Holy Homicide

(The Humanist, Nov./Dec. 1991)

By James A. Haught

Now that the Cold War is over, what will become the chief generator of strife in the world? Religion, undoubtedly. Just look at some events of the past two years:

Muslims and Hindus resumed killing each other in Kashmir, as did Catholics and Protestants in Ulster. The death toll in the endless Christian-Muslim civil war in Sudan reached 1 million. Buddhists and Hindus ambushed each other in Sri Lanka. The Shi'ite persecution of Baha'is in Iran brought more executions. Religious tribalism has devastated Lebanon, where fighting finally ceased after 150,000 deaths. Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks in Cyprus still need U.N. peacekeepers to hold them apart. Sikhs continued to kill Hindus in Punjab. Muslim Indonesia still rules Catholic East Timor after an armed seizure that killed over 100,000. Black Muslims tried to seize Trinidad, causing 300 deaths. Armenian Christians and Azerbaijani Muslims maintain an uneasy truce. Afghanistan's holy warriors continued their jihad, which has taken 1 million lives. About 1,000 Hindus and Muslims died in a dispute over a holy site at Ayodhya, India.

In 1989, when the Muslim world raged against The Satanic Verses and the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death decree against Salman Rushdie, scholars held an "Anatomy of Hate" seminar at Boston University. Speakers included a daughter of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was murdered by Islamic fanatics who felt he had betrayed the faith. Harvard theologian Krister Stendahl remarked: "Religion is a very dangerous thing. These are enormous powers we are dealing with. Why has there been this dark side?"

I was a newspaper church columnist for many years. Endlessly, I heard the message that religion makes people kind and brotherly. Maybe so, but thoughtful people know that it also does the opposite.

Today's holy homicide isn't unusual. It has been happening for centuries. When the First Crusade was launched against "infidels" in the Holy Land, mob-like armies gathered around Europe. Some Germans followed a goose thought to be enchanted by God. It led them into Jewish neighborhoods, where they slaughtered the residents. Advancing Christian armies decapitated Muslims and catapulted the heads into beseiged cities. Finally, the crusaders captured Jerusalem and massacred the populace. A chronicler priest wrote: "In the temple of Solomon, one rode in blood up to the knees and even the bridles of horses, by the just and marvelous judgment of God"

After a Vatican council proclaimed that the host wafer miraculously turns into Jesus' body during the mass, rumors spread that Jews were stealing the wafers and driving nails through them to crucify Jesus again. Murderous mobs wiped out more than 100 Jewish communities to avenge the tortured host.

Other massacres stemmed from rumors that Jews were sacrificing Christian children and using their blood in rituals.

When the Albigenses Christians in southern France wouldn't conform to official dogma, Pope Innocent III sent troops to exterminate them. After the town of Beziers was captured, soldiers asked their papal adviser how to distinguish the faithful from the heretics among the townspeople. He commanded, "Kill them all. God will know his own." It was done.

The hunt for heretics led to establishment of the Office of the Inquisition. Pope Innocent IV authorized torture. Shrieking victims were broken on fiendish machines and then paraded to the stake. Some were scientists like Giordano Bruno, who incurred the church's wrath by teaching that the planets orbit the sun.

In the 1400s, the Inquisition turned its attention to witchcraft. Clerics declared that some women were having sex with Satan, transforming themselves into animals, flying through the sky at night, and casting hexes on godly folk. The number of "witches" tortured and executed over three centuries is estimated from 100,000 to 2 million.

From the 1500s, members of India's Thuggee sect strangled people because they believed that the goddess Kali wanted her followers to eliminate excess lives generated by Brahma the Creator. Thugs were garroting an estimated 20,000 victims a year in the 1800s until British rulers stamped out the religion. At an 1840 trial, one Thug was accused of sacrificing 931 people.

The Reformation triggered two centuries of religious war that took millions of lives. Eight Huguenot-Catholic wars ravaged France. Protestant-Catholic slaughter sundered the Low Countries. England suffered killings when the Anglicans broke with Rome -- then more killings when the Puritans broke with the Anglicans. The Thirty Years War brought the worst religious death toll of all time. Amid the Catholic-Protestant combat in Europe, both sides paused to kill Anabaptists for their crime of double baptism.

Islamic jihads (holy wars) killed multitudes over the course of 12 centuries. First Muslims spread the faith west to Spain and east to India. Then breakaway sects branded other Muslims as infidels and warred against them. A jihad in the Nile Valley in the 1880s destroyed an Egyptian army and wiped out defenders of Khartoum, led by British General "Chinese" Gordon. Wahhabi believers crushed other Muslims and created the fundamentalist kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

After the Baha'i faith began in Iran in 1844, the Shi'ite majority killed Baha'is by the thousands -- and this persecution has continued into the 1990s.

Muslim and Hindu taboos led to the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. British governors in India gave their native troops new paper cartridges that had to be bitten open. Animal grease on the cartridges infuriated Hindus, to whom cows are sacred, and Muslims, to whom pigs are satanic. Troops of both faiths rebelled and massacred Europeans.

In the late 1800s and again during World War I, Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians killed each other by the hundreds of thousands.

In a tragic irony, the great pacifist Mahatma Gandhi forced the British to leave India in 1947 -- which freed Hindus and Muslims to set upon each other in a killing frenzy that cost perhaps a million lives. Outbreaks have continued ever since. For example, a pig walked through a Muslim holy ground at Moradabad in 1980. Muslims blamed Hindus for it, and subsequent rioting killed 200 people.

The most religious nation today probably is Iran, "the government of God on Earth." It is the execution capital of the world, where thousands are put to death. Shi'ite terrorists who killed American hostages on an airliner at Teheran Airport in 1984 announced that they did it "for the pleasure of God."

Today, with Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India on the brink of war over the religious strife in Kashmir, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns that both sides possess atomic weapons. That would be the ultimate madness: the world's first thermonuclear religious war.

Ronald Reagan hailed religion as a force for good, "the bedrock of moral order." That's a common view. But people need to realize there's another side to religion -- a deadly one that has produced tragedy, century after century.