Past present: Gods of war

Source: Dawn

By Mubarak Ali

Religion has played an important role in wars. In the ancient times, when tribes engaged in bloody conflicts, both sides were believed to be blessed and supported by their gods, whose images were carried to the battlefield. Thus, the war was not just between two tribes but between two gods as well.

Nearly all ancient civilisations had their own war gods and goddesses to help them excel on the battlefield. The Sumerians had Asher, the Egyptians had Horus, the Greeks Athena and Ares, and the Romans had Mars. The followers of these deities built temples in their honour where the war booty was deposited to please and appease them.

Religious association thus made war sacred and holy. In Judaism, the concept of martyrdom evolved for those who were killed in the battle field while fighting for or defending their religion. During the Roman period, the concept was used for persecuting Christians who refused to regard the emperor as divine or to worship the Roman gods. Gradually the concept of martyrdom for those who were killed while defending their country and faith became acceptable to all nations.

In 1094 AD, Pope Urban II declared a crusade against the Muslims and urged the Christians to free Jerusalem from the ‘infidels’. Although Christianity claimed to be a religion of peace, the concept of a ‘just’ war validated killing and bloodshed in the battlefield. Adhering to this validation, the crusaders slaughtered the Muslims after defeating them. The crusades were not restricted to the Muslims, but were also extended to ‘heretic’ sects like the Cathars in France, and the eastern-European heretics and pagans who were massacred by the Catholics. The crusades strengthened the authority of the church while the common people were imbued with religious zeal to lay down their lives for faith.

In 1517AD, when Martin Luther challenged the pope, Christianity was divided into the catholic and protestant sects. Each sect believed in its own righteousness, considering the other as misguided, and both were supported by rival rulers which eventually led to a bloody conflict in Europe.

France, which was predominantly a catholic country, did not tolerate the new emerging Calvinists known as Huguenots in France. In 1572, 13,000 people were killed in the “bloody Sunday” St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the Huguenots in Paris and other cities of France. Consequently, a large number of Huguenots left France to settle in other European countries, depriving France of professional artisans and craftsmen.

In 1590, the sectarian conflict came to an end when Henry IV issued the edict of Nantes, providing concessions to the Huguenots. He adopted religious tolerance, and the separation of religion from politics; restoring peace and order in France.

In Germany, the clash between the Protestants and the Catholics was resolved by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which was rather short-lived as, in 1618, began a series of wars known as the Thirty Years’ War; the most prolonged, continuous and bloodiest of wars with far-reaching consequences for both sides. The armies fought with religious zeal until both sides were exhausted and manpower and resources were expended, paving the way for peace negotiations.

It took Germany 200 years to recover from these losses.

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Categories: Asia

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