch opponent of Paganism, and established the creed of the Council of Nicea (325) as the universal norm for Christian orthodoxy.
He died in Milan on January 17, 395
Treatment of Jews:
What the Christians lacked in terms of severity in the persecution of the pagans, they made up for in the treatment of the Jews.
The persecution of the Jews was extremely harsh at times, almost unbearable. The Church did not limit itself to just confiscating property or destroying places of worship. In fact their treatment of these peaceful subjects included being compelled by the Church to accept either baptism or death, and torture and ill treatment were considered good deeds. The treatment of Jews is described in the following words:
‘The horrible atrocities which were practised by the Christians upon the Jews are absolutely unapproached in cruelty in the history of the world. From the time when Christians first obtained temporal power till very recent times, the Jews were persecuted in every Christian country and under every Christian government with relentless cruelty.’
The conversion of Constantine was almost as if it was a signal to the course of persecution of the severest type. It is said that when the Jews assembled to re-build the Jewish temple, Constantine had all of their ears cut off.
However, as has been stated above, this persecution was not only limited to the lifetime of Constantine. As Gibbon states:
‘Future tyrants were encouraged to believe, that the innocent blood of which they might shed in a long reign would instantly be washed away in the waters of regeneration, and the abuse of religion dangerously undermined the foundations of moral virtue.’
Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, had in fact through his example, laid the foundations of a bloodthirsty and unforgiving crusade against anyone who did not comply with Christian beliefs, which would last almost 2000 years. In other words, nearly the entire history of the Church.
For example, during the Dark Ages, specifically between the years of 1450 and 1510, the Jews were accused of supposedly slaughtering a Christian child in order to drink its blood. This accusation caused a continental outcry and resulted in Spain exiling all Jews within its sovereignty in 1492.
Even everyday life for a Jew was difficult in Christian Europe; Jews were usually tucked away in specific city corners and lived on separate streets to their Christian counterparts. During harsher conditions, special ‘ghettos’ were even constructed to separate the Jews completely. Even the most senior official of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, Pope Paul, ordered that due to their guilt, the Jews (who were proclaimed to eternal slavery) must be isolated from Christians. Being exiled or isolated was the least of their worries. Jewish parents were at times forced to send their children away to Christian families who would bring the child up based on Christian doctrines. At other times Jews were hunted, burnt alive or even used as target practice. This deeply-rooted hatred of Jews was simply due to the fact that Judaism was a monotheistic religion which rejected Jesus Christ.
Treatment of Muslims
This sort of harsh treatment was not only confined to the Jews, in fact the Christians are also accountable for numerous atrocities against Muslims throughout history.
The late 11th century and early 12th century are most well known as the era of the Crusades. These were ‘Holy Wars’ fought in the name of Jesus Christ against Muslims to ‘retake’ land and cities which was under Muslim control. After a successful campaign in Spain and Cyprus, the crusaders travelled eastwards claiming cities such as Acre, until they reached Jerusalem.
Initially, due to the dire state of the disunity of the Muslims, the crusaders were successful in the siege of Jerusalem. However, the disgusting events which followed have permanently stained the history of the Church:
‘The fall of Jerusalem was followed by a prolonged and hideous massacre of Moslems and Jews, men, women and children…..Unfortunately, it was not the only one. When Caesarea was taken in 1101, the troops were given permission to sack it as they pleased, and all the Moslem inhabitants were killed in the Grand Mosque.’
These ‘holy wars’ waged against Muslims resulted in the loss of countless lives, including innocent civilians. Eventually, the Muslims regained the city of Jerusalem after uniting under the banner of Islam in the leadership of the well-known general Salahuddin Ayubi (known as Saladin in the West). However, after reclaiming the city, Salahuddin ensured that no Muslim would hurt a single civilian, man, woman or child. All matters aside, even ‘Western’ scholars admit that these Crusades were less spiritually motivated and in fact only the result of the actions of a few fanatics, as Johnson states:
‘It is, in fact, a misleading over-simplification to see the crusade simply as a confrontation between Christian Europe and Moslem East….A crusade was in essence nothing more than a mob of armed and fanatical Christians…..It might be used to attack the Moslems, or unleashed against Jews, or heretics; or it might become heretical and antinomian itself, and smash the structures of established society.’
The crusades are only one example of the ill-treatment of Muslims (and Jews). On the accession of Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, an edict was issued on 30 March 1492 by the Christian monarchs stating that all unbaptised must leave the kingdom by the end of July. The scene is described by Lindo: T
‘The misery suffered by the unfortunate exiles is almost indescribable. Some of the vessels took fire, and they either perished in the flames or were drowned; others were so overloaded that they sank. Many were wrecked on barren coasts and perished with hunger and cold; those who survived were exposed to further troubles and misfortunes. Some captains purposely their voyage, to force them to buy water and provisions at any price they chose to extract from their misfortune.’
The same fate was reserved for the Muslims and Jews in Portugal, when Ferdinand and Isabella wedded their daughter to Don Emanuel on the condition that he exile the unbaptised from his country.
These are only a few examples, other notable instances include the ruthless deeds of Charlemagne in an effort to spread Christianity by the sword, as well as the treatment of the Muslims in Spain.
The earliest traces of human settlement in the area commonly know as ‘The Holy Land’, are from the late copper/early bronze ages, at about 3000 BCE. The city holds a special reverence by the three major faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Jerusalem since it was first inhabitated, has been conquered at various times, by various people. As far as the Abrahamic religions are concerened, Jerusalem was under the rule of the Jewish King David, and later his son King Solomon in about 1000 BCE.
The Caliph Umar raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them", the second successor to the founder of Islam, the Holy Prophet Muhammad saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", conquered Jerusalem in the 8th century.
The city was now under Islamic rule, and this caused a natural uproar in Europe, where in the coming centuries the Pope would declare a Holy Crusade to ‘liberate’ the Holy Land.
Pope Urban II called for a holy war against the Muslims in what is know as the first Crusade. The crusaders set off from Europe and conquered various cities such as ‘Acre’ on their way to the Holy Land. Eventually, when they reached the Holy Land, they defeated the Muslim rulers. This crusade lasted from 1096 till 1099, with a Christian victory. The crusaders killed every man, woman and child within the city walls.
However, the Muslims gradually gathered strength and under the banner of Islam, were led to Jerusalem by Salahuddin Al-Ayubi, one of the greatest generals of all time. In 1187 Salahuddin and his troops defeated the Christian army at the battle of Hattin, taking the city along with a large amount of territory.
Although it may have had humble beginnings, the Christian faith (rather the Church) is guilty of nearly two thousand years of unjustifiable persecution and oppression. This bloodstained history proves that the reason the ranks of Christianity suddenly swelled up in different eras was due to their principle of persecution and forceful baptism; in other words the Church spread its doctrines by the sword.
The Promised Messiah & Imam Mahdi Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", whilst commenting on the verse that only that states, لا اکراہ فی الدین religion which is void of any spirituality is obliged to be spread by the sword, and at certain periods throughout its history, Christianity has been forcefully spread. As Hazoor Aqdas asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" states:
‘In short, if the opponents of a creed pose an external attack, and in result, cut the poor and weak members of their nation into pieces, and kill their children and capture their women and stain their chastity and annihilate their places of worship and burn their religious books, even then it is forbidden, in the light of the Gospels, to retaliate against such people. Therefore, even if their nation is destroyed, they are not commanded to raise war against the opponents.’