“Religious Persecution has not Abated to this Day”

Cluster of Excellence investigates persecution “for God’s sake” from the Middle Ages to the present day

Tuesdays, from 6.15 to 7.45 p.m., Lecture hall F2 at the Fürstenberghaus, Domplatz 20-22



© wikipedia

The religious persecution of heretics around the world has, from the point of view of historians, not abated in the course of history. “The assumption that the secular modern age had overcome the persecution of people for the sake of their religion, unfortunately, turned out to be a misapprehension”, said historian Prof. Dr. Wolfram Drews from the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”. All over the world, he added, people were still being discriminated against, expelled, killed and their sacred sites destroyed for religious reasons, be they imagined or real. Numerous historical cases showed that virtually every religious community engaged in persecution “for God’s sake”. The scholar announced a public lecture series on the issue of “Persecution for God’s Sake. Politico-Religious Conflicts in the Pre-Modern and Modern Age”. The series of the Cluster of Excellence and of the new Centrum für Mittelalter- und Frühneuzeitforschung (Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, CMF) will start on 9 April.


Prof. Dr. Wolfram Drews

© WWU/ Anna Overmeyer

“Members of one and the same religion may act as persecutor on one occasion and be the persecuted on the next”, the expert explained. Prejudices about Islam being always ready to use violence or Buddhism being ever peaceful could not be maintained from a historical perspective. The situation was complex: “In the Middle Ages, for example, even Buddhist monasteries waged wars,” and Christians persecuted heretics. “Today, Christians are the religious community which is being persecuted the most worldwide.” In the Middle East, their area of origin, for instance, they were pressurised and left their home; Bethlehem with its formerly Christian majority had recently become a town with a Muslim majority, the scholar said.  At the same time, there were almost daily reports of Islamist acts of violence, which were justified as God’s will. “Most of the victims of the assassinations in the Middle East, however, are neither Christians nor western soldiers deployed there but, again, members of Islam.”

Persecution “for God’s sake” from the Middle Ages to the modern age

The public lecture series looks into the discrimination and persecution of heretics with the help of numerous examples across medieval and modern history. Topics range from the Christian fight against heresy in the early Middle Ages, the confessional conflicts of the early modern age, and the struggle between church and state in the GDR, to the persecution of Buddhists in communist Cambodia and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. “The lectures aim to question suppositions and draw a differentiated picture”, explained Prof. Drews. Representatives from various disciplines – from history, religious studies, sociology, theology, book science, Romance and Byzantine studies – will take the floor. The lectures will be given Tuesdays from 6.15 to 7.45 p.m. in lecture theatre F2 at Domplatz 20-22.

Depending on the historical situation, the reasons for religious persecution are very different, the scholar explained. “In some cases, discrimination was justified with religious arguments – as if it were commanded by God. In other cases, it served to spread a religion – even then a divine authority was quoted as the reason for persecution.” However, it needed to be identified in every single historical case whether religion had only been a pretence or a deeper reason for persecution: “political motives often played a role. The persecution of heretics was rarely motivated by religion alone”, said Prof. Drews. Political systems often persecuted people because of their religiousness. “The National Socialists put priests and members of monastic orders on trial and transported some of them to concentration camps.” Other examples that Prof. Drews named were the persecution of Buddhists under Pol Pot and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the persecution of Christians in the GDR.

The consequences of religious persecution can often be seen in architecture today, according to the historian: “In England, the destruction of monasteries and churches during the Protestant Reformation changed virtually the whole architectural landscape. Some abbeys fell to ruins, others were turned into country estates and castles, church ground was sold to noblemen.” In Germany and Spain, synagogues were transformed into Churches of Our Lady. In those regions in the Netherlands and Germany where a Calvinist influence prevailed, the churches had lost their entire medieval pictorial decoration during the iconoclasms. “Examples of the modern age: the National Socialists had monasteries closed; the GDR leaders had churches demolished; statues, temples and pagoda were destroyed under the communists in Cambodia and China.”

Prof. Drews described that, depending on the social, political and economic situation, people developed very different protective strategies against religious persecution. “Was it possible to escape or to go underground? Could one’s own identity be denied?” The “strategy of apparent adaptation” could often be observed: “Outwardly, one pretended to yield to the will of the persecutors, but inwardly, one stuck to one’s previous belief. In this case, people did not emigrate but went into inner exile instead. This can be found in any religion.” According to the scholar, it is difficult for historians to verify which motives in fact led to an embracing of another faith; the sources contained almost no relevant clues. In some cases, representatives of a religion even deliberately countered religious persecution, as the medievalist pointed out. “Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, who had indeed also called for the Second Crusade, openly preached against the persecution of Jews in the Rhineland associated with it.” (ska/vvm)


09.04.2013 Gerd Althoff, Münster Beata persecutio. Verfolgung der „Bösen“ als Akt der Liebe und des Erbarmens (5.-13. Jahrhundert)
16.04.2013 Detlef Pollack, Münster Der Triumph des Kommunismus über das Christentum: Kirchenkampf in der DDR
23.04.2013 Michael Grünbart, Münster Häresiebekämpfung im byzantinischen Mittelalter
30.04.2013 Ulrich Pfister, Münster Italienischer Späthumanismus und reformierte Konfessionalisierung. Die welschen Exulanten, 2. Hälfte 16. Jahrhundert
07.05.2013 Ian Harris, Carlisle Buddhism under Pol Pot: Monk Mortality and Ideological Absorption
14.05.2013 Max Deeg, Cardiff Unsanftes Erwachen – antibuddhistische Polemik und reale Buddhistenverfolgung im frühmittelalterlichen China
28.05.2013 Gabriele Müller-Oberhäuser, Münster „Bloody Bonner“: Bischof Edmund Bonner und die Verfolgung der Protestanten unter Maria I. von England (1553-1558)
04.06.2013 Johannes Heil, Heidelberg Differenz, Kohabitation und Konflikt – Juden und Christen im Mittelalter
11.06.2013 Thomas Scharff, Braunschweig „Rex, quem Deus ipse docet“. Häresie und Königtum in der Karolingerzeit
18.06.2013 Bernard Heyberger, Paris Verfolgung, Diskriminierung und Zusammenleben: Christen im Nahen Osten (17.-21 Jahrhundert)
25.06.2013 Karin Westerwelle, Münster Zensur und freie Rede. Montaignes Essais im religionspolitischen Kontext
02.07.2013 Scott Hendrix, Princeton Luthers Bauernkrieg. Realpolitik oder Politik ohne Barmherzigkeit?
09.07.2013 Hans-Werner Goetz, Hamburg Wahrnehmung anderer Religionen im mittelalterlichen Christentum

Summer Semester 2013
Tuesdays,18.15 bis 19.45 Uhr
Lecture hall F2 at the Fürstenberghaus
Domplatz 20-22
48143 Münster

Lecture series of the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” in cooperation with the Centrum für Mittelalter- und Frühneuzeitforschung (Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, CMF).