Sectarian violence

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Sectarian battle between Sunnis and Shias at the Battle of Siffin.

Sectarian violence and/or sectarian strife is violence inspired by sectarianism, that is, between different sects of one particular mode of ideology or religion within a nation/community. Religious segregation often plays a role in sectarian violence.


According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute:

Traditionally, sectarian violence implies a symmetrical confrontation between two or more non-state actors representing different population groups.[1]

Sectarian violence differs from the concept of race riot. It may involve the dynamics of social polarization, the balkanization of a geographic area along the lines of self-identifying groups, and protracted social conflict.

Some of the possible enabling environments for sectarian violence include power struggles, political climate, social climate, cultural climate, and economic landscape.

Between Muslims and Christians[edit]

Conflict between Muslims and Christians dates back as early as the 7th century, when Arab Muslim armies invaded predominantly Christian lands. Later, from the 11th century onward, followers of the two religions battled for the possession of the Holy Land. The first of the Christian crusades started when Byzantine emperor Alexios I appealed to Pope Urban II for mercenaries to help him resist Muslim advances into territory of the Byzantine Empire. Pope Urban II in turn urged all Christians to take up arms and capture Jerusalem. For numerous years war and violence were committed in the name of religion.

Khojaly Tragedy[edit]

The Khojaly Massacre was the killing[2] of hundreds of ethnic Azerbaijani civilians[3] from the town of Khojaly on 25–26 February 1992 by the Armenian and, partially, by CIS armed forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. According to the Azerbaijani side, as well as Memorial Human Rights Center, Human Rights Watch and other international observers,[4][5] the massacre was committed by the ethnic Armenian armed forces, reportedly with help of the Russian 366th Motor Rifle Regiment, apparently not acting on orders from the command.[6][7] The death toll provided by Azerbaijani authorities is 613 civilians, including 106 women and 83 children.[8] The event became the largest massacre in the course of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.[9]

Present violence[edit]

In May 2004, at least 57,000 people fled after sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims in northern and central Nigeria according to officials.[10] More than 30,000 Christians were displaced from Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria, after religious violence.[10] About 27,000 displaced people sought safety in Bauchi State in east central Nigeria after Muslims were massacred by Christian gangs in neighbouring Plateau State.[10] President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in Plateau State in central Nigeria on 18 May 2004, following a Christian massacre of Muslims that in turn led to reprisal killings of Christians in the northern city of Kano. The bloodletting had claimed more than 2,000 lives since September 2001. Obasanjo sacked governor Joshua Dariye, accusing him of failing to act to end a cycle of violence between the Plateau State's Muslim and Christian communities. The president also dissolved the Plateau State legislature.[11]

In March 2010, 500 people were killed after attacks by machete-wielding gangs on Christian villages in Nigeria. Many women and children, caught in animal traps and fishing nets, were hacked to death.[12]

The Islamist militant group Boko Haram[13] has attacked churches. Incidents include the December 2011 bombings of a church on Christmas Day, resulting in 41 deaths,[14] and the January 2012 attacks, in which over 200 people were killed.[14][15] Kaduna churches were bombed in April and June 2012, resulting in 38[16] and 12-19[17] deaths respectively. On 7 August 2012, a mass shooting occurred at Deeper Life, an evangelical Christian church near Okene in Nigeria's central Kogi State. Three unidentified gunmen killed 19 people, including the church's pastor. Boko Haram is the suspected perpetrator.[18][19]

In Egypt, 21 Coptic Christians were killed by a Muslim mob in the Kosheh Massacres in 2000,[20] and 11 were killed in the Nag Hammadi massacre by Muslim gunmen.[21] In Alexandria, 23 people were left dead and 70 were wounded by a possible suicide bomber outside a Coptic church during the New Year's mass on 1 January 2011.[22] On May 7, 2011, 15 were killed and 232 injured when Salafi Muslims attacked a church in Imbaba.[23] In recent months, Christian Copts complained of discrimination, while some Muslims accused Christian churches of holding converts to Islam against their will.

In Baghdad, Iraq, on 30 December 2010, 10 bombing attacks killed two Christians and wounded two others. Officials stated that bombs were planted near the homes of Christians. Earlier, in October, militants seized a Baghdad church during evening Mass, held the congregation hostage and triggered a raid by Iraqi security forces. The bloodbath left at least 58 people killed and 78 wounded – nearly everyone inside.[24]

Between Muslims and Buddhists[edit]

Rohingya massacre[edit]

During World War II, Japanese forces invaded Burma, then under British colonial rule. The British forces retreated and in the power vacuum left behind, considerable violence erupted. This included communal violence between Buddhist Rakhine people and Muslim Rohingya villagers. The period also witnessed violence between groups loyal to the British and Burmese nationalists. The Rohingya supported the Allies during the war and opposed the Japanese forces, assisting the Allies in reconnaissance [25] In this period, some 22,000 Rohingya are believed to have crossed the border into Bengal, then part of British India, to escape the violence.[26][27]

40,000 Rohingya eventually fled to Chittagong after repeated massacres by the Burmese and Japanese forces.[28]

Among Christians[edit]


Although the First Crusade was initially launched in response to an appeal from Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos for help in repelling the invading Seljuq Turks from Anatolia, one of the lasting legacies of the Crusades was to "further separate the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity from each other."[29]

European wars of religion[edit]

The Battle of the White Mountain in Bohemia (1620)—one of the decisive battles of the Thirty Years War

Following the onset of the Protestant Reformation, a series of wars were waged in Europe starting circa 1524 and continuing intermittently until 1648. Although sometimes unconnected, all of these wars were strongly influenced by the religious change of the period, and the conflict and rivalry that it produced. According to Miroslav Volf, the European wars of religion were a major factor behind the "emergence of secularizing modernity".

In the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre followers of the Roman Catholic Church killed up to 30,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) in mob violence. The massacres were carried out on the national day celebrating Bartholomew the Apostle. Pope Gregory XIII sent the leader of the massacres a Golden Rose, and said that the massacres "gave him more pleasure than fifty Battles of Lepanto, and he commissioned Giorgio Vasari to paint frescoes of it in the Vatican".[30] The killings have been called "the worst of the century's religious massacres",[31] and led to the start of the fourth war of the French Wars of Religion.

Northern Ireland[edit]

Since the 16th century there has been sectarian conflict of varying intensity between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. This religious sectarianism is connected to a degree with nationalism. Northern Ireland has seen inter-communal conflict for more than four centuries and there are records of religious ministers or clerics, the agents for absentee landlords, aspiring politicians, and members of the landed gentry stirring up and capitalizing on sectarian hatred and violence back as far as the late 18th century.

William Edward Hartpole Lecky, an Irish historian, wrote "If the characteristic mark of a healthy Christianity be to unite its members by a bond of fraternity and love, then there is no country where Christianity has more completely failed than Ireland".[32]

Reactions to sectarian domination and abuse have resulted in accusations of sectarianism being levelled against the minority community. It has been argued, however, that those reactions would be better understood in terms of a struggle against the sectarianism that governs relations between the two communities and which has resulted in the denial of human rights to the minority community.[33][better source needed]

Steve Bruce, a sociologist, wrote;

The Northern Ireland conflict is a religious conflict. Economic and social considerations are also crucial, but it was the fact that the competing populations in Ireland adhered and still adhere to competing religious traditions which has given the conflict its enduring and intractable quality.[34]:249 Reviewers agreed "Of course the Northern Ireland conflict is at heart religious".[35]

John Hickey wrote;

Politics in the North is not politics exploiting religion. That is far too simple an explanation: it is one which trips readily off the tongue of commentators who are used to a cultural style in which the politically pragmatic is the normal way of conducting affairs and all other considerations are put to its use. In the case of Northern Ireland the relationship is much more complex. It is more a question of religion inspiring politics than of politics making use of religion. It is a situation more akin to the first half of seventeenth century England than to the last quarter of twentieth‑century Britain.[36]

The period from 1969 to 2002 is known as "The Troubles". Nearly all the people living in Northern Ireland identified themselves as belonging to either the Protestant or the Catholic community. People of no religion and non-Christian faiths are still considered as belonging to one of the two "sects" along with churchgoers. In this context, "Protestants" means essentially descendants of immigrants from Scotland and England settled in Ulster during or soon after the 1690s; also known as "Loyalists" or "Unionist" because they generally support politically the status of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom. "Catholics" means descendants of the pre-1690 indigenous Irish population; also known as "Nationalist" and "Republicans"; who generally politically favour a united Ireland.

Reactions to sectarian domination and abuse have resulted in accusations of sectarianism being levelled against the minority community. It has been argued, however, that those reactions would be better understood in terms of a struggle against the sectarianism that governs relations between the two communities and which has resulted in the denial of human rights to the minority community.[33]

There are organizations dedicated to the reduction of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. The Corrymeela Community of Ballycastle operates a retreat centre on the northern coast of Northern Ireland to bring Catholics and Protestants together to discuss their differences and similarities. The Ulster Project works with teenagers from Northern Ireland and the United States to provide safe, non-denominational environments to discuss sectarianism in Northern Ireland. These organizations are attempting to bridge the gap of historical prejudice between the two religious communities.

Yugoslav wars[edit]

Howard Goeringer criticizes both the "Catholic Pope and the Orthodox Patriarch" for failing to condemn the "deliberate massacre of men, women and children in the name of 'ethnic cleansing' as incompatible with Jesus' life and teaching."[37]

Rwandan genocide[edit]

The majority of Rwandans, and Tutsis in particular, are Catholic, so shared religion did not prevent genocide. Miroslav Volf cites a Roman Catholic bishop from Rwanda as saying, "The best cathechists, those who filled our churches on Sundays, were the first to go with machetes in their hands".[38] Ian Linden asserts that "there is absolutely no doubt that significant numbers of prominent Christians were involved in sometimes slaughtering their own church leaders."[39] According to Volf, "what is particularly disturbing about the complicity of the church is that Rwanda is without doubt one of Africa’s most evangelized nations. Eight out of ten of its people claimed to be Christians."[38]

When the Roman Catholic missionaries came to Rwanda in the late 1880s, they contributed to the "Hamitic" theory of race origins, which taught that the Tutsi were a superior race. The Church has been considered to have played a significant role in fomenting racial divisions between Hutu and Tutsi, in part because they found more willing converts among the majority Hutu.[40] The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) report on the genocide states,

In the colonial era, under German and then Belgian rule, Roman Catholic missionaries, inspired by the overtly racist theories of 19th century Europe, concocted a destructive ideology of ethnic cleavage and racial ranking that attributed superior qualities to the country's Tutsi minority, since the missionaries ran the colonial-era schools, these pernicious values were systematically transmitted to several generations of Rwandans…[41]

The Roman Catholic Church argues that those who took part in the genocide did so without the sanction of the Church.[42] Although the genocide was ethnically motivated and religious factors were not prominent, the Human Rights Watch reported that a number of religious authorities in Rwanda, particularly Roman Catholic, failed to condemn the genocide publicly at the time.[43] Some Christian leaders have been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for their roles in the genocide.[42] These include Rwandan Roman Catholic priests and nuns as well as a Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor.[44]


Scotland suffers from a spill-over of Northern Irish sectarianism due to many people having links to certain communities living in the country, particularly in the West.

Glasgow's two largest and best supported clubs, Celtic and Rangers subscribe to government initiatives and charities like the Nil by Mouth campaign are working in this area. Celtic have previously sent letters to every season ticket holder reminding supporters that any form of sectarianism is not welcome at Celtic Park.[citation needed] Rangers' equivalent anti-sectarian policy is called Follow With Pride.[45]

Among Muslims[edit]

Sectarian violence between the two major sects of Islam, Shia and Sunni, has occurred in countries like Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Lebanon etc. This violent conflict has roots in the political turmoil arising out of differences over the succession to Muhammad. Abu Bakr, a companion of Muhammad, was nominated by Umar and elected as the first Sunni Rightly Guided Caliph. However another group felt that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, had been designated by Muhammad and is considered by Shia as the first Imam.

Abu Bakr was followed by Umar as caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, then by Uthman ibn Affan and finally by Ali. Ali's right to rule was challenged by Muawiyah bin Abu Sufian, governor of Syria, who believed that Ali should have acted faster against the murderers of Uthman. The situation detoriated further when many of those responsible for the death of Uthman rallied behind Ali. However, later on, both the parties agreed to have some one as a judge between them. This led to the separation of an extremist group known as Kharijites from Ali's army, which pronounced the judgement belonged to God alone. A member of this group later assassinated Ali. At the demise of Muawiyah he appointed his son Yazid as his successor. The credentials of Yazid were challenged by Ali's son Hussein ibn Ali (and grandson of Muhammad). A battle at Karbala in Iraq led to the martyrdom of Hussein and dozens of others from Ahl al-Bayt (the members of the family of Muhammad).

This tragic incident created deep fissures in the Muslim society. The conflict that had started at a political plane intervened with the dogma and belief systems. Those who considered Ali to be the true heir to the Caliphate split away from the main corpus of Muslim society and traditions. They developed their distinct sect, known as "Shia" referring to Shian-e-Ali. The majority of Muslims are known as "Sunni" meaning "followers of the Traditions of The Prophet ". They are of the view that the bloody conflict between Ali and Muawiyah was a result of a tragic misunderstanding and regardless of who was wrong, the matter should have been solved peacefully.

In Iraq[edit]

In February 2006, more than 100 people were killed across Iraq, when violence between the two Muslim rival sects erupted. It has left over a hundred people dead and dozens of mosques and homes destroyed. [46]

In Pakistan[edit]

In Pakistan sectarianism exhibited its first organized nature in early 1980 when two rival organizations were established: Tehrik-e-Jafaria (TFJ) (Organization of the Jafri (Shia) Law) represented Shia communities, and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) (Guardian of the Companions of the Prophet) representing Sunnis. The first major incident of this sectarian violence was killing of the Arif Hussain Hussaini, founding leader of TFJ in 1986. In retaliation Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, founder of the (SSP) was murdered. Since then internecine bloody vendetta has ensued. The focus of this violence has been Kurram, Hangu, Dera Ismail Khan, Bahawalpur, Jhang, Quetta, and Karachi.

The transformation of the sectarian conflict to a violent civil war in Pakistan coincided with the establishment of the Islamic republic in Iran and promotion of the Sunni religion and its incorporation in the state institutions by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, regime in Pakistan.

The Iranian Revolution was led by Shia clerics, and it influenced Shia communities all over the world. In Pakistan Tehrik-e-Jafaria was established with the demands of enforcing the Shia Law. This demand was viewed as detrimental by the Sunni religious leaders. In response SSP was established by the Sunni extremist clerics. Many of these clerics had a background in the sectarian strife against the Ahmadis (a heterodox sect considered non-Muslim by majority of the Orthodox Schools)

In Somalia[edit]

Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a is a Somali paramilitary group consisting of Sufis and moderates opposed to the radical Islamist group Al-Shabaab. They are fighting to prevent Wahhabism from being imposed on Somalia and protecting the country's Sunni-Sufi traditions and generally moderate religious views.[47]

In Syria[edit]

The Syrian civil war gradually shifted towards a more sectarian nature. Pro-Assad militant groups are largely Shia, while anti-Assad militant groups are largely Sunni.

See also[edit]



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  2. ^ de Waal, Thomas (2004). Black garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war. ABC-CLIO. pp. 172–173. ISBN 0-8147-1945-7. 
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  4. ^ New York Times - Massacre by Armenians Being Reported
  5. ^ TIME Magazine - Tragedy Massacre in Khojaly
  6. ^ Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus By Svante E. Cornell
  7. ^ Bloodshed in the Caucasus: escalation of the armed conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, vol. 1245 of Human rights documents, Human Rights Watch, 1992, p. 24
  8. ^ Letter from the Charge d'affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Azerbaijan to the United Nations Office
  9. ^ Human Rights Watch / Helsinki Azerbaijan. Seven Years of Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. New York • Washington • Los Angeles • London • Brussels: 1994, p. 6. ISBN 1-56432-142-8
  10. ^ a b c "NIGERIA: 57,000 people displaced by sectarian violence in two states". IRIN. 14 May 2004. 
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria, JSOU
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  16. ^ "Suicide car bombing kills 38 in Nigeria on Easter Sunday". Associated Press. 9 April 2012. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  17. ^ Reuters-UK : "Nigerian Christian worship subdued by church bombs", by Augustine Madu and Joe Brock (24 June 2012) - (Retrieved : 9 August 2012)
  18. ^ "Deadly church attack in central Nigeria". Al Jazeera. August 7, 2012. Retrieved August 7, 2012. 
  19. ^ "Nigeria church attack in Kogi state 'kills 19'". BBC News. August 7, 2012. Retrieved August 7, 2012. 
  20. ^ "Political & Security Intelligence Analysis of the Islamic World and its Neighbours, Volume XII, Number III, 11 February 2000". The Estimate. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
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  23. ^ Egypt to lift restrictions on building churches
  24. ^ Spencer, Richard (2010-11-01)."Pope condemns Baghdad church massacre". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved on 9 August 2012.
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  32. ^ William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1892). A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. 
  33. ^ a b Mulholland, P. (1999) Drumcree: A Struggle for Recognition
  34. ^ Steve Bruce (1986). God Save Ulster. Oxford University Press. p. 249. ISBN 0-19-285217-5. 
  35. ^ David Harkness (1989-10). "God Save Ulster: The Religion and Politics of Paisleyism by Steve Bruce (review)". The English Historical Review (Oxford University Press) 104 (413). 
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  37. ^ Goeringer, Howard (2005). Haunts of Violence in the Church. p. 77. 
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  39. ^ Linden, I. (1997). The Church and Genocide. Lessons from the Rwandan Tragedy. In G. Baum (Ed.), The Reconciliation of Peoples. Challenge to the Churches (pp. 43–55). Geneva: WCC Publications.
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  47. ^ "Somali rage at grave desecration". BBC News. 8 June 2009.