Ethics & Public Policy Center

Martyrdom Today

Published in The Catholic Difference on March 8, 2001



As Pope John Paul II has relentlessly reminded the Church for twenty-two years, we live in the greatest age of martyrdom in Christian history. Thanks to Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and a host of lesser tyrants, more Christians lost their lives for the faith in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined. Martyrdom is not just something that happened to people in the Roman Coliseum; martyrdom is going on all around us.

In 1990-2000, for example, some 613 Catholic missionaries were killed, up from 115 in 1980-1990. In the 1994 Rwanda genocide alone, 248 Church workers were murdered while serving others. Tribal murder may not satisfy the traditional definition of a martyr as one who dies because of “hatred for the faith.” But surely we are permitted to think of priest, nuns, catechists, and seminarians who died rather than abandon their Christian commitment to their people as men and women who have given their lives for Christ.

This past Christmas season was particularly bloody. Bombs in churches killed thirteen people in several different Indonesian towns on Christmas Eve. Father Benjamin Inocencio was shot down by Muslim insurgents in the Philippines in late December. In the week after Christmas, armed men attacked a congregation at the cathedral on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, hacked a nun to death with machetes, set fire to a priest, and injured twelve others. On New Year’s Day, an explosion rocked the Church of Jesus in the Yemeni port of Aden, one of five Catholic churches in the country. A week later, Afghanistan’s Taliban regime decreed the death penalty for anyone converting to Christianity.

There have been hundreds of religiously-motivated attacks on Christians in India in recent months; nuns have been raped, Church workers aiding lepers have been burned alive, priests have been murdered. Add these depredations to the anti-Christian attacks in Indonesia over Christmas, the razing of the Pakistani Christian town of Shantinagar in 1997, the Chinese government’s harassment of Catholics, and the brutal attempt to enforce Islamic law in northern Nigeria, and a grim picture comes into focus: several of the world’s most populous countries are among the most dangerous places to be a Christian—China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan.

Islam has replaced communism as the gravest threat to Christians in many parts of the world. Public Christian worship is forbidden in Saudi Arabia; small Christian groups meet on the property of foreign embassies. Conversion in Saudi Arabia risks capital punishment. In Mauritania, the Comoros Island, and Sudan, the death penalty for conversion to Christianity is part of the civil legal code. Islamic anti-Christian violence in Nigeria and Indonesia has already been noted. The Coptic Christian Church is under constant pressure in Egypt; church burnings are not uncommon, and just a year ago a mob murdered twenty-one Copts in the village of El-Kosheh.

Last October, the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, a respected human rights organization, released the first comprehensive study of international religious freedom ever completed. The study determined that only a quarter of the world’s population lives under conditions of broad religious freedom, while 39% live under “partly free” conditions” and 36% live in countries where religious freedom is systematically violated.

Religious freedom, the survey suggests, correlates with the religious background of a country. Cuba is the exception to the fact that historically Christian countries tend to honor the religious freedom of all (despite some signs of growing intolerance in western Europe). Traditionally Buddhist countries, excepting those still under communist regimes, also tend to do well by religious freedom. The upsurge of violent militancy in India has raised serious questions about traditional Hindu societies and religious freedom. Historically Islamic countries experience the greatest restrictions on religious freedom, as they do on civil rights and political freedoms; but the negative trend in Islamic countries is worse in terms of religious freedom.

The problem of religious freedom did not end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Christian solidarity with the persecuted Church is a moral and religious imperative. So is pressure on the U.S. government to make respect for religious freedom a key human rights factor in American foreign policy.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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