Forcing Religious Conversion by Pain of Death or Torture

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A Brief History

On August 14, 1480, during the protracted Battle of Otranto in Southern Italy, a siege of the city between the Ottoman Turks and the Italian defenders of their homeland, the Ottomans, who of course were of the Islamic faith, took 800 Christian Italians hostage and gave them a choice, convert to Islam or be executed.  The Italian Christians chose not to renounce their faith, and in turn beheaded by the Ottomans.  Sadly, this terrible incident is but one of many in which one side or the other has attempted to use force upon other people to cause those people to convert to the religion of the imposing side.  In fact, history is replete with such attempts to force a particular religion upon people, often with the choice of conversion or death, or enslavement, often with torture used as a method of convincing the recalcitrant to make the switch!

Digging Deeper

Not only have major religious branches attempted to force their religion on others, even sects within the so called “Great Religions” have also tried to impose their own set of beliefs upon other denominations of their religious co-worshippers.  In England, Queen Mary I, known as Bloody Mary for a reason, was a fierce opponent of non-Catholic British people and had those that opposed the Catholic faith imprisoned or killed in a religious persecution known as the “Marian Persecutions,” burning about 280 Protestants at the stake!  Although Mary was the daughter of King Henry VIII who had broken England from the Catholic Church, she was also the daughter of Queen Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, who was Catholic.  Mary only reigned for 5 years, and when she died in 1558, the throne was taken by her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I, who re-imposed the Protestant faith of her father (King Henry VIII) upon England.  When the British started colonizing North America, the Puritans were loathe to allow any deviation from their own strict faith and laws were enacted requiring obedience to those religious principles.  Some colonies had to be established just so that potential colonists could avoid such forced religious compliance.

Going way back in history (supposedly), the story of Daniel in the Bible is an example of the attempt to force religious conversion and whether it really happened or not, stands as evidence that ancient people were no strangers to forced religious conversion.  (Daniel was a devout Jew in Babylon and was coerced into renouncing his religion and accepting the pagan religion of the place and time he found himself.  He steadfastly refused to convert and renounce his Jewish religion, and with other factors related to court intrigue resulting in him being thrown into the den of lions as punishment, which of course he survived due to divine intervention.  Daniel is celebrated by Jews and others, even Muslims, as a paragon of religious virtue.)

Colonial powers have also been somewhat unyielding in imposing their religion on Native or conquered people as well.  Islam spread across much of the Middle East, North Africa and Western Asia largely by the forcing of the religion upon conquered people.  In turn, when the Christians got the upper hand in Spain, the Catholic Church forced Muslims to convert to Catholicism or face death or deportation.  The infamous Inquisition conducted by the Catholic Church started in France in the 12 Century, rooting out and crushing religious dissent, and reached its high point (or low point, depending on perspective) in the Spanish Inquisition, 1478-1834, in which heretics, Muslims and Jews bore the brunt of the attack by Catholic Inquisitors.  Western literature, film and other cultural references are replete with allusions to the Catholic Inquisitions, often to an exaggerated extent, making them the most often first thought of example of such religious persecution.

European Christians brought the philosophy of imposing Christianity on Native Americans when the New World was first being settled, especially by the Spanish and Portuguese who sought to force Native people to take the Christian path.  The Spanish often gave Native people a choice between becoming Christians and working for the Spanish or being killed or driven off the land.  Missionaries were a bit more subtle, and savvy Natives quickly realized converting to Christianity with apparent enthusiasm brought them better treatment by the Spanish conquerors.

Today, in the modern world, the forcing of religion upon people is largely a function of Muslim extremists that insist not only on adherence to Islam, but on whatever particular brand of Islam is being practiced in the theocratic state involved, such as Afghanistan or Iran.  In some areas under the complete control of Islamic extremists, non-conformity is dealt with by severe punishment, including death.

One notable historical exception to a conqueror imposing the religion of his people on conquered people was Napoleon Bonaparte, who famously accepted non-Catholic religions as a method of better getting along with foreign people rather than creating deep rooted animosity by forced religious conversion.  He is quoted as saying, “I have often told you, and repeated to you, that I was a Muslim, that I believed in the unity of God, that I honoured the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and loved the Muslims…”  These words were spoken in regards to Napoleon’s exploits in the Muslim land of Egypt.  As a French Revolutionary, Napoleon was inclined to lean away from religious dogma, but his political acumen allowed him to understand that religion could be used to manipulate people, and he publicly therefore embraced faith, for his own purposes.

Another modern (20th Century) example of imposing “religious” beliefs on others was the communist movement as practiced by the Soviets, both in their own country, the Soviet Union, and in other countries they held sway over.  In this case, the “religion” refers not to the atheistic aspect of communism, though the Soviets certainly did ride that particular train, but the political philosophy that the entire world must be converted to communism through any and every means available, including by force.  Their avowed goal was to impose communism on the entire world.  That goal remains unmet…

While we often characterize certain Muslim majority countries as theocracies, some Christian majority countries also use religion as a basis for national laws that impose their religion on the citizens whether the citizens like it or not.  An example would be the divorce and abortion laws in Ireland, or what used to be called “Blue Laws” in the United States.  Honoring Sunday as a day in which liquor was not sold, people could not hunt and the like made little sense to non-religious people, or even to those citizens who practiced a “Holy Day” on Saturday, such as Muslims, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and others.  Blue laws may not rise to the level of coercion that torture, imprisonment or death implies, but it still is a form of coercion, nonetheless.  Even timing holidays to coincide with religious events (Christmas and Easter) certainly bespeaks a government preference for a particular religion. What do you think?

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you believe Blue Laws violate the separation of church and state?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Ethan, S Ren Jehoaikim.  Ottoman Invasion of Otranto.  Volvpress, 2011.

Laband, David.  Blue Laws: The History, Economics, and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws.  Lexington Books, 1987.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Attilios (talk | contribs) of the Castle of Otranto, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.