Did Christianity weaken the Roman Empire?

The new persecutions of Christians

Alabaster windows burst. Flames shot up the precious curtains to the ceiling. The altar was overturned, the church was ablaze. The mob roared in the streets of Nicodemia in front of the flames. But the outrage was not an ordinary pogrom. In a way, it was a kind of imperial alabaster night; An abomination that was based on a cool calculation by Diocletian (approx. 240 to 312), the reform emperor on the seat cushion of the Roman Caesars, who with this fire on February 23, 303 set the beacon for the most systematic persecution of Christians that the Roman Empire has ever seen would have.

Constantinople was not yet founded, Nikodemia, today's Izmit in Turkey, had the emperor expanded into his residence from the year 284. From here he organized his great reform and his campaign against the many thousands of Christians of the empire, from Spain to Palestine and from Cologne and Mainz to Carthage and Memphis in Egypt. It was not until eight years later, on April 30, 311, that the campaign was officially ended. Their goal was the annihilation of Christianity, the extermination of its followers and the smashing of the church. The motive: The "religious peace" between the many cults and gods of Rome - and thus the peace of the gods among themselves -, which the Christians with their claim to truth in the eyes of many competitors, should be restored.

Diocletian was not the first persecutor of Christians among Rome's emperors. He followed on from inadequate preparatory work by his predecessors Decius and Valerius between 250 and 260), but sporadic persecution of Christians had occurred in the Roman Empire since Emperor Nero (37 to 68). Because in the variety show of the many cults of tolerant Rome, the Christians who did not go along with the magic of the pagans appeared as spoilsport - as if they came from another planet. Because they sacrificed neither to the gods nor to the emperors, they were considered "atheists". The Jews, too, insisted on a single God, before whom the “idols” of others were nothing but dust. But the Christians behaved as if they knew this God personally.

That is why Diocletian tried to put an end to her doings in four waves of persecution. In the first edict of 303 he banned their worship services, ordered the destruction of their churches, the confiscation and burning of their holy scriptures, a general ban on office and the arrest of Christian civil servants. Freed Christians who had previously been slaves have been returned to the status of slavery. Christians of the upper class were no longer allowed to litigate, no longer to issue wills and lost all offices and privileges. From then on they no longer had civil rights in the Roman Empire.

In a second edict, Diocletian ordered the imprisonment of their community leaders. In a third edict he ordered that their priests and bishops be forced to apostate from their faith through torture. In a fourth edict of 304 he finally ordered the death penalty for anyone who refused to offer him a few crumbs of incense as a burnt offering. The rejection of such a victim was considered a religious outrage, hostility to the state, a crime of majesty; those who did not want to integrate themselves into the state cult should be destroyed. Many Christians could no longer withstand this measure. A large number, however, withstood every threat and allowed themselves to be crucified, beheaded, burned, drowned, thrown before the lions or in unquenched lime than publicly denying their faith in Jesus Christ. In the face of such stubbornness, many examining magistrates could often only shake their heads.

Diocletian's reform of the empire was ultimately successful. It secured Rome's foundations in the west until the 5th, in the east until the 7th century. His cult reform, however, failed completely. Like some of his predecessors, he only gave Christendom countless more martyrs who are remembered and venerated by name in the Catholic and Orthodox world to this day - from Peter and Paul to Polycarp or Sebastian and Laurentius. Christianity's liturgical veneration of saints began with the steadfast sacrifices of antiquity.

One year after Diocletian's death, his successor Constantine granted Christians full equality in the Roman Empire in 313. The "Constantinian Turnaround" forever closed the gate behind Rome's last war of annihilation against the martyr church of young Christianity.

A map of the persecution from the Maghreb to North Korea

The number of victims that Christianity had saved with names and dates in its collective memory at that time were enormous, and yet, they were, as it were, “peanuts” against what came later: the Muslim regimes, which from 622 onwards from the new desert religion in the east , southern and western Mediterranean basins were established; terrible persecutions in Japan to which young Christianity was exposed after 1587; again and again the hunt for Christians of the black continent. Countless Christians also died under the Nazis and Soviets. Goebbels' motto was "Silence or kill!"; after the “final victory” and when the Jews had only been “cleared up”, the Reich Propaganda Minister wanted to tackle the priests together with his “Führer”. The profession that was statistically most represented in the concentration camps were Catholic priests. Lenin, on the other hand, wanted to replace the term “Krestyanin” (Christians), with which the Russian peasants had been referred to since the days of the Kiever Rus, with the new term “Soviets” - and the culture behind the term completely smashed. For seven decades it was almost a success.

The greatest persecution of Christians in world history, however, did not take place in antiquity, not even yesterday or the day before yesterday: we are experiencing it today, worldwide and in an unprecedented way. Christians are denied a multitude of rights in many countries, such as the right to protection from arbitrary arrest, the right to a fair trial, the right of access to and equality before the courts, the right to the family, the rights of minorities, the rights of Women, the rights of children, not least the right to protection from torture - but above all the right to freely choose or change one's religion.

The non-denominational aid organization “Open Doors” speaks of around 100 million people who currently “suffer persecution because of their faith in Jesus Christ” after evaluating the observations made by their many employees in 52 countries around the world. It is a strictly conservative and skeptical estimate that does not include all those who are disadvantaged in different countries because of their Christian origins or their Christian names. The map of persecution stretches from the Maghreb to North Korea. It results in a huge world empire, composed of many Islamic and some strictly atheistic countries as well as some states of Hindu India.

In many cases, the state imprisons, injures, tortures, or kills individuals or groups of Christians for their beliefs. Persecution also reigns when Christians are not allowed to build churches or assemble, when the registration of a Christian community or organization is only possible under harassment or not at all - the boundaries between persecution and discrimination are fluid. In recent years, reprisals against Christians have increasingly shifted from the state to the private level of neighbors and village communities. It makes no difference to the victims who persecutes them - although in many countries attacks are barely prevented, neither by the police nor the military, and are later usually only inadequately investigated or not investigated at all.

The great aggressive-atheist ideologies of the 18th and 19th centuries have been on the decline since the fall of the Berlin Wall; aggressive atheism is only the arena of a few bestselling authors. In China and Cuba, too, the times of great religious hostility are over - but not the communist project of totalitarian control and the curtailment of freedoms. Since the Communist Party's monopoly of power must not endanger anything, the government of the People's Republic of China intervenes heavily in the life of all religious communities. Catholics in particular are viewed with suspicion, as it is one of the Pope's duties to appoint bishops for the various dioceses, which the government in Beijing strictly rejects as "interference in internal affairs". All in all, China's bishops and priests have spent thousands of years behind bars.

On the other hand, the suppression of religious communities for religious reasons has increased in recent decades. In India, for example, Hindus have grown in influence. According to the ideology of the "Hindutva", India is to be transformed into a "pure" Hindu nation; Christians, Muslims and other minorities only have the choice to convert - or to leave the area. High fines and prison terms of three to five years are imposed for “unauthorized attempts at conversion”. In the east Indian state of Orissa there have been repeated serious attacks on Christian settlements in recent years: In December 2007 and August 2008, more than a hundred Christians were killed, thousands injured, 50,000 displaced, their houses burned down and their churches destroyed. Previously, they had campaigned for the Dalits (casteless, untouchable), who make up three quarters of the population in Orissa, to receive fair wages and the right to attend school and education. They had to pay dearly.

The situation is similar in some Islamic countries, where the growing social pressure on Christian minorities has led to real mass emigration. In Iraq, the number of Christians has halved since 2002; in Lebanon it has fallen from four to 1.5 million; around 20,000 Christians emigrate to Iran every year. Christians and Jews are tolerated as minorities, they are allowed to maintain their religion. But woe betide them trying to “expand”: Missionary work is strictly forbidden, the building of new churches is usually impossible, and the renovation of old churches is made more difficult by all sorts of bureaucratic hurdles.

It is obvious that the radicalization of large parts of the Islamic world has not improved this precarious situation in the past few decades. In Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, a new "blasphemy law" has recently become the ideal way to quickly raise any legal dispute with a Christian to a religious level - on which he can only lose. No one knows how things will go on on the Nile after the pharaohs rule by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. After a period of eternal despotism, new democratic mechanisms offer no guarantee against the persecution of Christians. Any state crisis is dangerous for minorities, and rule of the streets is just as threatening as sheer rule of the majority or the "people". Because the ghost that has escaped Islam like a jinn out of a bottle in recent decades is called Islamism. Today it also threatens Islam itself - and of course all Christians, in whom the jihadists only see idolaters (because of the Trinity) or crusaders (if they come from Europe or America). But Islamism was "invented" to a certain extent in Egypt in 1928 with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan al Banna. The deep identity crisis in which Islam has found itself since the onslaught of modernity and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and which in this respect is entirely due to the dynamism of Christian history, is a dilemma that no one knows how to solve.

A country like Turkey also faces this dilemma. Here Christians have to struggle with a whole catalog of restricted rights and artificial difficulties, which the state not only does not remove, but re-issues or invents in ever different variations. Christian congregations are not allowed to acquire property or to train clerical offspring. In the Ottoman Empire, Christians still made up a quarter of the population in what is now secular Turkey, today it is only 0.15 percent.

God incarnate? What an imposition!

Most arbitrary acts against Christians, however, happen quietly - and that everywhere in the “House of Islam”. It is not worth remembering that Christianity has existed in almost every country, in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt or Turkey, since the days of the apostles, that here lies the cradle of Christianity. It's not worth it because it doesn't change the situation of Christians in this part of the world. Wherever it occurs to Christians to complain publicly, wherever harassment and reprisals are pointed out - which is happening more and more often via digital media - their situation is instantly more difficult, not easier.

There are plenty of objective reasons that do not justify the persecution of Christians but help to explain them. First, Christianity, like Judaism, has often made its followers rich in education and goods - and vulgar envy is still one of the surest drivers of all kinds of villainy. The second argument is even more important, genuine freedom, as it was first claimed in the area of ​​Christian people, and which is still permanently incompatible with the vast majority of other religions and cultures. And there are also theological reasons, after all, the Christian faith - thirdly - still holds one of the greatest demands for all other religions: that the creator of heaven and earth became man and entered history where he was killed without resistance. That he entered history not as the victor, but as the one who was persecuted, who had to emigrate as a child, who was hunted, tortured and brutally killed. That is absurd and unbearable. But that is the belief of Christians.

And so we come to a fourth, historical reason: Jesus referred to himself as "the truth" (and the "way" and "the life"), but did not use the sword for this truth, but was nailed to the cross - as the very first martyr of Christianity. For the first time, the truth was radically decoupled from any temptation to enforce it by force if necessary. This was already considered scandalous under the Romans, not only among Gentiles, but also among Jews. And that's how it stayed. The emergence of Christianity signaled a historical paradigm shift in world history. Since then, all violent attempts at mission by Christianity have rightly been regarded as aberrations. The claim to truth on the one hand and the insistence on non-violence on the other hand need not be compared with claims, history and the violence potential of other religions, as Benedict XVI did. tried it on September 12, 2006 in Regensburg. Leonella Sgorbati, the Italian nun who was shot a few days later in Somalia, and the flaming protest in the Islamic world (against the Pope, not the murderers) showed only once more: the cross and Christianity are an almost exemplary invitation to persecution. The mocking king nailed to the cross is therefore ultimately immune to every scorn and every evil caricature - in contrast to the prophet Mohammed.

But these days, something previously unheard of is happening in this context. "The celebration of the birth of the Savior strengthens the believers of the Church in continental China in a spirit of faith, patience and courage that they do not despair because of the restrictions on their freedom of religion and conscience," said the Pope's Christmas message Billions of people persecuted. "The love of 'God with us' gives persistence to all Christian communities suffering discrimination and persecution, and guides political and religious leaders to advocate full respect for all freedom of religion." A week later, a suicide bomber ripped off the Coptic Al-Quiddissne Church in Alexandria killed 21 and injured 97 others. Twelve hours later, the Pope used his New Year's message as an opportunity to reflect together on “the great challenges” of our age. Religious freedom is “the royal road to building peace”, but two extremes threaten it, “on the one hand, secularism, which often insidiously marginalizes religion in order to ban it into private life; on the other hand, fundamentalism, which, on the other hand, wants to force it on everyone ”. Where religious freedom is effectively recognized, however, “the dignity of the person is respected in its roots”.

The mother of fundamental rights? Religious freedom

That may sound obvious, but nobody had said it like that before, not even in the Catholic Church. On January 10th, Benedict XVI. even clearer. He repeated his appeal to all diplomats in the world accredited in the Vatican.He mentioned the death, pain and despair in Iraq, the assassination attempt in Egypt, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, the blasphemy law in Pakistan (and the murdered governor of Punjab province), the violence against Christians in Africa and China. The diplomats held their breath. You don't do that! That had never happened before: the Pope not only called for the protection of Christians in general, he also gave names and became specific. Was he bad advice again? Did he just think he had to do it? The fact is: he did it. The times have changed. In the information age, messages flicker around the globe at the speed of light. Can he keep silent about incidents that everyone knows about? Even among the most capable diplomats, no one knows the answer.

Because the situation of Christians worldwide is completely different and probably more complicated than in the first centuries of the Roman Empire. What remained of it is that persecution is part of the essence of Christianity. Persecution, however, has not weakened Christianity, but above all the false doctrines from within the Church, which appear in a new guise in almost every century: Gnosis, Marcionism, Manichaeism. Where such heresies gained the upper hand, Christians were also tempted to become oppressors themselves. But as long as Christianity does not become stale, but remains salt, it will also remain a church of martyrs. The appeal Benedict XVI. is therefore not directed at Christianity itself. Rather, it suggests to the representatives of nations and cultures that it serves the salvation and peace of the world if religious freedom is recognized everywhere as the mother of fundamental rights. It serves Islam, Judaism, Hinduism. Religious freedom serves the human family.

To proclaim this publicly today can only be understood as a duty of Christians to the rest of the world - and not as a claim to a privilege. Because freedom of religion is one of the most frequently violated rights worldwide. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change one's religion or conviction, as well as the freedom to manifest one's religion or conviction alone or in community with others in public or privately through teaching, practice, worship and performance of a rite. ”But where If there is no or only limited freedom of religion, other human rights are often disregarded.

In absolute numbers, Christians are by far the largest group persecuted for reasons of faith. But every public statement to protect them comes at a high price. The answer to the Pope's recent appeal was not long in coming. Ahmad at Tayyeb, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar in Cairo, immediately rejected his words as meddling in the internal affairs of Egypt that the dialogue with the Vatican should be frozen and the ambassador was ordered back from Rome to “consult” in Cairo. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Jusuf Gilani stated that changing the controversial blasphemy law was out of the question. 40,000 Islamists demonstrated and burned crosses and pictures of Benedict XVI. In Indonesia, angry Muslims set fire to two churches on the island of Java, not only because of the Pope's words, but also out of anger over an overly mild sentence against a Christian who should have offended Islam. The mob demanded the death penalty or the immediate extradition of the delinquent to the people. Kill! Kill! It yelled from the crowd. Church windows rattled, the altar was overturned. Once again a church was on fire ...

PAUL BADDE is the correspondent ofworld-Group in Rome.