Forced Conversion

Forced conversion is adoption of a different religion or irreligion under duress. Some who have been forced to convert may continue, covertly, with the beliefs and practices originally held, while outwardly behaving as converts. Crypto-Jews, crypto-Christians, crypto-Muslims and crypto-Pagans are historical examples of the latter.

Religion and power

In general, anthropologists have shown that the relationship between religion and politics is complex, especially when viewed over the expanse of human history.[1] While religious leaders and the state generally have different aims, both are concerned with power and order; both use reason and emotion to motivate behavior. Throughout history, leaders of religious and political institutions have cooperated, opposed one another, or attempted to co-opt each other, for purposes both noble and base, and have implemented programs with a wide range of driving values, from compassion aimed at alleviating current suffering to brutal change aimed at achieving longer-term goals, for the benefit of groups ranging from small cliques to all of humanity. The relationship is far from simple. But religion has often been used coercively, and has used coercion.[1]


Forced conversions occurred under the Hasmonean Kingdom. The Idumeans were forced to convert to Judaism, by threat of exile or death, depending on the source.[2][3] In Eusebíus, Christianity, and Judaism, Harold W. Attridge claims that "there is reason to think that Josephus' account of their conversion is substantially accurate." He also writes: "that these were not isolated instances, but that forced conversion was a national policy, is clear from the fact that Alexander Jannaeus (around 80 BC) demolished the city of Pella in Moab, 'because the inhabitants would not agree to adopt the national custom of the Jews.'" Josephus, Antiquities. 13.15.4.[4]

Maurice Sartre has written of the "policy of forced Judaization adopted by Hyrcanos, Aristobulus I and Jannaeus", who offered "the conquered peoples a choice between expulsion or conversion,"[5] William Horbury has written that "The evidence is best explained by postulating that an existing small Jewish population in Lower Galilee was massively expanded by the forced conversion in c.104 BC of their Gentile neighbours in the north."[6] In 2009 the BBC defended a claim that in AD 524 the Yemeni Jewish Himyar tribe, led by King Dhu Nuwas, had offered Christian residents of a village in what is now Saudi Arabia the choice between conversion to Judaism or death, and that 20,000 Christians had then been massacred. The BBC stated that "The production team spoke to many historians over 18 months, among them Nigel Groom, who was our consultant, and Professor Abdul Rahman Al-Ansary [former professor of archaeology at the King Saud University in Riyadh]."[7] Inscriptions documented by Yousef himself show the great pride he expressed after massacring more than 22,000 Christians in Zafar and Najran.[8]


Christianity was a minority religion during much of middle Roman Classical Period, and the early Christians were persecuted during that time. When Constantine I converted to Christianity, it became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. Already under the reign of Constantine I, Christian heretics had been persecuted; beginning in the late 4th century, the ancient pagan religions were also actively suppressed. In the view of many historians, the Constantinian shift turned Christianity from a persecuted religion into one capable of persecution and sometimes eager to persecute.[9]

Late Antiquity

On 27 February 380, together with Gratian and Valentinian II, Theodosius I issued the decree Cunctos populos, the so-called Edict of Thessalonica, recorded in the Codex Theodosianus xvi.1.2. This declared Trinitarian Nicene Christianity to be the only legitimate imperial religion and the only one entitled to call itself Catholic. Other Christians he described as "foolish madmen".[10] He also ended official state support for the traditional polytheist religions and customs.[11]

The Codex Theodosianus (Eng. Theodosian Code) was a compilation of the laws of the Roman Empire under the Christian emperors since 312. A commission was established by Theodosius II and his co-emperor Valentinian III on 26 March 429[12][13] and the compilation was published by a constitution of 15 February 438. It went into force in the eastern and western parts of the empire on 1 January 439.[12]

It is Our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans.... The rest, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative (Codex Theodosianus XVI 1.2.).[14]

Forced conversions of Jews were carried out with the support of rulers during Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages in Gaul, the Iberian peninsula and in the Byzantine empire.[15]

Medieval western Europe

During the Saxon Wars, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, forcibly converted the Saxons from their native Germanic paganism by way of warfare, and law upon conquest. Examples are the Massacre of Verden in 782, when Charlemagne reportedly had 4,500 captive Saxons massacred upon rebelling against conversion, and the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, a law imposed on conquered Saxons in 785 that prescribed death to those who refused to convert to Christianity.[16]

Forced conversion that occurred after the seventh century generally took place during riots and massacres carried out by mobs and clergy without support of the rulers. In contrast, royal persecutions of Jews from the late eleventh century onward generally took form of expulsions, with some exceptions, such as conversions of Jews in southern Italy of the 13th century, which were carried out by Dominican Inquisitors but instigated by King Charles II of Naples.[15]

Jews were forced to convert to Christianity by the Crusaders in Lorraine, on the Lower Rhine, in Bavaria and Bohemia, in Mainz and in Worms.[17] (see Rhineland massacres, Worms massacre (1096))

Pope Innocent III pronounced in 1201 that if one agreed to be baptized to avoid torture and intimidation, one nevertheless could be compelled to outwardly observe Christianity:

[T]hose who are immersed even though reluctant, do belong to ecclesiastical jurisdiction at least by reason of the sacrament, and might therefore be reasonably compelled to observe the rules of the Christian Faith. It is, to be sure, contrary to the Christian Faith that anyone who is unwilling and wholly opposed to it should be compelled to adopt and observe Christianity. For this reason a valid distinction is made by some between kinds of unwilling ones and kinds of compelled ones. Thus one who is drawn to Christianity by violence, through fear and through torture, and receives the sacrament of Baptism in order to avoid loss, he (like one who comes to Baptism in dissimulation) does receive the impress of Christianity, and may be forced to observe the Christian Faith as one who expressed a conditional willingness though, absolutely speaking, he was unwilling ...[18]

During the Northern Crusades against the pagan Balts and Slavs of northern Europe, forced conversions were a widely used tactic, which received papal sanction [19]. These tactics were first adopted during the Wendish Crusade, but became more widespread during the Livonian Crusade and Prussian Crusade, in which tactics including the killing of hostages, massacre, and the devastation of the lands of tribes that had not yet submitted [20]. Most of the populations of these regions were converted only after the repeated rebellion of native populations that did not want to accept Christianity even after initial forced conversion; in Old Prussia, the tactics employed in the initial conquest and subsequent conversion of the territory resulted in the death of most of the native population, whose language consequently became extinct. [21]

Early modern Iberian peninsula

After the end of the Islamic control of Spain, Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.[22] In Portugal, following an order for their expulsion in 1496, only a handful were allowed to leave and the rest were forced to convert.[23]Muslims were expelled from Portugal in 1497, and they were gradually forced to convert in the constituent kingdoms of Spain. The forced conversion of Muslims was implemented in the Crown of Castile from 1500-02 and in the Crown of Aragon in the 1520s.[24] After the conversions, the so-called "New Christians" were those inhabitants (Sephardic Jews or Mudéjar Muslims) who were baptized under coercion and in the face of execution, becoming forced converts from Islam (Moriscos, Conversos and "secret Moors") or from Judaism (Conversos, Crypto-Jews and Marranos).

After the forced conversion, when all former Muslims and Jews had ostensibly become Catholic, the Spanish Inquisition targeted primarily forced converts from Judaism, who came under suspicion of either continuing to adhere to their old religion or having fallen back into it. Jewish conversos still resided in Spain and often practised Judaism secretly and were suspected by the "Old Christians" of being Crypto-Jews. The Spanish Inquisition generated much wealth and income for the church and individual inquisitors by confiscating the property of the persecuted. The end of Al-Andalus and the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula went hand in hand with the increase of Spanish and Portuguese influence in the world, as exemplified in the Christian conquest of the Americas and their aboriginal Indian population. The Ottoman Empire and Morocco absorbed most of the Jewish refugees, although a large majority remained as Conversos.[25]

Colonial Americas

During the European colonization of the Americas, forced conversion of the continents' indigenous, non-Christian population was common, especially in South America and Mesoamerica, where the conquest of large indigenous polities like the Inca and AztecEmpires placed colonizers in control of large non-Christian populations. Historians broadly agree that most native populations that converted did so under the threat of violence, often because they were compelled to after being conquered, and that the Catholic Church cooperated with civil authority to achieve this end. [26]

Eastern Europe

Upon converting to Christianity in the 10th century, Vladimir the Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus', ordered Kiev's citizens to undergo a mass baptism in the Dnieper river.[27]

In the 13th century the pagan populations of the Baltics faced campaigns of forcible conversion by crusading knight corps such as the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and the Teutonic Order, which often meant simply dispossessing these populations of their lands and property.[28][29]

After Ivan the Terrible's conquest of the Khanate of Kazan, the Muslim population faced slaughter, expulsion, forced resettlement and conversion to Christianity.[30]

In the 18th century, Elizabeth of Russia launched a campaign of forced conversion of Russia's non-Orthodox subjects, including Muslims and Jews.[31]

Goa inquisition

The Portuguese practised religious persecution in Goa, India in the 16th and 17th centuries. The natives of Goa, most of them Hindus, were subjected to severe torture and oppression by the zealous Portuguese rulers and missionaries, and forcibly converted to Christianity.[32][33][34][35][36][37]

In 1567, the campaign to destroy temples in Bardez met with success, with 300 Hindu temples destroyed. Prohibition was laid from December 4, 1567 on rituals of Hindu marriages, sacred thread wearing and cremation. All persons above 15 years of age were compelled to listen to Christian preaching, failing which they were punished. In 1583, Hindu temples at Assolna and Cuncolim were destroyed by the Portuguese army. "The fathers of the Church forbade the Hindus under terrible penalties the use of their own sacred books, and prevented them from all exercise of their religion. They destroyed their temples, and so harassed and interfered with the people that they abandoned the city in large numbers, refusing to remain any longer in a place where they had no liberty, and were liable to imprisonment, torture and death if they worshiped after their own fashion the gods of their fathers", wrote Filippo Sassetti, who was in India from 1578 to 1588. An order was issued in June 1684 for suppressing the Konkani language and making it compulsory to speak Portuguese, on pain of severe penalties. All non-Christian cultural symbols and books written in local languages were also ordered to be destroyed.[38]

World War II

During World War II, Orthodox Serbs were forcibly converted to Catholicism.[39][40]

Hindus in India

In 2009, the Assam Times reported that about fifteen armed Hmar militants, members of the Manmasi National Christian Army, tried to force Hindu residents of Bhuvan Pahar, Assam to convert to Christianity.[41]


Although Islamic law prohibits forced conversion, following the Quranic principle "no compulsion in religion" (2:256),[42][43][44] episodes of forced conversions are recorded in the history of Islam. Historians have qualified such instances as "rare"[45] or "exceptional".[42]

While scholars like Abu Hanifa and Abu Yusuf stated that jizya should be imposed all non-Muslims without distinction, some later and more extremist jurists do not permit jizya for idolators and instead only allowed the choice of conversion to avoid death.[46] Out of the four schools of Islamic law, the Hanafi and Maliki schools allow the dhimmi status for polytheists except Arab polytheists. The Shafi'i and Hanbali school however only consider Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians to be eligible to the category.[47]

Wael Hallaq states that in theory, Islamic religious tolerance applied only to monotheistic "People of the Book" like Christians, Jews and Magians if they paid the jizya tax, and pagans faced only two choices between conversion to Islam and fight to the death. In practice, the designation "People of the Book" and the dhimma status was extended even to non-monotheistic religions of conquered peoples, such as Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and other non-monotheists.[48]

In recent times, forced conversions have been threatened or carried out in the context of war, insurgency and intercommunal violence. Cases affecting thousands of people are reported to have occurred during the Partition of India, the Bangladesh Liberation War, in areas controlled by ISIS, and in Pakistan. Disputed allegations of forced conversion of young women have generated public controversy in Egypt and the UK.

Early period

The wars of the Ridda (lit. apostasy), undertaken by the first caliph Abu Bakr against tribes who had accepted Islam but refused to recognize his caliphal authority have been described by some authors as an instance of forced conversion[49] or "reconversion".[50] The action of these tribes was less a relapse to paganism than termination of a political contract they had made with Muhammad.[50]

Two out of the four schools of Islamic law, i.e. Hanafi and Maliki schools, accepted non-Arab polytheists to be eligible for the dhimmi status. Under this doctrine, Arab polytheists were forced to choose between conversion and death. However, according to perception of most jurists, all Arabs had embraced Islam during the lifetime of Muhammad. Their exclusion therefore had little practical significance after his death in 632.[47]

In the 9th century, the Samaritan population of Palestine faced persecution and attempts at forced conversion at the hands of the rebel leader ibn Fir?sa, against whom they were defended by Abbasid caliphal troops.[51]

Almohad dynasty

There were forced conversions in the 12th century under the Almohad dynasty of North Africa and Andalusia, who suppressed the dhimma status of Jews and Christians and gave them the choice between conversion, exile, and being killed. Christians under their rule generally chose to relocate to the Christian principalities in the north of the peninsula, while Jews decided to stay in order to keep their properties, and many of them feigned conversion to Islam, while continuing their religious practices in secrecy.[52]

During the Almohad persecution, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote his Epistle on Apostasy, in which he permitted Jews to feign apostasy under duress, though strongly recommending leaving the country instead.[53] There is dispute amongst scholars as to whether Maimonides himself converted to Islam in order to freely escape from Almohad territory, and then reconverted back to Judaism in either the Levant or in Egypt.[54] He was later denounced as an apostate and tried in an Islamic court, but the judge ruled that his conversion had been forced and therefore invalid.[55]


In the late 1160s, the Yemenite ruler 'Abd-al-Nab? ibn Mahdi left Jews with the choice between conversion to Islam or martyrdom.[56][57] Mahdi also imposed his beliefs upon the Muslims besides the Jews. This led to a revival of Jewish messianism, but also led to mass-conversion.[57] The persecution ended in 1173 with the defeat of Ibn Mahdi and conquest of Yemen by the brother of Saladin and they were allowed to return to their faith.[57][58]

According to two Cairo Genizah documents, the Ayyubid ruler of Yemen, al-Malik al-Mu'izz al-Ismail (reigned from 1197-1202) had attempted to force the Jews of Aden to convert. The second document details the relief of Jewish community after his murder and those who had been forced to convert reverted to Judaism.[59] While he didn't impose Islam upon the foreign merchants, they were forced to pay triple the normal rate of poll tax.[57]

A measure listed in the legal works by Al-Shawk?n? is of forced conversion of Jewish orphans. No date is given for this decree by modern studies nor who issued it.[60] The forced conversion of Jewish orphans was reintroduced under Imam Yahya in 1922. The Orphans' Decree was implemented aggressively for the first ten years. It was re-promulgated in 1928.[61]

Ottoman Empire

Registration of boys for the dev?irme. Ottoman miniature painting from the Süleymanname, 1558.

A form of forced conversion became institutionalized during the Ottoman Empire in the practice of dev?irme, a human levy in which Christian boys were seized and collected from their families (usually in the Balkans), enslaved, converted to Islam, and then trained as elite military unit within the Ottoman army or for high-ranking service to the sultan.[62] From the mid to late 14th, through early 18th centuries, the dev?irme-janissary system enslaved an estimated 500,000 to one million non-Muslim adolescent males.[63] These boys would attain a great education and high social standing after their training and conversion.[64]

In the 17th century, Sabbatai Zevi, a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors were welcomed in the Ottoman Empire during the Spanish Inquisition, proclaimed himself the Messiah and called for abolishing major Jewish laws and customs. After he attracted a large following, he was arrested by the Ottoman authorities and given a choice between execution or conversion to Islam. He chose the latter option.[65]

During the Persecution of Greeks in the 20th century, there were cases of forced conversion to Islam.[66]


Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, decreed Twelver Shiism to be the official religion of state and ordered executions of a number of Sunni intellectuals who refused to accept Shiism.[67][68] Non-Muslims faced frequent persecutions and at times forced conversions under the rule of his dynastic successors.[69] Thus, after the capture of the Hormuz Island, Abbas I required local Christians to convert to Islam, Abbas II granted his ministers authority to force Jews to become Muslims, and Sultan Husayn decreed forcible conversion of Zoroastrians.[70] In 1839, during the Qajar era the Jewish community in the city of Mashhad was attacked by a mob and subsequently forced to convert to Islam.[71]


In an invasion of the Kashmir valley (1015), Mahmud of Ghazni plundered the valley, took many prisoners and carried out conversions to Islam.[72] In his later campaigns, in Mathura, Baran and Kanauj, again, many conversions took place. Those soldiers who surrendered to him were converted to Islam. In Baran (Bulandshahr) alone 10,000 persons were converted to Islam including the king.[73] Tarikh-i-Yamini, Rausat-us-Safa and Tarikh-i-Ferishtah speak of construction of mosques and schools and appointment of preachers and teachers by Mahmud and his successor Masud. Wherever Mahmud went, he insisted on the people to convert to Islam.[74] The raids by Muhammad Ghori and his generals brought in thousands of slaves in the late 12th century, most of whom were compelled to convert as one of the preconditions of their freedom.[74][75][76][77]Sikandar Butshikan (1394-1417) demolished Hindu temples and forcefully converted Hindus.[78] Christianity thrived along the west coast during the 15th and 16th centuries following forced conversions carried out by Portuguese colonists.[79]

Aurangzeb employed a number of means to encourage conversions to Islam.[80] In a Mughal-Sikh war in 1715, 700 followers of Banda Singh Bahadur were beheaded.[81] Every day, 100 Sikhs were executed and not even one of them apostatized from Sikhism.[82]Banda Singh Bahadur was offered a pardon if he converted to Islam.[83] Upon refusal, he was tortured,[84][85] and was killed with his 5 year old son.[82] Following the execution of Banda, the emperor ordered to apprehend Sikhs anywhere they were found.[83]

18th century ruler Tipu Sultan persecuted the Hindus, Christians and Mappla Muslims.[86][87] During Sultan's Mysorean invasion of Kerala, hundreds of temples and churches were demolished and ten thousands of Christians and Hindus were killed or converted to Islam by force.[88][]



In Bangladesh, the International Crimes Tribunal tried and convicted several leaders of the Islamic Razakar militias, as well as Bangladesh Muslim Awami league (Forid Uddin Mausood), of war crimes committed against Hindus during the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. The charges included forced conversion of Bengali Hindus to Islam.[89][90][91] In the 1998 Prankote massacre, 26 Kashmiri Hindus were beheaded by Islamist militants after their denial of converting into Islam. The militants struck when the villagers refused demands from the gunmen to convert to Islam and prove their conversion by eating beef.[92]

Many Hindus of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was looted and forcibly converted to Islam in 1950 including an entire village.[93][94]


During the Noakhali riots of Hindus in 1946, several thousand Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam by Muslim mobs.[95][96]


The rise of Taliban insurgency in Pakistan has been an influential and increasing factor in the persecution of and discrimination against religious minorities, such as Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and other minorities.[97]

The Human Rights Council of Pakistan has reported that cases of forced conversion are increasing.[98][99] A 2014 report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP) says about 1,000 women in Pakistan are forcibly converted to Islam every year (700 Christian and 300 Hindu).[100][101][102][103]

In 2003 a six-year-old Sikh girl was kidnapped by a member of the Afridi tribe in Northwest Frontier Province; the alleged kidnapper claimed the girl was actually 12-years-old, and had converted to Islam so therefore could not be returned to her non-Muslim family.[104]

In May 2007, members of the Christian community of Charsadda in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, close to the border of Afghanistan, reported that they had received letters threatening bombings if they did not convert to Islam, and that the police were not taking their fears seriously.[105] In June 2009, International Christian Concern (ICC) reported the rape and killing of a Christian man in Pakistan, for refusing to convert to Islam.[106]

Rinkle Kumari, a 19-year Pakistani student, Lata Kumari, and Asha Kumari, a Hindu working in a beauty parlor, were allegedly forced to convert from Hinduism to Islam.[107][108] Their cases were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Pakistan where they said that they wanted to live with their parents and not their 'so called' husbands.[109]

Sikhs in Hangu district were being pressured to convert to Islam by a government official in 2017.[110][111][112][113]


In 2012, over 1000 Catholic children in East Timor, removed from their families, were reported to being held in Indonesia without consent of their parents, forcibly converted to Islam, educated in Islamic schools and naturalized.[114] Other reports claim forced conversion of minority Ahmadiyya sect Muslims to Sunni Islam, with the use of violence.[115][116][117]

In 2001 the Indonesian army evacuated hundreds of Christian refugees from the remote Kesui and Teor islands in Maluku after the refugees stated that they had been forced to convert to Islam. According to reports, some of the men had been circumcised against their will, and a paramilitary group involved in the incident confirmed that circumcisions had taken place while denying any element of coercion.[118]

In 2017, many members of the Orang Rimba tribe, especially children, were being forced to renounce their folk religion and convert to Islam.[119]


There have been a number of reports of attempts to forcibly convert religious minorities in Iraq. The Yazidi people of northern Iraq, who follow an ethnoreligious syncretic faith, have been threatened with forced conversion by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who consider their practices to be Satanism.[120] UN investigators have reported mass killings of Yazidi men and boys who refused to convert to Islam.[121] In Baghdad, hundreds of Assyrian Christians fled their homes in 2007 when a local extremist group announced that they had to convert to Islam, pay the jizya or die.[122] In March 2007 the BBC reported that people in the Mandaean ethnic and religious minority in Iraq alleged that they were being targeted by Islamist insurgents, who offered them the choice of conversion or death.[123]

Allegations of Coptic Christian girls being forced to marry Arab Muslim men and convert to Islam in Egypt have been reported by a number of news and advocacy organizations[124][125][126] and have sparked public protests.[127] According to a 2009 report by the US State Department, observers have found it extremely difficult to determine whether compulsion was used, and in recent years no such cases have been independently verified.[128]

In 2006 two journalists of the Fox News Network were kidnapped at gunpoint in the Gaza Strip by a previously unknown militant group. After being forced to read statements on videotape proclaiming that they had converted to Islam, they were released by their captors.[129]


In August 2009, International Christian Concern reported that four Christians working to help orphans in Somalia were beheaded by Islamist extremists when they refused to convert to Islam.[130]

In the early 2010s, the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram is reported to have forced a kidnapped Christian woman to convert to Islam at knifepoint.[131] A Christian woman in 2018 was raped repeatedly by a Boko Haram terrorist for refusing to convert to Islam and her son was killed.[132]

United Kingdom

According to the UK prison officers' union, some Muslim prisoners in the UK have been forcibly converting fellow inmates to Islam in prisons.[133]

According to the Daily Mail, in 2007, commissioner of police Sir Ian Blair stated the police were targeting extremist members of the Muslim community who were allegedly forcing vulnerable girls to convert to Islam in response to claims made by the Hindu Forum.[134] In 2007 a Sikh girl's family claimed that she had been forcibly converted to Islam, and they received a police guard after being attacked by an armed gang, although the "Police said no one was injured in the incident".[135]

In response to these news stories, an open letter to Sir Ian Blair, signed by ten Hindu academics, argued that claims that Hindu and Sikh girls were being forcefully converted were "part of an arsenal of myths propagated by right-wing Hindu supremacist organisations in India".[136] The Muslim Council of Britain issued a press release pointing out there is a lack of evidence of any forced conversions and suggested it is an underhand attempt to smear the British Muslim population.[137]

An academic paper by Katy Sian published in the journal South Asian Popular Culture in 2011 explored the question of how "'forced' conversion narratives" arose around the Sikh diaspora in the United Kingdom.[138] Sian, who reports that claims of conversion through courtship on campuses are widespread in the UK, indicates that rather than relying on actual evidence they primarily rest on the word of "a friend of a friend" or on personal anecdote. According to Sian, the narrative is similar to accusations of "white slavery" lodged against the Jewish community and foreigners to the UK and the US, with the former having ties to anti-semitism that mirror the Islamophobia betrayed by the modern narrative. Sian expanded on these views in 2013's Mistaken Identities, Forced Conversions, and Postcolonial Formations.[139]


Indian Christians have alleged that "radical Hindu groups" in Orissa, India have forced Christian converts from Hinduism to "revert"[140] to Hinduism. These "religious riots" were largely between two tribal groups in Orissa, one of which was predominantly Hindu and another predominantly Christian, over the assassination of a Hindu leader named Swami Lakshmanananda by Maoists operating as terrorist groups in India (see Naxalite).[141] In the aftermath of the violence, American Christian evangelical groups have claimed that Hindu groups are "forcibly reverting" Christians converts from Hinduism back to Hinduism.[140] It has also been alleged that groups have converted poor Muslims and Christians to Hinduism against their will and through allurements.[142][143] Similarly Hindus claim that Christian missionaries used money and free education to lure Hindus for conversion. There are many conspiracy theories used by church for conversion of Hindus.[144]


"St. Theodora Church in downtown Chi?in?u was converted into the city's Museum of Scientific Atheism".
--Andrei Brezianu[145]

Eastern Bloc

Under the doctrine of state atheism in the Soviet Union, there was a "government-sponsored program of forced conversion to atheism" conducted by Communists.[146][147][148] This program included the overarching objective to establish not only a fundamentally materialistic conception of the universe, but to foster "direct and open criticism of the religious outlook" by means of establishing an "anti-religious trend" across the entire school.[149] The Russian Orthodox Church, for centuries the strongest of all Orthodox Churches, was violently suppressed.[150] Revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin wrote that every religious idea and every idea of God "is unutterable vileness... of the most dangerous kind, 'contagion of the most abominable kind".[151] Many priests were killed and imprisoned. Thousands of churches were closed, some turned into hospitals. In 1925 the government founded the League of Militant Atheists to intensify the persecution.[152]

1929 cover of the USSR League of Militant Atheists magazine, showing the gods of the Abrahamic religions being crushed by the Communist 5-year plan

Christopher Marsh, a professor at the Baylor University writes that "Tracing the social nature of religion from Schleiermacher and Feurbach to Marx, Engles, and Lenin...the idea of religion as a social product evolved to the point of policies aimed at the forced conversion of believers to atheism."[153] Jonathan Blake of the Department of Political Science at Columbia University elucidates the history of this practice in the USSR, stating that:[154]

God, however, did not simply vanish after the Bolshevik revolution. Soviet authorities relied heavily on coercion to spread their idea of scientific atheism. This included confiscating church goods and property, forcibly closing religious institutions and executing religious leaders and believers or sending them to the gulag. ... Later, the United States passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment which harmed US-Soviet trade relations until the USSR permitted the emigration of religious minorities, primarily Jews. Despite the threat from coreligionists abroad, however, the Soviet Union engaged in forced atheism from its earliest days.[154]

Across Eastern Europe following World War II, the parts of the Nazi Empire conquered by the Soviet Red Army, and Yugsolavia became one party Communist states and the project of coercive conversion continued.[155][156] The Soviet Union ended its war time truce against the Russian Orthodox Church, and extended its persecutions to the newly Communist Eastern bloc: "In Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries, Catholic leaders who were unwilling to be silent were denounced, publicly humiliated or imprisoned by the Communists. Leaders of the national Orthodox Churches in Romania and Bulgaria had to be cautious and submissive", wrote Blainey.[150] While the churches were generally not as severely treated as they had been in the USSR, nearly all their schools and many of their churches were closed, and they lost their formally prominent roles in public life. Children were taught atheism, and clergy were imprisoned by the thousands.[157]

In the Eastern Bloc, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques were forcibly "converted into museums of atheism."[158][159] Historical essayist Andrei Brezianu expounds upon this situation, specifically in the Socialist Republic of Romania, writing that scientific atheism was "aggressively applied to Moldova, immediately after the 1940 annexation, when churches were profaned, clergy assaulted, and signs and public symbols of religion were prohibited"; he provides an example of this phenomenon, further writing that "St. Theodora Church in downtown Chi?in?u was converted into the city's Museum of Scientific Atheism".[145] Marxist-Leninist regimes treated religious believers as subversives or abnormal, sometimes relegating them to psychiatric hospitals and reeducation.[160][161] Nevertheless, historian Emily Baran writes that "some accounts suggest the conversion to militant atheism did not always end individuals' existential questions".[162]

French Revolution

During the French Revolution, a campaign of dechristianization happened which included removal and destruction of religious objects from places of worship; English librarian Thomas Hartwell Horne and biblical scholar Samuel Davidson write that "churches were converted into 'temples of reason,' in which atheistical and licesntious homilies were substituted for the proscribed service".[163][164][165][166]

Unlike later establishments of state atheism by communist regimes, the French Revolutionary experiment was short (7 months), incomplete and inconsistent.[167][better source needed] Although brief, the French experiment was particularly notable for the influence upon atheists Ludwig Feuerbach, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.[160]

East Asian Communism

The emergence of Communist states across East Asia after World War Two saw religion purged by atheist regimes across China, North Korea and much of Indo-China.[168] In 1949, China became a Communist state under the leadership of Mao Zedong's Communist Party of China. China itself had been a cradle of religious thought since ancient times, being the birthplace of Confucianism and Daoism, and Buddhists having arrived in the first century AD. Under Mao, China became officially atheist, and though some religious practices were permitted to continue under State supervision, religious groups deemed a threat to order have been suppressed--as with Tibetan Buddhism from 1959 and Falun Gong in recent years.[169] Religious schools and social institutions were closed, foreign missionaries expelled, and local religious practices discouraged.[168] During the Cultural Revolution, Mao instigated "struggles" against the Four Olds: "old ideas, customs, culture, and habits of mind".[170] In 1999, the Communist Party launched a three-year drive to promote atheism in Tibet, saying intensifying propaganda on atheism is "especially important for Tibet because atheism plays an extremely important role in promoting economic construction, social advancement and socialist spiritual civilization in the region".[171]

Revolutionary Mexico

Articles 3, 5, 24, 27, and 130 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 as originally enacted were anticlerical and enormously restricted religious freedoms.[172] At first the anticlerical provisions were only sporadically enforced, but when President Plutarco Elías Calles took office, he enforced the provisions strictly.[172] Calles' Mexico has been characterized as an atheist state[173] and his program as being one to eradicate religion in Mexico.[174]

All religions had their properties expropriated, and these became part of government wealth. There was a forced expulsion of foreign clergy and the seizure of Church properties.[175] Article 27 prohibited any future acquisition of such property by the churches, and prohibited religious corporations and ministers from establishing or directing primary schools.[175] This second prohibition was sometimes interpreted to mean that the Church could not give religious instruction to children within the churches on Sundays, seen as destroying the ability of Catholics to be educated in their own religion.[176]

The Constitution of 1917 also closed and forbade the existence of monastic orders (article 5), forbade any religious activity outside of church buildings (now owned by the government), and mandated that such religious activity would be overseen by the government (article 24).[175]

On June 14, 1926, President Calles enacted anticlerical legislation known formally as The Law Reforming the Penal Code and unofficially as the Calles Law.[177] His anti-Catholic actions included outlawing religious orders, depriving the Church of property rights and depriving the clergy of civil liberties, including their right to a trial by jury (in cases involving anti-clerical laws) and the right to vote.[177][178] Catholic antipathy towards Calles was enhanced because of his vocal atheism.[179] He was also a Freemason.[180] Regarding this period, recent President Vicente Fox stated, "After 1917, Mexico was led by anti-Catholic Freemasons who tried to evoke the anticlerical spirit of popular indigenous President Benito Juárez of the 1880s. But the military dictators of the 1920s were a more savage lot than Juarez."[181]

Cristeros hanged in Jalisco.

Due to the strict enforcement of anti-clerical laws, people in strongly Catholic areas, especially the states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Colima and Michoacán, began to oppose him, and this opposition led to the Cristero War from 1926 to 1929, which was characterized by brutal atrocities on both sides. Some Cristeros applied terrorist tactics, while the Mexican government persecuted the clergy, killing suspected Cristeros and supporters and often retaliating against innocent individuals.[182] On May 28, 1926, Calles was awarded a medal of merit from the head of Mexico's Scottish rite of Freemasonry for his actions against the Catholics.[183]

A truce was negotiated with the assistance of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Whitney Morrow.[184] Calles, however, did not abide by the terms of the truce - in violation of its terms, he had approximately 500 Cristero leaders and 5,000 other Cristeros shot, frequently in their homes in front of their spouses and children.[184] Particularly offensive to Catholics after the supposed truce was Calles' insistence on a complete state monopoly on education, suppressing all Catholic education and introducing "socialist" education in its place: "We must enter and take possession of the mind of childhood, the mind of youth.".[184] The persecution continued as Calles maintained control under his Maximato and did not relent until 1940, when President Manuel Ávila Camacho, a believing Catholic, took office.[184] This attempt to indoctrinate the youth in atheism was begun in 1934 by amending Article 3 to the Mexican Constitution to eradicate religion by mandating "socialist education", which "in addition to removing all religious doctrine" would "combat fanaticism and prejudices", "build[ing] in the youth a rational and exact concept of the universe and of social life".[172] In 1946 this "socialist education" was removed from the constitution and the document returned to the less egregious generalized secular education. The effects of the war on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed.[184] Where there were 4,500 priests operating within the country before the rebellion, in 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million people, the rest having been eliminated by emigration, expulsion, and assassination.[184][185] By 1935, 17 states had no priest at all.[186]

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