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Title: Desecration  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Host desecration, Persecution of Hindus, Sacrilege, Burial, Cemetery
Collection: Religious Belief and Doctrine
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Desecration (also called desacralization or desanctification) is the act of depriving something of its sacred character, or the disrespectful, contemptuous, or destructive treatment of that which is held to be sacred or holy by a group or individual.


  • Detail 1
  • Examples 2
    • Christianization of the Roman Empire 2.1
    • Red Terror in Spain 2.2
    • Modern examples 2.3
  • See also 3
  • References 4


Many consider acts of desecration to be sacrilegious acts. This can include desecration of sacred books, sacred places or sacred objects. Desecration generally may be considered from the perspective of a particular religion or spiritual activity. Desecration may be applied to natural systems or components, particularly if those systems are part of naturalistic spiritual religion.

To respectfully remove the sacred character of a place or an object is deconsecration, and is distinct from desecration.

Some religions, such as the Roman Catholic Church have specific rules as to what constitutes desecration and what should be done in these circumstances.[1]


Christianization of the Roman Empire

Diptych of a priestess of Ceres, ca 400. The "idol" was defaced and thrown in a well at Montier-en-Der (later an abbey). (Musée de Cluny)

Examples of the destruction of pagan temples in the late fourth century, as recorded in surviving texts, describe Martin of Tours' attacks on holy sites in Gaul, [2] the destruction of temples in Syria by Marcellus [3] the destruction of temples and images in, and surrounding, Carthage,[4] the Patriarch Theophilus who seized and destroyed pagan temples in Alexandria,[5] the levelling of all the temples in Gaza and the wider destruction of holy sites that spread rapidly throughout Egypt.[4] This is supplemented in abundance by archaeological evidence in the northern provinces exposing broken and burnt out buildings and hastily buried objects of piety.[4] The leader of the Egyptian monks who participated in the sack of temples replied to the victims who demanded back their sacred icons:

"I peacefully removed your gods...there is no such thing as robbery for those who truly possess Christ."[4]

At the turn of the century St Augustine would exhort his congregation in Carthage to smash all tangible symbols of paganism:

"for that all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims!"

In the year 407 a decree was issued to the west from Rome:

"If any images stand even now in the temples and shrines...., they shall be torn from their foundations...The temples situated in cities or towns shall be taken for public use. Altars shall be destroyed in all places."[4]

Sacred sites were now appropriated by Christianity: "Let altars be built and relics be placed there" wrote Pope Gregory I, "so that [the pagans] have to change from the worship of the daemones to that of the true God".[6]

Red Terror in Spain

"Execution" of the Sacred Heart by leftist militiamen at Cerro de los Ángeles near Madrid, on 7 August 1936, was the most famous of the widespread desecration of images and Churches.[7] King Alfonso XIII had consecrated the nation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the spot on May 30, 1919.[8] The photograph was taken by a Paramount newsreel representative and originally published in the London Daily Mail with a caption calling it part of the "Spanish Reds' war on religion."[9]

The Red Terror in Spain during the Spanish Civil War involved massive desecration of churches, synagogues and other sacred objects and places by leftists. On the night of July 19, 1936 alone, 50 churches were burned.[10] In Barcelona, out of the 58 churches, only the Cathedral was spared, and similar events occurred almost everywhere in Republican Spain.[11] All the Catholic churches in the Republican zone were closed, but the attacks were not limited to Catholic churches, as synagogues were also pillaged and closed, but some small Protestant churches were spared.[12]

Modern examples

Even in the late 20th and 21st century, desecrations are still taking place in some parts of the world, notably in countries ruled by religious fundamentalists, such as the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in March 2001. In 2014 a man and a woman received jail sentences for attaching bacon strips to door handles of Edinburgh Central Mosque.[13]

See also


  1. ^ "Desecration".  
  2. ^ Life of St. Martin
  3. ^ Edward Gibbon, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", ch28
  4. ^ a b c d e R. MacMullen, "Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D. 100–400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6
  5. ^ "Theophilus", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912, New Advent Web Site.
  6. ^ Ramsay MacMullen, "Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries", Yale University Press, 1997.
  7. ^ Ealham, Chris and Michael Richards, The Splintering of Spain, p. 80, 168, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-521-82178-9, ISBN 978-0-521-82178-0
  8. ^ Burns, Paul and Alban Butler, Lives of the Saints: Supplement of New Saints and Blesseds 2005 Liturgical Press
  9. ^ Shots of War: Photojournalism During the Spanish Civil War
  10. ^ Mitchell, David J. (1983). The Spanish Civil War. New York: Franklin Watts. p. 45.  
  11. ^ Mitchell, David J. (1983). The Spanish Civil War. New York: Franklin Watts. p. 46.  
  12. ^ Payne p. 215
  13. ^ "Pair jailed for Edinburgh's Central Mosque bacon attack". News - Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland ( 
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