Both persecution and the similar word prosecution come from Latin verbs meaning “to follow.”
Prosequor, which gives us prosecute and prosecution, can mean merely “to accompany,” but it can also mean “to attack.” The English word prosecution has a legal meaning: “the instituting and conducting of legal proceedings against a person or persons in respect of a criminal charge; an instance of this.” This is the usual sense in which the word is used.
Latin persequor, which gives us persecute and persecution, can be translated as “to follow with hostile intent.” The English word persecution means “systematic violent oppression directed against the members of a particular religious or racial group.”
In addition to religion and race, sex, gender, and other aspects of human difference can also be made the target of persecution.
The usual authors of persecution are governments; their targets are complete classes of people:
Rep. Keith Ellison speaks against Pakistani persecution…of Shia Muslims
Shrinking Numbers and Growing Persecution Threaten Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan
Government Persecution of Christians in China Worsens Significantly
Persecution of Indian Women
‘Moral crimes’ being used to persecute Afghan women
A Call to End the Persecution of Women Globally
Homosexuals in Africa face growing persecution
Persecution is a strong word that stirs emotions and calls up images of ravening lions, flaming pyres, and yellow armbands. To use the word as a mere synonym for harsh criticism, unfair treatment, harassment, dislike, or annoyance seems a waste. For example:
After nearly two months’ lull, the persecution of Alex Rodriguez [baseball player] has resumed.
The persecution of Tony Blair
Melissa Joan Hart persecuted for support of Romney
Why childless people are persecuted
The Persecution of Wisconsin Conservatives
Liberals Are Being Persecuted on Campus
Here are some possible alternatives for use in contexts that don’t really merit persecute or persecution:
Persecute vs. Prosecute
Persecute and prosecute and the verb forms of persecution and prosecution. Here are some quotations from the press using those words:
Pope Francis called Sunday for an end to the violence in Iraq, where religious minorities are being persecuted and driven out by the militant group the Islamic State. – USA Today
Florida has no law to charge children who make school shooting threats, which will make it difficult to prosecute recent arrests made after last week’s attack in Parkland. – USA Today