To persecute is to make someone suffer or to keep them in bad circumstances. In some parts of the world governments or military groups persecute, or punish, people for religious beliefs, often sending them to prisons or work camps.
You can use the verb persecute to talk about abusive acts against a person or group of people. Persecute is usually used to specify the harm done to a particular group, as when a person is persecuted for his affiliation with a religious group. Those born of a certain race or culture can be targets too. Adolf Hitler became notorious for his orders to persecute the Jewish people.