The persecution of Cathars by the Catholic Church has to be one of the most violent religious episodes in French history over the past millennium. Cathars were the followers of Catharism, a Christian sect that was prevalent predominantly in southern regions of France between the 12th and 14th centuries. The conflict between Cathars and Catholics emerged after the Pope saw Catharism “diluting” the Christian faith.
Persecution of Cathars
Catharism is believed to have originated from a reform movement among Christians that asked believers to return to the original teachings of the faith that focused on preaching, perfection, and poverty. At that time, southern France was rife with scandals of Catholic clergy indulging in expensive lifestyles. Disappointed by the excesses of the clergy, many Christians joined Catharism.
According to Cathar belief, there were two Gods in the world. The first was the benevolent God of the New Testament who was seen as the creator of the spirit, while the other was an evil God from the Old Testament who was seen as the creator of the universe. Cathars believed that the good God’s power was limited by the evil God’s power and vice versa. Being born on Earth, one had to renounce the material world in order to truly achieve angelic status. Until then, one was doomed to be reincarnated back to Earth repeatedly.
The Catholic Church saw Cathars as a heretical sect that went against the teachings of the Bible. The fact that Cathars rejected the idea of salvation from sin by belief in Christ was seen as a threat to the Catholic belief. Cathars were open-minded when it came to women priests since they saw the spirit as being without gender. For the Catholic Church, this too was unacceptable. As more and more people moved away from Catholicism and adopted Catharism, the Vatican started sending representatives to force Cathar leaders and their supporting nobles to come back to the Catholic faith.
For this purpose, a papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau, visited Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, in January A.D. 1208. The papal legate asked Raymond to stop protecting Cathars. However, he refused and even threatened Pierre with violence. While returning back to Rome, Pierre was killed, allegedly by one of Raymond’s knights. The death was a turning point in Catholic-Cathar relations as the Pope ordered a crusade against them.
In A.D. 1209, the city of Béziers was attacked. The crusaders offered Catholics the freedom to leave unharmed. However, most of them refused and opted to fight for the city with their Cathar brothers. The city was eventually captured and thousands of people, including children, were slaughtered. Some of them were used as target practice by the crusaders. When Arnaud-Amaury, commander of the crusader army, was asked how to distinguish between the Catholics and Cathars, he is alleged to have said: “Kill them all, the Lord will recognize His own.”
The official war between Cathars and Catholics ended with the Treaty of Paris in A.D. 1229. An inquisition was instituted in A.D. 1233 to uproot the remaining Cathar believers. Eventually, Catharism was wiped out from France. Even though descendants of Cathars adopted Catholicism to avoid persecution, they were often discriminated against. Some were even required to live outside towns.
Parallels with Falun Gong
The suppression of Cathars is a grim reminder of what happens when new ideologies, however benign, pop up in totalitarian regimes. In countries across the Middle East, Africa, South America, and Asia, extremist religious beliefs and their leaders continue to persecute the innocent. In recent times, the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is an example.
Afraid that a peaceful Buddhist-like Falun Gong might erode its authoritarian power, the CCP, under former president Jiang Zemin, initiated a massive crackdown on followers of the spiritual practice starting in 1999. Several hundred thousand Falun Gong practitioners were arrested, with many tortured, abused, and killed. Almost 4,300 people have been confirmed to have been murdered on the site minghui.org. The government is also involved in harvesting organs from (living) Falun Gong practitioners, thereby killing them, and selling the organs internationally.
At present, Falun Gong remains a banned practice in China. The CCP uses its global propaganda network to spread fake news against the practitioners. Despite all such attacks, the followers of Falun Gong have stuck with their core teachings of moral values including compassion to counter the persecution rather than embracing violent methods. Today, many people practicing Falun Gong voluntarily meet with international groups and media organizations to expose the atrocities and hold the CCP accountable for their crimes.