Acts of violence and harassment towards an individual or group of people based on their religion or beliefs have been part history for years. This form of persecution is a tragic reality that is often initiated by authorities who feel threatened by a group of people who have a different belief from them.
In history, most religious persecution happened towards Christians, Jews, and even Muslims. Oftentimes, they were wrongly accused and oppressed for simply practicing their faith. They were ostracized, tortured, and even sentenced to the most gruesome forms of death.
If you read the news, you will surely notice that religious persecution is still part of everyday reality in the lives of many people. Currently, there are 50 countries where it is deemed unsafe for Christians to visit. Christianity may be among the most popular region today, but one cannot deny the fact that it was and it still is the most oppressed religion today.
The church had undergone brutal and bloody sacrifices from its members throughout history. The list below shows the most painful example of religious persecution in history that many Christians had experienced because of their loyalty to their faith.
1. Stoning to death
Stoning is one of the most brutal forms of capital punishment in history. Those sentenced to stoning or lapidation are buried in a hole and covered with stone. A chosen group then executes the person by repeatedly throwing huge rocks at him until he dies.
The most famous recorded history of stoning was the martyrdom of St. Stephen. He was the first Catholic deacon who was persecuted for his faith. His story was recorded in Acts Chapter 7 of the Bible.
St. Stephen was buried by Christians, but the exact location of his tomb was unknown. However, in 415 AD, a priest named Lucian had a dream that revealed the gravesite where St. Stephen’s remains were located. His name was found inside, confirming it belonged to the martyred saint. His relics were later brought to the church of Hagia Sion on December 26, 415 AD. Today, the Catholic Church hailed him as the patron saint of stoneworkers. He also has his own cult of believers spread widely from Jerusalem to Constantinople, North Africa, Rome, and Prague.
Nowadays, stoning is still a legal form of punishment for serious crime offenders in some Middle Eastern countries. However, this was mostly used against women accused of adultery. In this process, the husband was given the so-called honor to throw the first stone. Then, their children were coaxed into participating in killing their own mother afterward. In Brunei, they implemented stoning as part of their anti-LGBT law in which individuals accused of engaging in homosexual activities will be subjected to such a form of the death penalty.
Beheading or decapitation is a form of capital punishment in which the head is severed from the body. During ancient times, the Greeks and Romans considered it the most honorable form of punishment. Before execution, the criminal was tied to a stake and repeatedly whipped with rods. Originally, an ax was used for execution. But Romans used swords because they regarded it as a more honorable instrument of death.
One of the prominent Christian figures who experienced beheading was St. James. James became a popular and influential figure in Jerusalem during the first century. King Herod Agrippa, I of Judea gave an order to decapitate James’s head in 44 AD. His body was then taken to Santiago de Compostela following Spanish tradition.
Another notable decapitation of a Christian was the execution of Bollandists. They are Jesuit scholars who started publishing massive 68-folio volumes of “Acta Sanctorum” or the “Lives of the Saints” in 1643. These martyrs were beheaded on February 14, 269-270 AD, and their death was the liturgical origin of Valentine’s Day many people are celebrating nowadays.
Another Catholic martyr who was beheaded was St. Dymphna. She consecrated herself to Christ when she was fourteen, and took a vow of chastity. When her mother died, St. Dymphna’s father was trying to force him into marrying him, but she refused. Enraged, her father beheaded her with his own hands. She was only fifteen-years-old at that time.
In the Philippines, two hundred Filipinos started a revolt against the Spanish colonization on January 20, 1872. This led to the persecution of three secular priests, Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgoz, and Jacinto Zamora, who were collectively known as GomBurZa, after they were accused of spearheading the uprising. The GomBurZa were publicly executed through a garrote on February 17, 1872, at Bagumbayan in Manila.
Beheading is no longer considered as a form of punishment today. However, several Christians are still becoming victims of abominations. Recent reports of Christians being abducted and decapitated by terrorist groups are becoming increasingly alarming. Ongoing Islamic extremist groups in some countries are becoming more brutal in their attempts to exterminate Christians.
Similar to the concept of actual grilling, execution using a gridiron means the accused is placed on a grate over a bed of coals. It was the usual punishment given to people who committed crimes of treason. One of the notable Christians who had suffered painful death by gridiron was St. Lawrence.
St. Lawrence was among the seven deacons tasked of helping the less privileged under Pope Sixtus II who was also persecuted by Valerian. Following the execution of the pope, Emperor Valerian offered the saint clemency in exchange for bringing him the fortune hidden away by the church in three days. However, St. Lawrence brought the poor people who were receiving church aids instead, which made the emperor furious. Lawrence was then condemned to a slow and brutal death by grilling on a gridiron.
4. Burned at Stake
Death of burning is among one of the horrible ways n prisoner could be executed in early times. The punishment by fire is always inflicted in cases in heresy or blasphemy. At the beginning of the 14th century, 59 Templars were burned at stakes at the same time in France for crimes of heresy and witchcraft.
One of the notable Christians who died using this method was Joan of Arc. At such a young age, she led the French army to victory through divine guidance bestowed upon her. However, she was condemned as a heretic when she was captured and was given a death sentence of burning by the stake.
Thomas Cranmer was committed to his Protestant faith in Catholic England when that was dangerous at that time. He was assigned to the highest position in the English Church and became the first Protestant Archbishop of the Canterbury. Cranmer was sentenced with heresy after he protested against Queen Mary’s decision of replacing the English Prayer Book with the old Latin Mass. He was removed from his office and was persuaded to sign six recantations in exchange for clemency.
Cranmer signed the papers of recantation, however, Queen Mary’s animosity towards him and Protestants was great that she insisted on burning him at a stake. On March 21, 1556, Cranmer was given permission to preach before a massive crowd to publicize his recantation. He repented all his sins at the end of his speech, including his denial of the Protestant religion. Amid uproar and commotion, he was led off to the fire and burned.
5. Crushing or Pressing
Dating back to the 13th century, England used crushing as a form of punishment, and it lasted until Britain’s Enlightenment. Victims suffered not only suffocation, but their bones were also crushed and sometimes even burst through their skin.
The people who were sentenced to death by pressing in Britain had not been found guilty of any crime. In fact, they refused to plead innocent or guilty, and crushing was supposed to coerce them to enter a plea so they could go to trial.
This form of execution was also used during the Salem Witch Trials in which more than 200 innocent citizens were wrongly accused and 20 of them were executed. The colony eventually admitted the trial was a mistake and compensated the families of those who were convicted.
A notable Catholic woman who suffered the fate of death by pressing was St. Margaret Clitherow. Her devotion to the Catholic Church led her to harbor fugitive priests. She even allowed masses to be conducted in her home secretly. This created tension in her marriage with her husband. St. Margaret started to subvert the authorities and the official church by being a recusant or a non-church attender. Soon, she was arrested and imprisoned by hostile authorities. St. Margaret was offered recourse in exchange for denying her faith, but she stood firm in her religion and was ordered to be executed by pressing to death.
On March 25, 1586, St. Margaret was stretched out on the ground with a sharp rock on her back and her body was crushed under a door overladen with unbearable weights. Her bones were broken, and she died within 15 minutes.
Keelhauling was a severe form of punishment in which the condemned person was tied to the anchor of a ship and was dragged beneath its keel. This execution was said to be used by the navy and the pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The most concrete records that show the use of keelhauling as punishment seem to originate from the Dutch Navy. This gruesome practice was only banned as a method of torture in 1750.
St. Clement of Rome was persecuted using this method. He was considered as the First Apostolic Father of the Church, and he was the third successor of St. Peter in Rome. During his life, St. Clement was able to convert many people in Rome, many of which were high ranking Roman citizens. His actions caught the attention of Emperor Trajan who sent him to exile in Crimea.
However, it was said that St. Clement performed various miracles during his stay in Crimea, encouraging thousands of people to be converted to Christianity. When Trajan heard about this, he sentenced St. Clement to death by keelhauling.
Flaying is a form of capital punishment in which the person is stripped and their hands and feet are tied to prevent movement. Then, the executioner will slash the skin with a sharp knife and peel it away from the muscles. The face is often flayed first to inflict severe torture because the condemned person is still unconscious. To make the punishment even more unbearable, the executioner could also part boiling the person first in a few minutes to soften the skin, making it easier to tear away.
This method is agonizing, and the person could die either through the shock of the pain, blood loss, hypothermia, or infection. Many cultures had practiced flayings, such as the Aztecs and Assyrians. The displayed skin of a flayed person is often used as a warning and a deterrent. This practice lasted from 900 AD until it was banned in 1905.
Chinese people also practiced a similar kind of punishment called “Ling Chi” or “death of a thousand cuts.” This prolonged death was only awarded to anyone guilty of treason.
One Christian who suffered a horrible death using this method was one of Jesus’ apostles, St. Bartholomew. Bartholomew converted Polymers, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. Astyages, the kings’ brother, heard about this and he ordered Bartholomew to be persecuted. He was sentenced to death in Albanapolis, Armenia where he died after he was skinned alive.
A crucifixion is a form of capital punishment in which the victim is bound or nailed to a large wooden beam and left to hang for several days until he dies from exhaustion and asphyxiation. It was a form of punishment used by the Romans. The prisoner was sometimes left displayed after death as a form of warning to any other potential criminals.
In some cases, the condemned was forced to carry the crossbeam to the place of execution. The gibbet on which the crucifixion was carried out could be of many shapes. At times, the gibbet was only one vertical stake called the “crux simplex.” This was the simplest available construction for torturing and killing condemned. Sometimes, there was a cross-piece attached either at the top to give a shape of a T, which is called crux commissa, or just below the top known as crux immisa.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Jesus’ death on the cross symbolizes the Christian call to take up their own cross every day and choose God daily. During his crucifixion, Jesus hung on the cross for about six hours, from approximately 9 am to 3 pm. While he was on the cross, he spoke to his mother, Mary, and his Disciple John. It was typical for Roman soldiers to show mercy by breaking the criminal’s legs, causing death to come quickly. But when they came to Jesus, he was already dead, so they decided to pierce his side instead. Before sunset, Jesus was taken down by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and he was laid in Joseph’s tomb.
Another notable death by crucifixion in the Catholic Church was the death of St. Andrew. St. Andrew was among the first disciples of Christ. He is the older brother of St. Peter and he was born in the village of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee between 5 AD and 10 AD. He worked as a fisherman, along with his brother Simon Peter, before he became a disciple of Jesus.
Andrew traveled to the shores of the Black Sea to preach the gospel and throughout what is now known as Greece and Turkey. When he was in Greece, Governor Aegeas told him to renounce his faith and stop preaching. St. Andrew refused and he was sentenced to be crucified to death in the city of Patras. He was supposed to be crucified on a cross, but he requested an X-shaped one because he felt unworthy of dying on an upright one as Jesus did. He was bound, rather than nailed, on a cross form known as “crux decussata.”
Ancient forms of torture are notorious for their cruelty and unique ways of inflicting excruciating pain. Being martyr means being faithful to what you believe in despite being under the threat of death. For years, people who have expressed unwavering faith have suffered different kinds of unimaginable tortures.
The people who suffered for their beliefs have been regarded as icons of inspiration. In Christianity, the most faithful ones who endured the most terrible death were canonized and now celebrated as saints.
These are only a few of the sacrifices the early Christians made to spread their religion and the word of God. Until today, persecution against Christian believers is still rampant. Millions of believers around the world are suffering for their faith. Religion should not become a basis for oppression. For society to progress, they should be able to allow their people to practice the faith they want to believe in without forcing anyone to conform.