The essence of Christianity is love, sacrificing love. The symbol of Christianity is the Cross. Love and sacrifice have come to unite in the person of Jesus Christ. The meaning of suffering was thus transformed to be a sharing in the love of the suffering Lord. Christianity raised Suffering to the level of a spiritual gift. Death became a sweet cup the believer drinks with satisfaction, even seeks in love, and hurries after it. This is not wondrous, for death in Christianity has been transformed from something terrible to a golden bridge by which we cross from a short life of estrangement and a shabby dress to eternal bliss and a dress which is incorruptible, undefiled and imperishable.
Persecution has always been associated with Christianity, going side by side with it. Many a time itreached its climax, martyrdom. The first persecution Christians met came from Judaism, as Christianity was born into a Jewish environment. The Jews rejected Christ, crucified Him, then went out after His followers with murder, gossip, conspiracies and intellectual warfare.
Soon after, the nascent Christianity entered into a prolonged strife with paganism represented by the Roman Empire with all its power and arms. This strife went to the limit of genocide, i.e. extensive martyrdom. It was an unfair strife, for the nascent faith had no temporal power or arms, except for the shield of faith, the arm of righteousness, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit (St. Paul’s epistle to Ephesians). The cruel strife continued till the first decades of the 4th century when the Roman Empire accepted the Christian faith and paganism collapsed.
The persecution of Christians began in 1st century Rome, at the hands of emperor Nero, and ended one mile off Rome, in the 4th century, at the hands of Constantine the Great. The persecution’s aim was to eradicate Christianity, but on the contrary, it came to be a cause of its purification, a display of virtue and valiance by its martyrs, the matter which resulted in the spread of Christianity and pagan masses eventually embracing it. Tertullian expressed this phenomena in his words: “The martyrs’ blood is the seeds of the Church”
The Christian faith brought different concepts to which the people of old were not accustomed:
Pagan worship was in fact cult worship. It was composed of fetishism, magic spells, food and drink presented to the gods, enigmatic teachings and clandestine rites. Christianity, on the contrary, presented the people with an eligible teaching, a sublime topic of faith, a religion that satisfies the inner soul, the spirit and intellect of man, a religion whose worship is a practical expression of faith where love replaces fear.
To the God of the Christians no man was stranger or alien. Gentile no more defiled temple or offering by his mere presence. The priesthood was no more hereditary, for the religion was no more a private legacy, on the contrary, it became an open spiritual teaching presented to all. Christianity sought to embrace the least noticed people and the downtrodden.
Christianity did not teach its followers to hate enemies or despise foreigners, but exactly the opposite, to love and embrace them.
All the pagan religions were actually local faiths. Every region of the empire had its own deities. Even Judaism was a closed religion that pertained to one nation. Christianity, on the other hand, shone for all the world, as Christ commanded “Go you to the whole world and preach the gospel to the whole universe” (Mk 16: 15)
Christianity also claimed to be the only true religion:
People from all races, nations, classes and ages came to be attracted by Christianity, Romans and Greeks in numbers much more than ever drawn to Judaism. Moreover, Christianity refused to ally with paganism.
Christianity taught separation of religion and state:
In the classic world religion and the state were one. Each nation worshipped its deity and each deity governed its nation. The state would intervene within the abode of conscience, punishing whoever would trespass the rituals. Christianity, on the other hand, taught complete separation between religion and the state, as Christ said: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” (Mt 22: 21)
Christianity gave rise to fervent Spiritual zeal instead of social activities:
Christians refused to participate in the pagan celebrations and the common worship. They showed their indifference to politics, civil and temporal matters, beside spiritual and eternal matters. Their close affiliation and partaking in closed meetings roused suspicions and enmity of rulers and peoples.
Ten rounds of persecution:
Since the 5th century there has been consensus among historians to consider the number of Roman persecutions against Christians as ten big persecutions under ten emperors, namely:Nero, Dmetian, Trajan, Mark Aurelius, Septimus Severus, Maximinus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian & Diocletian.
This arrangement, however, is only provisional, and does not mean that persecution occurred only ten times. For even the most peaceful periods were not void of martyrs.
Some tried to draw an analogy between these ten persecutions and the ten plagues of Egypt, or the ten horns of the beast which made war with the Lamb as mentioned in Revelation.
Nero and Rome’s fire:
The persecution initiated by Nero was the first under the Roman Empire. It is associated with the martyrdom of two great pillars of the Church, Apostles Peter and Paul. It started in the tenth year of that tyrant’s rule, 64 AD, by his instructions and instigation. Nero indicted the innocent Christians with the fire of Rome, a terrible catastrophe which swept all but 4 of the 14 divisions of the great capital city. Fire devoured the splendid monuments and buildings, as well as people and animals.
The great city was transformed to a graveyard, with its one million inhabitants grieving the unimaginable losses. To evade suspicion, Nero stuck the crime to the despised Christians. Soon, blood-letting started. The most horrendous methods were used against the poor Christians. Some were crucified, in sarcasm for the punishment born by Christ. Some were cast to the wild beasts in the arena. The tragedy reached its climax when Nero torched the Christians, who were bound to pine posts and smeared with tar, so that they would light as torches to entertain the spectators in the imperial gardens, while he played tunes on his lyre in his private chariot.
The persecution by Diocletian and his co-regents:
All the Roman persecutions against Christians since Nero are considered little compared to the ferocity, cruelty and violence of the persecutions started by Diocletian and continued by his co-regents. For this reason the Coptic church assigned the year 284 AD, the year Diocletian was enthroned, as the starting year of the Anna Martyrium.
In the year 303 AD an edict was issued ordering the pulling down of churches, burning church books, ousting all Christians who held high rank in government and stripping them of their civil rights and banishing Christian slaves if they refuse to renounce their faith. A copy of the edict was hung upon the royal palace’s wall. However, a brave Christian young man stepped up and tore down the edict in outrage. The flames of persecution immediately blew up throughout the empire. The persecution increased in ferocity and savagery because of fire that burned in the royal palace twice in one week. It is suspected that one of Diocletian’s assistants kindled those fires in order to rouse him more against the Christians.
In March 303 AD two more edicts were issued consecutively ordering the imprisonment and torture of church heads in order to induce them to renounce their faith.
On the 30th of April in the same year Maximianus Hermolius issued an edict, which was the worst, compelling all Christians in the towns and villages to offer sacrifice and burn incense to the gods.
At last, in a desperate move to eradicate Christianity and reclaim paganism, Maximinus Daza issued an edict in the Fall of 308 AD ordering the quick rebuilding of the pagan altars and that all men, women and children should offer sacrifices and mandated that they should taste of the offerings, that guards should stand at the Baths to defile with the sacrifices all those who entered. This edict was carried out continuously for two years. At the end there was no way for the Christians except to die as martyrs, starve to death or deny their God.
In the year 311 AD Maximinus Daza ordered pagan shrines to be set up in every town, assigned priests for the gods and granted them favors.