Christianity has suffered persecution throughout the ages, in a wide variety of religious, political and cultural contexts. Many believers have been martyred, often in their tens, hundreds or even thousands. Here we explore the history of these martyrdoms, seeking encouragement in the faithful witness of our brothers and sisters and the wonderful promises of our Lord God.
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.” (Revelation 6:9-11)
The boys and girls at Lhubirira Secondary School in Kasese District, Uganda, were ending their day as usual, by singing hymns together and preparing for bed. Nobody expected that within an hour two-thirds of the residential school’s 60 pupils would be dead, slaughtered by jihadists affiliated to Islamic State (IS – also known as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).
About 40 pupils were either shot, hacked to death with machetes, or burned alive in their dormitories in this vicious attack on 16 June 2023. A school security guard was also among the victims. The sounds of Christian hymns were replaced with the Islamic declaration of “Allahu Akbar!”
Anti-Christian persecution takes many forms, often that of discrimination and marginalisation. Believers may find themselves deprived of educational opportunities or employment. They may be forced from their land or denied access to vital water sources. They may be excluded from the distribution of aid.
Yet there is a thread of anti-Christian violence that persists through almost the entirety of Church history. Christians have not just suffered discrimination, but wholesale slaughter. There are numerous examples of Christians being brutally killed in their dozens, their hundreds, or even their thousands. The dead children of Kasese have joined a great multitude of the slain from throughout the history of the Church and from many different lands.
Early mass persecution and killings
No wonder then that the souls of those who have been slain for their Christian faith cry out to the Lord – how long will this continue? The only answer recorded is that such killings will take place for “a little longer”, until “the full number” of believers have been martyred. Only the Lord knows that full number, but we know that Christians have suffered violent death since the first decades after Christ’s own death and resurrection, and will continue to do so until His return (Revelation 6:12-17).
The earliest mass killings of Christians occurred in the Roman Empire, notably under the emperors Nero (ruled 54-64AD) and Domitian (81-96AD). Massacres continued under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), and many were tortured and killed in the period 250-312, a 62-year spell prior to Constantine’s official toleration of Christianity that included the persecutions under Emperor Diocletian (284-305).
When the Roman Emperor Diocletian began to suppress Christianity, he required everyone to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Among those who refused was a young Christian called Demiana, who lived in a Christian community of around 40 women who devoted themselves to prayer, fasting and Bible reading. The emperor ordered his soldiers to the desert house where these women lived their lives of devotion. Demiana, the leader of the group, told the soldiers, “As for me, I worship my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and His Good Father and the Holy Spirit … in His Name I will die and by Him I will live forever.” She was tortured in many agonising ways, before she and her friends were beheaded.
In one mass killing in 286, every member of a Roman legion of around 6,600 Christians from Thebes in Upper Egypt was executed near the town of Aguanum (now St-Maurice in modern-day Switzerland). The soldiers had refused to carry out the order of Emperor Maximian to kill some Christians as an act of celebration for a military victory.
It was not only the Roman Empire that carried out such massacres in the early centuries of the Church. From 339 onwards believers in the Persian Empire suffered severe persecution – in a single incident more than 100 were executed. In Yemen, many Christians were killed by soldiers of King Dhu Nuwas (also called Masruq), who was zealous in propagating Judaism and persecuting Christians. Among them were tens of Christian men who were killed after the town of Najran was forced to surrender to the army of King Nuwas. Their widows were rounded up and ordered to convert. When they refused, they and their children died in a hail of arrows. Soldiers were ordered to attack with swords to finish off any possible survivors. At least 177 women and children died.
The rise of Islam
The seventh-century rise of Islam was the emergence of a whole new source of fierce anti-Christian persecution. At first Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, tolerated Jews and Christians as fellow monotheists, but this changed when neither Jews nor Christians accepted Islamic beliefs and practices.
A core Islamic doctrine that still shapes how Muslims view Christians is that of dhimmi. Christians and Jews were permitted to continue living in territory conquered by Muslims without changing their faith, but only if they accepted dhimmi status – that is, a second-class status as non-citizens. The dhimmi were subjected to humiliating rules and restrictions, including the payment of a jizya tax to their Muslim conquerors. In theory, despite the humiliation, this meant that Christians could safely live in an Islamic state. In practice, however, Christians were often killed, sometimes in their thousands.
In one example, when the Berber Caliph Abd al-Mumin conquered Tunis in 1159, the Muslim inhabitants were spared but the Christians and Jews ordered to convert to Islam. When they refused they were not subjugated as dhimmi – they were simply massacred.
The Eastern European land of Georgia still remembers the night of 9 March 1226 when 100,000 Georgian Christians were massacred by the Turkmen army of Sultan Jalal al-Din of Khwarazm. Refusing to denounce their faith, many were decapitated. Boys were castrated and women raped. Babies, torn from their mothers’ arms, had their heads smashed against the bridge over the River Mtkvari. The river flowed with blood.
In another example, in 1342 the fanatical Muslim king of Ili (in modern-day Xinjiang Province, China) ordered all Christians to convert to Islam. When they refused, he ordered that seven missionaries should be tortured and beheaded. After this many other believers – among them Han Chinese, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Mongols and Russians – were tortured to death.
Hyder Ali, the Sultan of Mysore in southern India, was another Muslim ruler who viciously persecuted the Church. In 1748 he ordered around 60,000 defeated Indian Christians on a 202-mile death march. Only a third reached their destination – at least 20,000 died, and another 20,000 were unaccounted for. Hyder’s successor as sultan, his son Tipu, followed in his father’s footsteps by massacring 25,000 Christians and 25,000 Hindus in the city of Mangaluru on India’s western coast.
The spread of Christian faith and the killing of many
Many religions, cultures and philosophies have been the source of anti-Christian persecution and, specifically, acts of violence against our brothers and sisters. The Gospel is anathema in many different contexts.
The growth of Christianity in Japan from the mid-sixteenth century onwards was met with a fierce response. A powerful diamyo (a landowning ruler, similar to a feudal lord) cracked down on believers in Nagasaki, which had become a centre of the faith. In February 1597, 26 believers – 20 Japanese and six foreigners – were crucified in the city. Anywhere from 4,000 to 40,000 believers had been killed by the time a ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873.
It was a similar story in Korea, where believers experienced the first severe and widespread persecution in 1801 – 156 Christians were beheaded and many others died in prison. Further waves of persecution followed. The fourth, which began in 1839, saw at least 254 Christians killed, whether by execution, torture, or death in prison. It was recorded that whole families died together. An estimated 8,000 believers died in the subsequent Great Persecution of 1866-71. Around 800 were executed, but most were murdered by their neighbours or starved to death in internal exile.
One of the largest mass murders of Christians at a single time took place in the 1900 “Boxer Rebellion” in China. The Boxers – officially called the Righteous and Harmonious Fists – rose up with the aim of returning China to its traditional Confucianist values, ridding their country of Western influences. Around 32,000 Chinese Christians were slaughtered, alongside 188 foreign missionaries.
The forgotten genocide
Even the numbers of Christians killed in China at the turn of the twentieth century pale in comparison to the genocide of 3.75 million Armenian, Assyrian, Syriac and Greek Christians who were systematically exterminated in a 30-year campaign waged by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire from 1893 to 1923. This has rightly been termed the forgotten genocide – the world knows little of the horrors that took place in Turkey and other areas controlled by the Turkish Ottomans.
Massacres of Christians began in the decades prior to the empire’s adoption of wholesale genocide as its solution to “the Armenian question”. In 1843 at least 10,000 Christians were killed in south-east Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) where the believers, having been encouraged by the British consuls in Van and Mosul, stopped paying jizya to their Muslim rulers. No military help came from the British after their advice to stop paying the tax led to this slaughter. Another 10,000 Christians were killed in Lebanon in 1860, and as many as 25,000 in Bulgaria in 1876.
In 1894-96 organised massacres of Christians took place, during which as many as 300,000 Armenians were killed. Sultan Abdul Hamid’s agents would incite Turkish Muslims to rise up against their Armenian Christian neighbours, alleging that the Armenians were plotting to attack them. This procedure was repeated in 13 large towns. When 8,000 Armenians were killed in Urfa in December 1895, the young men were killed by the traditional Islamic method for slaughtering animals to eat: they were thrown on their backs, held by their hands and feet and then their throats were slit while a prayer was recited.
“We were taken to another village … They started to kill us, one by one. They knocked my brother down first. They hit him in the back of the head. My six-month-old sister was hit and dropped to the ground. I was scared … I hid …
“When we woke up the sun was shining. I saw a little boy … ‘How come they didn’t kill you?’ He said, ‘I don’t know’. There was blood all over the place.”
– Eye-witness testimony from Nectar Vanetzian, an Armenian Christian who was one of the few survivors of an Ottoman attack on the village of Tadem (modern Tadim, in Turkey) in 1915, the worst year of the Armenian Genocide
This violent persecution flared up again during the First World War. In 1915 alone approximately 800,000 Armenian Christians were killed, often in the most brutal and inhumane ways. The same brutality was meted out against Assyrian, Syriac and Greek Christians. In 1900, Christians were nearly a third of Turkey’s population. By 1927 they were less than 2%.
The twentieth century
It is not known how many Christians were killed by the various communist and far-right totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. By some estimates between 12 and 20 million Christians died in the USSR, though we cannot be certain that these victims of Soviet brutality were all killed as martyrs for their faith. More than 100,000 church leaders were killed between 1937 and 1941, at the height of Stalin’s campaign against the Church.
Repression of Christianity was, if anything, even more severe in Mao Zedong’s China. One of the differences between the Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union and Mao’s communism was the Maoist focus on revolution by changing hearts and minds rather than through action by a small revolutionary group (known as a vanguard). This lent itself even more clearly to totalitarian practices – Maoism could not rest content with merely outward conformity, but demanded heartfelt agreement with its dogma. Totalitarianism was at its most severe during the 1966-76 “Cultural Revolution”.
In this period the Communist authorities attempted by extreme and brutal methods to re-assert Maoism. Mao urged the supporters of communism to destroy the “four olds”: old ideas, old customs, old habits and old culture. Many Christian believers faced censure and imprisonment, while church buildings and Bibles were destroyed. In the overall chaos and the subsequent attempt to restore order, between 500,000 and two million people lost their lives, among them thousands of believers. Today’s North Korea bears striking similarities to Maoist China in its totalitarian insistence on the hearts and minds of people, and its fierce denunciation of any religion, philosophy or ideology that challenges its domination.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, mass killings of Christians were fewer in number. Persecution still raged in many parts of the world, but was generally more to do with discrimination and marginalisation, often resulting in desperate poverty. However, the twentieth century saw the rise of the often violent religious extremist ideologies that are behind the mass slaughter of believers that have taken place in the early years of the twenty-first century.
Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar (Burma)
It may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that Buddhism is responsible for some of the worst mass killings of Christians in recent times. While Buddhist nationalism and the nationalist and extremist forms of other South and South-East Asian religions have caused many problems for our brothers and sisters, it is in Myanmar (Burma) in particular that Buddhist extremists have engaged in massacres of Christians.
For six decades the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) – which for much of that time was also the country’s government – has meted out violent persecution against Christians. The Tatmadaw represents the dominant national identity of Burman (or Bamar) ethnicity and Buddhist religion. These two elements are intrinsically linked: “To be Burman is to be Buddhist,” runs a popular saying. While there are Buddhists among Myanmar’s non-Bamar ethnic minority groups, many of these have adopted other religions. The Chin, Kachin and Karen groups are predominantly Christian, while there are also significant numbers of Christians among the Kayah (Karenni), Shan and Naga peoples.
The brutal genocide waged by the Tatmadaw against the Muslim-majority Rohingya people of Myanmar has rightly garnered international condemnation, but little has been done about it. In June 2018 a Sky News report concluded that because this anti-Muslim persecution went unpunished, the Tatmadaw felt emboldened to turn its attention to Kachin Christians. The reports described “evidence of a second genocidal campaign”.
This campaign was ramped up after the February 2021 coup in which the military reasserted its full control over the government of Myanmar. Tatmadaw leaders issued instructions to “punish and break down” ethnic-minority Christians. Hundreds have died in aerial bombardments, artillery attacks and other military assaults on Christian villages, schools and church buildings. In just one incident on Christmas Day 2021, at least 35 people in a Christian area of Kayah State were shot and burned. “We all had tears in our eyes,” said a church leader. “We couldn’t say Merry Christmas anymore. Christmas was very dark for us … The presence of the burned bodies was there around us.”
The rise of Islamic State
Islamic State (IS – also known as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) first emerged in 2002, taking advantage of the chaos that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq the following year to establish its position in the region. It was from 2010 onwards that IS rose to prominence, capturing Raqqa in Syria in March 2013 and declaring it the IS capital. In June 2014 IS conducted a lightning strike through northern and western Iraq, seizing the cities of Mosul and Tikrit among other areas. At its height IS governed an area that incorporated a third of Iraq and a quarter of Syria, ruling over eight million people. IS declared the establishment of a caliphate, with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph to whom all Muslims owe allegiance.
Christians in IS-controlled Iraq and Syria were among the many thousands who suffered from the kind of brutality that even other jihadi groups had not meted out. IS fighters even cut out and ate the hearts of some of their victims. In 2016 first the European Union, then the US House of Representatives, and then the UK Parliament declared the treatment by IS of Christians and other religious minorities (such as Yazidis) a genocide.
In an infamous massacre, IS beheaded 21 Christians – 20 Egyptians and one Ghanaian – on a beach in Libya in February 2015. Each of the victims had refused to convert to Islam. The Egyptian Christians whispered the name “Jesus” in Arabic as they died. The terrorists then turned to the Ghanaian believer, who declared, “Their God is my God.” In a similar incident a year later, 34 Ethiopian Christians were beheaded by IS terrorists.
In July 2017 Iraqi forces liberated Mosul from IS rule, and had retaken control of all the Iraqi territory previously controlled by IS by the end of that year. Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated Raqqa, the former IS capital, in October 2017, and by March 2019 IS had lost all of its Syrian territory, with the SDF announcing the defeat of the caliphate.
“How many of you are willing to die for Christ?” asked the Sunday School teachers to the children of Zion Evangelical Church, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, on Easter morning 2019. Each child raised a hand. Only moments later a suicide bomber detonated himself at the church, killing 15 adults and 14 of the children who had just pledged their willingness to die for the Name of their Lord and Saviour. This bombing was part of a co-ordinated attack by IS militants on Sri Lankan churches and other places where Christians were expected to be that Easter. The final death toll was 253.
IS, however, was never fully eradicated. It remains a security threat in the Middle East and elsewhere, while sub-Saharan Africa has become the venue for continuing violent atrocities carried out against Christian believers by Islamist terrorists, IS-affiliated groups among them. In May 2022, for example, IS published a video showing the murder of around 20 Nigerian Christians – revenge, they said, for the killing of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi by US special forces in Syria earlier that year.
Such is the scope of Islamist activity in this vast region of the world that in November 2020 the Global Terrorism Index reported “a surge in terrorism” that proved that Africa had become the “centre of gravity” for IS. More recently experts, noting that at least 20 African countries have suffered Islamist activity, have made predictions of an Islamic caliphate stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. (See pp.23-4 for more.)
Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique
The jihadists who carried out the July 2023 atrocity in Uganda were fighters from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group that forms one part of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP). The ADF was formed in Uganda in the mid-1990s as a rebel group opposed to the Ugandan government. The Islamist tendency within ADF came to the fore in 2017 when the group – now based in the restive Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – pledged allegiance to IS.
The slaughter in Uganda – the result of a raid across the porous border between western Uganda and the ADF’s stronghold in north-eastern DRC – was widely reported and widely condemned. Yet ADF Islamists have been engaged in the mass killing of Christians in DRC’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces for years.
At least 64 people in Christian-majority areas were killed in ADF attacks in North Kivu in early March 2023 alone. Nineteen were killed in a Sunday morning raid in which the Islamists also burned down a hospital. A few days earlier 45 had been killed in a neighbouring village. In a single incident 17 worshippers were killed and 39 wounded when an improvised bomb exploded during a Sunday morning church service in the town of Kasindi, also in North Kivu.
“I am traumatised by seeing people die around me,” said 25-year-old Masika, whose sister-in-law, sitting a few metres from Masika, died instantly in the bomb attack. Another Christian in north-eastern DRC declared, “Our strength has only come in the love and knowledge of our Saviour Jesus Christ who we know has given us hope and we are persevering.”
Since 2017 militant Islamists have been waging a brutal campaign in northern Mozambique against both Christians and moderate Muslims who refuse to join their cause. Islamic State Mozambique (ISM) – known locally as Al Shabaab (but not linked to the Somalia-based group of the same name) – killed nearly 6,000 people and displaced 950,000 between October 2017 and the end of 2022. ISM is the other half of Islamic State Central Africa Province.
In one notable massacre in November 2020, ISM beheaded 50 people, most of them Christians, at a football ground in Cabo Delgado Province. Violence in Cabo Delgado has persisted. In just two examples, ISM announced the killing of more than 20 Christians in October 2022, and in February this year declared that “the soldiers of the Caliphate … captured five Christians and slaughtered them, praise be to God”.
Northern and Middle Belt Nigeria is currently the deadliest place in the world for Christians, with believers frequently slaughtered by various jihadists, including the Islamic State West Africa Province and Boko Haram, along with radicalised Fulani Islamists. The death toll keeps climbing. From February 2022 to January 2023 there were 1,350 reported deaths of Christians at the hands of Islamists. This figure is only a conservative estimate – Barnabas Aid contacts in Nigeria believe that fewer than half of the killings are reported, meaning that the annual Christian death toll from extremist violence is around 3,000 or higher.
In September 2021, 34 people – mostly women and children – were killed in Kaura Local Government Area (LGA), a Christian-majority area of Kaduna State. “We intend to have a mass burial to call the attention of the world to what is happening to our people,” said a local church leader – but the world took no notice.
In March 2022 at least 34 more were killed by Islamists in Kaura LGA, with at least another 50 believers murdered in other areas of Kaduna that same month. Pastor John Joseph Hayab, chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Kaduna, called for “substantial action by the government and security forces” – but there was no action. Two months later Islamist militants killed another 32 Kaduna Christians. A mass burial had to be interrupted because the terrorists were again sighted.
Examples can be multiplied, and Kaduna is not the only area affected, but this gives just a taste of the horrors being meted out against our Nigerian brothers and sisters by the implacable enemies of Christ and His people.
Hope amidst sorrow
Mass killings, massacres and even genocide are an intrinsic part of the history of the Church. They are continuing still. They will continue for “a little longer” – until the triumphant return of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The passage with which we began this account urges us to look ahead with hope, for the martyrs beneath the altar of God are given a white robe and blessed with everlasting peace. In the fullness of time they – and all who love the Lord Jesus – will be gathered together with Him.
Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” (Revelation 7:13-17)