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Top 10 World’s Major Religious Wars

A statement was once made that “religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history” (Armstrong). However, all of these major wars are not necessarily consideredbellum sacrum, or holy wars (Tyerman 2004). From a list of 1,763 wars, only 123 have actually been classified to involve a religious cause, accounting for less than 7 percent of all wars and 2 percent of all people killed in warfare (Lurie).

These religious wars have in common three characteristic motivations: 1) they were fought to defend religion against its enemies, 2) They were fought to ensure religious conformity and punish deviance, and 3) they were fought under the direction of charismatic religious leaders (Selengut). Keeping that definition in mind, here is some of the interesting history behind 10 of these holy wars, from ancient times to our current day.

Megiddo: 1468 B.C.

Pharoah Thutmose IIIThe Battle of Megiddo between King Thutmose III and the King of Kadesh in 1468 B.C. was the first recorded battle in history

The Battle of Megiddo between the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III and the King of Kadesh was the first human battle recorded in history (Davis). Religion was definitely involved as Thutmose would have seen himself not only as the head of the Egyptian state but as the high priest of his religion well. It would have been his responsibility to perform rituals and give offerings to the Egyptian gods for winning in battle. The Pharaoh was also seen as the physical embodiment of the gods, and Thutmose III identified with the god Amun Re, who was the god of the Sun and the most powerful of Egyptian deities (Cline and O’Connor).

Thutmose III is known as the builder of the Egyptian Empire. After the death of his aunt (and stepmother) Hatshepsut, who had ruled as Pharaoh, he took his army out to rebuild the Egyptian Empire that had weakened in the generations preceding his. In his second year as Pharaoh, he took his army to Gaza in present-day Palestine to meet the King of Kadesh, who controlled most of Syria and part of Palestine and who had designs on pushing farther south and weakening the Egyptians further.

Megiddo was strategically important because it was a well-fortified city on the crossroads between the Hittites in the north and Egyptians in the south. Thutmose advanced from an unexpected direction and caught his opponent by surprise. He laid siege to the city and was able to gain an overwhelming victory. This was also important to Egypt because it made Egypt the dominant power in the ancient Middle East for a generation and laid the foundation for the great Egyptian Empire.

Jericho and Ai: 1200 B.C.

We know from the Bible that Joshua led the Hebrews, or Israelites, into their Promised Land, or Canaan. His predecessor Moses had led the people out of slavery in Egypt but did not enter Canaan himself. The Israelites were forbidden by God to intermingle with the Canaanites, and the only way they could survive in the land was to conquer the people already living there.

According to the Book of Joshua in the Bible, Yahweh, or God, commanded Joshua and the Israelites to take the city of Jericho, which was surrounded by a massive wall, and utterly destroy it.

Israelites Take JerichoAccording to the Bible, God commanded Joshua and the Israelites to take the city of Jericho, which was surrounded by a massive wall, in 1200 B.C. and destroy itThe people marched around the walls once a day for six days, and on the seventh day, they circled the city seven times. Then the Israelite priests blew the rams’ horns, making a great noise, and the Israelites began to shout. The ground began to shake, and a rumbling sound could be heard growing louder and louder. The noise grew in intensity as stones and bricks began to dislodge from the wall’s upper portions. Cracks began to appear in the wall, growing larger and wider, until the great stones at the base broke free and rolled down the slope (Rashba).

The Israelites rushed into the city and killed everyone in sight. Joshua had ordered his men to exterminate Jericho’s population. Save for the pledge made to the prostitute Rahab and her family, who had protected Joshua and his spies, the Israelites “utterly destroyed all that with within the city by the edge of the sword” (ibid).

Buoyed by his success against Jericho, Joshua marched the Israelites on to the city of Ai, where he managed to arrange a successful ambush, capture the city, and set it on fire. Joshua handed down the orders, “Do to Ai and her king as thou didst to Jericho and her king….” All 12,000 citizens of Ai were put to the sword, their king was captured and hanged, and the city was destroyed (ibid).

The Maccabees: 167 B.C.

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., both the Greek and Ptolemaic Egyptian Empires sought to take control of the Holy Land. The Greeks wanted it primarily for its rich agricultural value. Led by Antiochus IV, they won this conflict and, for a time, controlled the region. The Greeks insisted on homonoia, or oneness in culture and institution, among their subjects and began to Hellenize, or replace Hebraic culture and institutions with Greek culture and worldview. (Durrant). The Jews would share the same culture and worship the same gods. Antiochus insisted on erasing any practice of the Jewish religion, including desecrating the temple and forbidding study of the Torah. He sent soldiers and overseers into every Judean village to make sure Greek law was being followed and forced the Jews to worship the Greek gods.

Jewish Priest MattathiasThe War between the Maccabees and the Greeks may have begun in 167 B.C. when a Jewish priest named Mattathias refused a Greek official’s request to offer a pig on a pagan altar, and Mattathias later murdered the manIn 167 B.C., a Greek official tried to force a Jewish priest named Mattathias to offer a pig on a pagan altar; Mattathias responded by murdering the man. Antiochus called for reprisals against the Jews, but Mattathias and his five sons led the Jews in rebellion. Those who followed them were called Maccabees, from the Hebrew word for “hammer” (ibid).

Mattathias’ son Judah and his band stood against the Greeks in the mountains. The Maccabees were poorly trained and unarmed, yet they won a complete victory against a much better equipped and trained Greek army in 166. Antiochus responded by sending yet another force, whose general was so confident that he brought slave merchants with him to buy the Jews whom he expected to capture. Judah defeated these troops at Mizpah so decisively that Jerusalem fell into his hands without resistance. He removed all pagan altars and ornaments from the temple, cleansed and rededicated it, and restored the ancient service amid the acclaim of the orthodox Jews (ibid).

Milvian Bridge: A.D. 312

At the end of the 2nd century and beginning of the 3rd century, the Roman Empire found itself divided and beginning to decline. In A.D. 305, Emperor Diocletian convinced his co-emperor Maximian to retire with him, and they named two successors. Maximian’s son Valerius Maxentius and Constantine.

Maxentius was the son of Maximian and one of four Caesars serving under the co-emperors. Upon his father’s retirement, he wanted to be named as his father’s replacement. Instead, Constantine was chosen to rule the western half of the empire. Maxentius was bitterly jealous. A tyrant by nature, he saw conspiracies everywhere and became convinced that Constantine was going to come against him and overthrow him. In 311, Maxentius decided to prepare an invasion to overthrow Constantine so that he could rule his half of the empire alone.

Upon learning of Maxentius’ impending invasion, Constantine struck first and marched about 100,000 troops to northern Italy. Maxentius sent his own troops north, but Constantine continued to defeat even the best of Maxentius’ generals. As he approached Rome, Constantine’s troops numbered about 50,000 men, and Maxentius had about 75,000 (Davis).

Maxentius followed the old Roman gods. Before going out to meet Constantine’s army at Milvian Bridge, he consulted the Sybilline books, a collection of prophecies purchased from a Greek oracle by the last Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. He believed the oracles told he him would be the champion, and Constantine would be utterly defeated (ibid).

Constantine too had received an omen. The day before the battle, he had a vision of a flaming cross, upon which was written the Latin words, In hoc signo vinces (In this sign you will win). The following morning, he heard a voice instructing him to place upon his soldiers’ shields “the letter X with a line drawn through it and curled around the top—the symbol of Christ” (ibid).

Milvian Bridge BattleAt the Battle of Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312, the said bridge was so crowded with his retreating soldiers that Maxentius tried swimming away in he river and drowned, making Constantine, who would be the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, the sole ruler of the Roman EmpireConstantine had a number of Christians in his army and he apparently told his biographer Eusebius of Caesarea that if he won, he himself would convert to Christianity. Despite the fact that he was outnumbered, Constantine’s forces overwhelmed Maxentius’ army at the only escape route, the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River. The bridge was so crowded with his retreating soldiers that Maxentius tried swimming across the river, but his heavy armor dragged him down and he drowned, his body being found the next day.

Maxentius’ death meant Constantine was the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire. Constantine did convert to Christianity and is famous for issuing the Edict of Milan in February of 313, which showed his support for the religion by allowing Christians full freedom to worship. He also moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, where it rivaled Rome for centuries as a center of the Christian faith. In 325, Constantine summoned leaders to the Council of Nicaea, where the Christian faith for the first time gained preeminence. The fact the Christian faith is as dominant as it is today in Europe can be directly traced to Constantine and his victory at the Milvian Bridge.

The Crusades: 1095–1588

A Crusade—or a passagium generale, iter, voyage, or Reise—was a military expedition sponsored and blessed by the pope or his appointed agents, against enemies of the Christian faith. The term became synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church’s efforts to free Jerusalem from Muslim control, at first, but then expanded throughout Central and Eastern Europe and ended with the fall of the Spanish Armada against Protestant forces led by Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 (Hindley).

The Crusades began officially on November 8, 1095, with a decree issued at the council of the Catholic Church in Clermont, France. At the end of the conference, Pope Urban II stood and read to an enormous crowd of knights, travelers, and merchants:

Whoever for devotion alone, not to gain honor, or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the church of God can substitute this journey for all penance (Tyerman 2004).

Pope Urban SpeechThe Crusades may have officially begun on November 8, 1095 when Pope Urban II called for the faithful to retake Jerusalem at the end of the Council of Clermont, and the people responded, “Deus lo volt!” (God wills it!)

After the pope concluded, it is said that the people began to shout “Deus lo volt!” or “Deus le volt!” (Latin and French, respectively, for “God wills it!”). It was this speech which made, in a moment, the Crusades. Pope Urban II had deliberately set a fire, and it spread throughout the Western world, and the air was filled with the word “Jerusalem.” (Belloc)

Jerusalem had been lost to Christianity since its capture by Muslims in 638, but to Christians, it was an ideal as much as a terrestrial city. It could stand as a metaphor: “the holy city, God’s celestial Jerusalem, for the world redeemed by Christ.” Pope Urban was particularly susceptible to the pull of Jerusalem and had spent much of his ecclesiastic life surrounded by relics from Jerusalem and the Holy Land in Rome (Tyerman 2006).

People began looking for a symbolic gesture to demonstrate their commitment to the pope’s cause, and they cut crosses from the coarse cloth of preachers’ cloaks. From that point on, this gesture became virtually standard procedure for anyone who pledged themselves for the crusades, and they became known as crucesignati, or “signed with the cross.” Over the next 490 years, hundreds of thousands of men and even women embarked on hazardous military campaigns in the name of God and under the direction of the pope, with their shields marked with the sign of the cross (Hindley).

The first crusade achieved its goal by capturing Jerusalem in 1099, but the Muslims in the region vowed to wage jihad, or holy war, to regain control of the area. As relations deteriorated between the Crusaders and their Byzantine Christian allies, their hold on the Middle East cracked with the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 during the Third Crusade.

At the end of the 13th century, the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt, led by a young general named Saladin, united the Arabs, defeated the Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin, retook Jerusalem, and toppled the coastal town of Acre. From there, they drove the Crusaders out of the Holy Land and Syria in 1291.

For all intents, Hattin was the end. There were expeditions of every size for almost 300 years that had “Crusade” attached to them—but without Jerusalem, without the Holy Sepulchre, the meaning of the fight had changed. These later crusades were fought more out of a spirit of adventure or commercialism than religious spirit, and the name “Crusade” died out and the spirit with it (Belloc).

French Wars of Religion: 1562–1598

Queen CatherineFrench queen Catherine de Medici may have believed that her Protestant problem was over when ordered the massacre of the Huguenots in August 1572


In July 1559, King Henri II of France died from a wound received in the tournament held to celebrate the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis. He left the country weakened by wars with the Holy Roman Empire and becoming rapidly more divided by the religious rift between the French Catholics and French Protestants, called Huguenots. His children were still young and his wife, Queen Catherine de Medici, was to rule as an untested Queen Regent.

Catherine wanted to be the master of her own house as regent of France. She was initially prepared to be tolerant of the Huguenots. They were growing rapidly in numbers and influence, which was worrisome to the powerful Catholic noble families, such as the de Guises, and could call on some of the other French noble houses such as the Bourbons as members.

The spark that set off the French Wars of Religion occurred on a Sunday, March 1, 1562, while the Duke de Guise and his brother, the Cardinal de Guise, his wife, and children were travelling from Joinville to Paris. They stopped in the town of Vassy so that they could hear mass. Near the church, a group of Protestants were holding their service in a barn. The duke approached the barn with two of his men, intending on telling them they were in violation of the law, but the Huguenots inside fired shots at him, pelted him with stones, and drew blood. His detachment of 30 soldiers then invaded the makeshift church and killed 25 to 30 inside. Protestant accounts refute this, claiming the duke himself led 200 men inside the barn and started an unprovoked massacre of the 1,200 worshippers (Holt).

Other conflicts broke out, and France found itself a battleground where religious fanaticism added to the ordinary barbarities of warfare. In 1563, the Duke de Guise was shot from behind by a Huguenot and died six days later. Catherine de Medici had decided by then that she no longer needed the Protestant support and was clearly seen as the head of the “Romanists” (Cameron).

In August 1572, Henri of Navarre arrived in Paris to marry Catherine de Medici’s daughter, Marguerite. Thousands of Huguenots had gathered in Paris to celebrate the marriage of the French princess, and this gave Catherine de Medici the opportunity she sought to end Huguenot influence once and for all. At her council meeting on August 23, her counselors advised her to act swiftly and mercilessly. She wished to withdraw the plan at the last moment, but the others would not let her (ibid).

In the morning, it is said the staircases, halls, and ante-chambers of the Louvre palace were stained with blood. From there, orders were given for a complete massacre of the Huguenots in the provinces. Catherine de Medici may have believed her Protestant troubles were over, and a medal was even struck in Rome to commemorate herHugonotorum Strages (Holt).

The Huguenots would not be so easy to defeat, though, and it was in April 1598 that King Henri IV signed the Edict of Nantes, which would formally and legally recognize religious tolerance and coexistence of both Catholic and Protestant religions in France and an end to the Wars of Religion.

The Thirty Years’ War: 1617

Emperor Ferdinand IIThe Thirty Years’ War began in 1617 when the heir to the Bohemian throne, Ferdinand II, tried to curtail the religious liberties of his Protestant subjects, resulting in a series of conflicts that would involve most of Europe and bring an end to Europe’s old religious order

The Thirty Years’ War began when the heir to the throne of Bohemia, Ferdinand II, attempted to curtail the religious activities of his subjects, sparking a rebellion among Protestants. This spiraled into a war that involved all the major powers of Europe, with Sweden, France, Spain, and Austria all waging campaigns, primarily on German soil and with mercenary soldiers.

The event that sparked this war was called the “Defenestration of Prague.” It happened on the morning of May 23, 1618. Vilem Slavata—the Treasurer of the Holy Roman Empire, Supreme Court judge, and one of the richest men in the empire—was thrown out a window at the Hradschin Castle in Prague by two Protestants over a conflict of two churches at Branau and Klostergrab (Maland).

The Protestants were angry with Slavata and his colleague Jaroslav Borita von Martinitz for not signing a Letter of Majesty that was sympathetic to the Protestant Cause. Enraging the Protestants more by asking for confession, Martinitz found himself flung out the same window. The attackers then turned to Slavata’s secretary Philipp Fabricius and also threw him out the window. Amazingly, they all survived the fall and managed to flee and escape their attackers by being hidden at nearby Lobkowitz Castle by a fervent Catholic noblewoman. Fabricius and Martinitz were able to make their way back to tell Emperor Ferdinand of what had happened (Wilson).

The local conflict spiraled into a “dirty war” that involved the Catholic nations of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and the Bavarian Catholics aligning themselves against Protestant Europe, Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, Denmark, and Sweden. Atrocities abounded as troops struggled to locate and appropriate resources on German soil. It was a war that may have started over religious differences but ended up with foreign nations taking Germany’s resources for themselves and destroying anything of use to the enemy (Parker).

France finally defeated the Spaniards at Rocroi in 1643, and with Sweden’s victory over the imperial forces at Jankau in 1645, the Hapsburgs were forced to make concessions which led to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which signaled the end of the conflict. The cost was enormous, though, as perhaps 20 percent of Germany’s population perished during the war (ibid).

The Peace of Westphalia ended the old, religious order of the Holy Roman Empire and gave birth to the modern international order based on sovereign states. It was also important in that it signified a “Christian, general, and permanent peace.” From then on, a modern international order would be based on sovereign states interacting as equals within a common, secular, legal framework. It brought peace by taking religion out of politics, even though the Empire remained Holy in the sense of Christian (Wilson).

Lebanese Civil War: 1975–1990

The Middle Eastern country of Lebanon was to be the world’s great experiment in moderation, linking the Arab East with the European West. The capital city of Beirut was to be the shining jewel in that crown. The civil war which tore the nation on the Mediterranean Sea apart from 1975–1990 was superficially viewed as a war between Christians and Muslims, and when fighting began in 1975, it was the Maronite Christian militias against a loose coalition of Fedayeen, Greek Orthodox Christians, Druze, and Shia and Sunni Muslims (Norton).

Before the civil war, Muslims and Christians strove to dominate each other by each loudly ringing church bells on Sunday morning or turning up the loudspeakers for the early morning call to prayer on Friday. Fistfights even once broke out at a movie theater during the showing of a particular epic about the crusades. But superficially, the Lebanese were polite to each other, despite the roiling tensions underneath the façade (ibid).

Lebanon’s internal conflict in the 1970s and 1980s was exacerbated by involvement with the predominantly Jewish Israel and Muslim Syria, with the United States and Soviet Union both backing sides by supplying arms as well. From the grand expression of a model moderate nation where Christians and Arabs seemed to be able to work together, Lebanon became a place where the ideology of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini took root and bore its bitter fruit (ibid).

Lebanese society was in fact a great mash-up of Armenians, Syrians, Kurds, and Palestinian Arabs, plus the native Lebanese—and none of them was committed to the good of Lebanon. Lebanese Arabs had felt overshadowed by the economically and politically powerful Maronite Christians for so long that it is no wonder when Palestinian Arabs began migrating north from Israel after the declaration of that nation’s statehood in 1948, having been influenced by its neighbors Jordan and Syria. Later, under the Ayatollahs of Iran, the Arabs began to openly rebel.

Lebanon ChekpointThe American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon was a casualty in the Lebanese Civil War when a suicide bomber attacked there in April 1983, killing 58 people, including 17 AmericansIn 1983, on a sunny April afternoon, a suicide bomber attacked the American embassy in Beirut, killing 58 people, including 17 Americans. A large van had hurtled past a Lebanese checkpoint, made its way to the American Embassy, and with an explosion equal to 500 pounds of TNT blew away the van, its driver, and part of the embassy. The explosion was so massive that it shook the windows of a house five miles away and cause the U.S.S. Guadalcanal, cruising five miles off Lebanon’s coast, to shudder (ibid).

Lebanon went from one of the Middle Eastern nations most closely aligned with the West to a symbol of what the West feared most: a nation torn apart by religion, tribal factions, and civil war and rebuilt around an Arab identity.

Sudanese Civil War: 1992

Sudan is a country split between a predominantly Muslim north and a majority Christian and traditional African religious belief in the south. Religion played an important and central role in the civil war there, which tore the country apart from 1983–2005.

General NimeiryGeneral Jaafar al-Nimeiry instigated the Sharia-based “September Laws” in Sudan in 1983, which elevated the fight for government soldiers to a holy war against the mostly Christian southern rebelsIn 1983, General Jaafar al-Nimeiry instigated what was known as the September Laws, which circumvented the Addis Ababa Agreement which gave the south a large degree of autonomy. This made Sudan a Muslim country and made all Sudanese subject to Sharia law. This included issues such as the implementation of Islamic penal codes and dress codes and also persecution of Christians (such as the prohibition against the building of Catholic churches). For the government soldiers, fighting southern rebels assumed the nature of jihad and elevated the civil war into a holy war (Svensson).

The southern troops rebelled, though, launching attacks along the north/south border and dragging the entire region back into bloody war. The SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) were scoring major victories and could no longer be ignored by the United Nations or United States, which initiated Operation Lifeline Sudan, bringing much needed food, supplies, and emergency relief to the areas affected by the war (Hackett).

It seemed like in 2005 there would be a real breakthrough toward lasting peace in Sudan. The SPLA was optimistic that they would able to split from the north of Sudan to establish their own nation. However, little attention was being given to western Sudan, where years of tension and distrust were coming to a head between the government and the ethnic Darfuri people.

The northern regime turned to their old tactics of arming local ethnic-Arab groups like the Janjaweed by paying them in cash, uniforms, and weapons, then unleashing them into the conflict zone. The Janjaweed conducted a sweeping “scorched earth” campaign across Darfur with only scattered reports of mass murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing (ibid).

It was U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle, who was one of three U.S. military observers in Darfur who witnessed the atrocities, who handed over the only photographic evidence of the genocide being committed there to New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who published the stories and photos in his column in the paper (ibid).

The results of Kristof’s column developed into a worldwide movement to end the conflict in Darfur, and in 2006, President George W. Bush considered sending U.S. troops there to stabilize the region to bring an end to the violence. Despite international intervention, the situation in Sudan is far from stable today. It is still at risk to return to civil war and potential genocide.

September 11, 2001: War on Terror

Twin Towers MemorialReligious war may have even spread to the United States when on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings were attacked by Muslim terrorists affiliated with the al Qaeda network

It could be said the religious wars have even spread to the United States. On the morning of September 11, 2011, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, perhaps the world’s most famous skyscrapers and a symbol of American prestige and world dominance, were attacked by Muslim terrorists of the al-Qaeda network, who hijacked four jetliners and successfully crashed two of them into the towers. The attacks on the World Trade Center destroyed the buildings and killed all of the passengers on the two planes, as well as several thousand people trapped in the burning buildings (Selengut).

Americans were stunned and mystified. They didn’t understand why this group would single out their country for such an attack. To the fundamentalist al-Qaeda network and its religious leader, Osama bin Laden, America was the “great Satan,” whose modern culture, materialism, and secular morality were creating terrible consequences for traditional Islamic society and religion (ibid).

In a videotape released on October 7, 2001, bin Laden crowed: “Here is America struck by God in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed,” and he applied the term kafir (infidel) five times to the United States (Armstrong).

In his response to bin Laden on that same day, President George W. Bush announced Operation Enduring Freedom, a U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Like the First Crusade, he couched this military offensive in the language of liberty: “We defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedom of people everywhere,” while assuring the people of Afghanistan that the United States had no quarrel with them. Bush also made clear that America’s quarrel was not with Islam: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. Islam is peace.” The conflict between the United States and radicalized Islamic terrorists, which is ongoing into the second decade of the 21st century, has become known as the “War on Terror.” (ibid)


Written by PH

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