In 1517, the incident where Martin Luther (d.1546) nailed his 95 thesis to the door of a church, thereby challenging corruption in the church as well as the Pope’s authority, divided the Christianity into two sects: the Catholics and the Protestants. Religious division further broke Europe down politically. The allegiance of the people depended on state religion. The result of this sectarian schism was that Protestants living in a Catholic majority country became a religious minority and hence insecure and unsafe. Similarly, the Catholics in a Protestant state became a minority. Both sects vehemently spent their resources and energies to defend their faith and to accuse each other as heretic and misleading, deviating themselves from the original and pure Christian teachings.
This religious righteousness and extremism justified violence and discrimination of the opposite sect. Consequently Europe faced religious and political destability which affected its culture, civilisation and economy. Scholars and intellectuals on both sides defended their sect and researched material to support and strengthen their faith.
For example, in France which was predominantly a Catholic country, the Protestants were known as the Huguenots. They were followers of John Calvin (d.1546) and were in minority. The deep religious conflict between these two sects frequently erupted causing insecurity among the Huguenots. The worst event occurred in 1572, known as the Bartholomew massacre when the Huguenots were gathered for a marriage ceremony and a mob suddenly attacked them, killing and mutilating their bodies. With great passion and religious zeal, the mob caused bloodshed and killing. According to eye-witness accounts, the dead bodies of the victims lay scattered in the streets of Paris. The other cities of France also became involved in the conflict, persecuting the Huguenots to satisfy religious hatred.
Religious conflict stems from failure of the nation-state
When the news of the massacre reached the Vatican, there was jubilation among the people of the city. To celebrate, churches were illuminated and fire works displayed to express the joy over the massacre of the Huguenots. Such was the hatred that humanity disappeared while suffering and pain of the victims were ignored.
Religious peace was restored in France when Henry of Navarre became the king. He converted to a Catholic from being a Protestant, in order to gain support of the majority. However, in 1598, he issued the Edict of Nantes to grant religious freedom to the Huguenots in order to maintain peace and harmony in the country. The Edicts prevented religious strife and continued till the accession of Louis XIV (d.1715). But under political pressure in 1685, the king repelled the Edict, after which the Huguenots were at the mercy of the Catholic majority.
As a result the majority of the Huguenots left France and settled in Holland, England and Prussia. Since most of them were skilled artisans, France was deprived of their skilled workers and suffered economically, while the countries where they had immigrated to began to reap the benefits of their professional and technological knowledge.
The sectarian conflict disastrously affected Germany when it plunged into the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). These religious wars were brutal, bloody and full of violence. Villages were set on fire, plundered and looted. The daily lives of common people became disrupted. It is estimated that 30 per cent of Germany suffered heavily as a result of these wars. Consequently, it pushed Germany backward as compared to other European countries.
In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia brought peace to Germany. It was decided that the religion of the prince should be the state religion. As a result, it dislocated people from one place to another so that the Catholics migrated to the Catholic states, the Protestants to the Protestant states.
When England defied the Pope under Henry VIII (d.1547), the Catholic minority was not allowed to perform their religious duties openly. They were excluded from state services and not admitted to the Oxford and Cambridge Universities as students. During this period, sectarian persecution was the state policy which led to the discrimination and exclusion of religious minorities from the mainstream. However, Europe leant a lesson from these religious conflicts and made attempts to restore religious harmony by taking major steps. The state was transformed to the Nation-State in which all citizens were treated on the basis of equality irrespective of their religion, creed and colour. Secondly, the state became secular. Thirdly, education was taken away from the control of the church and it became the responsibility of the state to impart it without religious prejudice. Religion thus became the private affair of an individual. These steps ended religious and sectarian conflict and created harmony and peace in the society.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine January 3rd, 2015