This is not a news headline but rather a subject of church history. I’ve been reading Rodney Stark’s book The Triumph of Christianity. So far I’ve really enjoyed it. Anytime the topic of the early persecution of the church comes up we always hear about the terrible ordeals early Christians suffered under the Romans. But Stark observes that “hardly any attention has been paid to his [Constantine’s] role in provoking an extraordinary slaughter of the Christians in Persia.” (180) The number of Christians who died in these massacres “probably exceeded the number who died in all the persecutions of the Romans put together.” Yet these events are totally ignored. Here’s what went down. I quote Stark at length.
“Shāpūr II was proclaimed as King of Persia at his birth in 309, and after a period of regency, he took command and ruled until his death in 379. In 337, the year that Constantine died, Shāpūr sent his forces across the Tigris River to attempt to reconquer Armenia and Mesopotamia from the Romans. Shāpūr was fully aware of the special status Constantine had conferred upon Christianity, and consequently he feared that the Persian Christians were potential traitors in conflicts with Rome. These fears were exploited by Zoroastrian priests who whispered to Shāpūr ‘that there is no secret’ that the Christian bishops do not reveal to the Romans.
As a response, the king imposed a double tax on Christians, but it did not cause the flood of defections he had anticipated. So, on Good Friday 344, Shāpūr had five bishops and one hundred Christian priests beheaded outside the walls of the city of Susa, and the massacres began. For the next several decades ‘Christians were tracked down and hunted from one end of the empire to the other.’ Before it ended, soon after Shāpūr died, tens of thousands had been killed—one source estimated that thirty-five thousand were martyred, and another that ‘as many as 190,000 Persian Christians died.’ Nevertheless, substantial numbers of Persian Christians survived and the faith soon reestablished itself as a major presence.” (180-81)