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Desecration (also called desacralization or desanctification) is the act of depriving something of its sacred character, or the disrespectful or contemptuous treatment of that which is held to be sacred or holy by a group or individual.
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.
Christianization of the Roman Empire
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,  the destruction of temples in Syria by Marcellus  the destruction of temples and images in, and surrounding, Carthage, the Patriarch Theophilus who seized and destroyed pagan temples in Alexandria, the levelling of all the temples in Gaza and the wider destruction of holy sites that spread rapidly throughout Egypt. This is supplemented in abundance by archaeological evidence in the northern provinces exposing broken and burnt out buildings and hastily buried objects of piety. 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."
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."
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".
Red Terror in Spain
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. In Barcelona, out of the 58 churches, only the Cathedral was spared, and similar events occurred almost everywhere in Republican Spain. 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.
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.
- "Desecration". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2007-02-17.
- Life of St. Martin
- Edward Gibbon, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", ch28
- R. MacMullen, "Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D. 100–400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6
- "Theophilus", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912, New Advent Web Site.
- Ramsay MacMullen, "Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries", Yale University Press, 1997.
- 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
- Burns, Paul and Alban Butler, Lives of the Saints: Supplement of New Saints and Blesseds 2005 Liturgical Press
- Shots of War: Photojournalism During the Spanish Civil War
- Mitchell, David J. (1983). The Spanish Civil War. New York: Franklin Watts. p. 45. ISBN 9780531098967.
- Mitchell, David J. (1983). The Spanish Civil War. New York: Franklin Watts. p. 46. ISBN 9780531098967.
- Payne p. 215