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06 May 2012

Church and State

Christianity emerged when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. To survive, Christianity adopted the policy of submission, obedience and peace. It teachings appealed to the oppressed, powerless and weaker sections of society who by accepting it endured exploitation and suffering with patience. In the early period, the converts belonged to the rural areas but gradually the faith spread and the urban population also embraced it. The belief in religion was so strong and deep that belivers preferred to die rather than to abjure it. They were tortured, thrown before wild animals and burnt at stakes.
However, the number of converts continued to increase and strengthen Christianity’s impact on Roman society.

When Roman Emperor, Augustus Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 CE, and made it the state religion, its character changed from submissive to an aggressive religion. Once the church acquired political power, it made attempts to convert the entire Roman Empire by using all coercive methods. The emperor fully patronised the Church in its efforts and gave it the position of a leading state institution. He allotted landed property to it and donated huge amounts of wealth to its officials. He exempted it from all taxes. Seeing this, the Roman nobility also joined the new faith to gain not only the favour of the emperor but also to protect their property and privileges. This transformed Christianity which, abandoning common people, became protector of the elite classes. When the Church became rich it changed its attitude towards poverty which was a matter of pride in its early days and instead, praised the merits of wealth.

In the fifth century, the Christian world was divided into two. In the east was the Roman Emperor who fused religion into state structure and used it for political motives. In the west, the Pope became the spiritual leader, undermining the power of the European rulers. In both places, Christianity interpreted its ideology from fresh perspectives. It integrated its history with that of the Roman Empire and connected the birth of Christ to the foundation of the Empire by Augustus. A new history was written which, by denying the earlier stance, condemned all other faiths and claimed its monopoly on truth and righteousness. Heresy therefore became a crime. The Church adopted a policy to eliminate all heretic and sedition movements within Christianity and to wipe out the existing religions of the Roman time.

In 453 CE, a law was promulgated whereby the properties of pagans and heretics were confiscated. They were punished if found to have secret meetings; the punishments including crucifixion, burning at the stake or being thrown to wild animals. These were the same punishments which were given to the Christians during the Roman period. As the Church became the inheritor of the Roman Empire, it adopted a harsh policy towards non Christians. This shows how political power changes the mindset and attitude of people. Saint Augustine argued that it was the blessing of God that the Church became strong with the help of the empire. Therefore, it was its right to punish heretics and strengthen the faith. Heretics were also ostracised socially. They were not allowed to attend church services. Christians were prohibited to marry into heretic families. Non Christians were dismissed from government jobs. There was a law which allowed them to be exiled and their property confiscated.

The pagan philosophers were also victims of the Church. One woman philosopher, who was famous for her knowledge and wisdom, was stoned to death in front of a church when a bishop incited the mob against her. The last non Christian philosopher of Alexandria left the city as he was harassed and terrorised by the clergy. Some of the non Christian philosophers went to Harran, an ancient city near modern day Turkey, where they survived up to the 11th century. They were the people who transmitted Greek learning to the Arabs.

There was religious tolerance in the pagan society which ended after the domination of Christianity. Tolerance was replaced by narrow-mindedness; all doors for creativity and innovation were closed. The rise of religion cut off all relations with the past and the knowledge of Greece and Ancient Rome was lost. Its slogan was one empire and one religion.

The American Founding Fathers after studying history learnt the lesson that fusion of religion and state was detrimental to progress. That is why, at the time of drafting the constitution, they separated Church from state. In Europe, the French Revolution ended the domination of the Church and secularised the state.
By Mubarak Ali: http://dawn.com/2012/05/06/past-present-church-and-state/
Islam does not have priesthood as institution like Pope and clergy in Christianity. The concept of "Separation of Church & State" does not apply as understood by West & Christianity.