When Tyrants Banned Religious Minorities

Looking back over the course of the past 2,000 years, it is remarkable how many violent and discriminatory measures were about profit and patriotism.


In the wake of the Trump administration’s changes to immigration regulations, many people are wondering if this is the beginning of religious censorship in the United States. Certainly it wouldn’t be the first time a government implemented a ban on members of a religious group it viewed dangerous or subversive. But religious bans never work out for anyone: either those being targeted or the governments sending others into exile.

Roman Emperor Vespasian Expels the Stoics

When we think about religion we often mean ethics and how a person choose to live his or her life. In the Greco-Roman world the task of debating what it means to live a good life fell not to priests but to philosophers. Much like today’s modern press, ancient Stoic philosophers saw themselves as responsible for exercising “bold speech,” that is, reprimanding their leaders and speaking truth to power. This situation had the potential to make philosophers very unpopular with governmental officials.

In the first century CE the emperor Vespasian expelled virtually all of the Stoic philosophers from Rome. According to the historian Cassius Dio, when one philosopher, Demetrius, decided to resist, Vespasian told him, “You are doing everything to force me to kill you, but I do not slay a barking dog.” Helvidius Priscus, an anti-imperial philosopher who spoke out in favor of returning Rome to a republic, was executed. These events were just one moment in a tense relationship between Roman philosophers and Roman emperors that lasted for much of the second half of the first century.

Diocletian persecutes the Christians

For the vast majority of the first three centuries of the Common Era, Christians lived in relative safety. Christians could be executed for sedition, treason, or any of the many other crimes that warranted the death penalty, but save for a few months under the emperor Valerian they were not the targets of official legislation.

As I wrote in my book Myth of Persecution, this changed between 303-305 when the emperor Diocletian attempted to unify the empire through a series of edicts designed to elicit displays of patriotism and loyalty. The publication of the first edict made the holding of Christian meetings illegal and ordered the destruction of Christian places of worship and the confiscation of Christian scriptures. Christians were denied the right either to petition the courts or to respond to legal actions brought against them, making them especially vulnerable in judicial contexts. Christians with distinguished social status lost their rank and imperial freedmen were enslaved. Everyone, including Christians, was now expected to sacrifice before engaging in any legal or official business.

A second edict was published in the summer of 303, ordering the arrest of Christian clergy. The third edict in November 303 provided an amnesty for imprisoned clergy providing that they participated in a loyalty test to the emperor. The fourth and final edict, issued in the spring of 304, required that everyone – men, women, and children – gather in a public space to offer sacrifice. If they refused they were to be executed. The edicts certainly produced martyrs but it drove many more Christians into hiding and exile.

King Philip Expels the “Moriscos”

In 1609 King Philip III of Spain ordered the expulsion of a group known, somewhat perjoratively, as the “moriscos” or “little-moors.” The moriscos were the descendants of Spain’s historic Muslim population, which had arrived on the Iberian peninsula with the Umayyad conquest in 711. Some nine hundred years later roughly one million “moriscos” lived in Spain, having been forcibly converted to Christianity by Spain’s Archibishop Cisneros in the fifteenth century.

Despite their conversion, popular prejudice continued to be suspicious of the “moriscos” and held that they engaged in secretive Islamic rituals. The result was that between 1609 and 1616 as many as 300,000 people were exiled from Spain. Most of them settled in Morocco and on the fringes of the Ottoman empire.

Ethics aside, the expulsion of the moriscos, as the Daily Beast has reported before, was extremely counter-productive for the Spanish and actually devastated the economy of the Kingdom of Valencia. More importantly it shows how tightly interwoven religious and racial prejudice can be.

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England exiles Jews

There is no shortage of governments that have persecuted the Jews. Religious and political authorities alike have focused negative attention on Jews as a means of galvanizing popular support, creating scapegoats, and deflecting attention from themselves. In 1290 King Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion and exiled around 2000 Jews from England. His actions were in part motivated by a financial crisis within the royal household. When Edward first expelled the Jews from Gascony and England he appropriated their property and debts. He then passed on the cost of deportation to the English taxpayers who, fired up by anti-Semitic myths and folklore, were happy to foot the bill of exiling scapegoated English Jews.

In their article “States, Regimes, and Decisions,” Karen Barkey (now the Haas Distinguished Chair of religious diversity at UC Berkeley) and Ira Katznelson (Ruggles Professor of political science and history at Columbia) argue that the expulsion was not just about money; it was about state building. They argue that the motivation behind the expulsion of Jews from England and France was the “result of attempts by kings to manage royal insecurity, refashion relations between state and society, and build more durable systems of taxation within the territories they claimed as theirs.” All of which means that as European social identities began to fossilize and Jews became less financially important, Jews also became more clearly identifiable as outsiders. This left them socially and politically vulnerable and ultimately led to their eviction.

Japan bans the “Foreigners”

In the seventeenth century, and following decades of trade with Europe, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the shogun of Japan, decided to expel foreigners from the country. Issued in 1635, the Sakoku edict banned foreigners already in Japan; it also

“threatened any foreigners who tried to enter the country illegally or anyone who practiced Christianity with the death penalty.” The purpose of the ban was not just to limit “foreign” incursions into Japan but also to protect Japan from evangelization by Catholic missionaries in particular. As with Diocletian, there was a religious loyalty test (fumi-e) that people had to pass in order to prove that they were not Christians: they had to step on a picture of Jesus. Those who refused to renounce Christianity were often tortured and killed.

The ban on foreigners lasted for two hundred years before an American Commodore, Matthew Perry, sailed a four-ship squadron into Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay) in July 1853. Perry provided Japanese officials with two white flags and told them to hoist the flags when they wanted him to stop firing his cannons at their buildings. The incident marks the beginning of the end of the isolationist policy.

Looking back over the course of the past two thousand years, it is remarkable how many of these violent and discriminatory measures were about profit and patriotism. As Dr. Heidi Wendt of Wright State University told The Daily Beast, "the evidence would suggest that these incidents were not typically, if ever, a straightforward matter of religious or intellectual intolerance." Wendt added, "What is more certain is that [religious bans] often had the paradoxical effect of drawing attention to and legitimating the very practices or figures targeted [by this legislation], with the result that the latter's influence only expanded."

The specters of foreign dangers and internal sedition hung over all of these governments, but the sense that national unity could be secured only by eliminating religious difference, and national interest by excluding foreigners, are persistent themes. To this day a number of countries enforce legislation that selectively targets members of specific religious groups: since 2016, to take one example at random, Putin’s Russia has forbidden evangelization outside of churches.