Christian Martyrs of the 21st Century: The Reckoning ContinuesSANDRO MAGISTER
Thanks to John Paul II, the Catholic Church has become aware of the fact that the experience of martyrdom is still extremely relevant. The "brief century," marked by totalitarianism, has left behind itself a long trail of Christian blood. But the third millennium also opens with the sign of martyrdom: a martyrdom with many faces that shows itself increasingly as a "global" experience.From
2000 until today, there have been more than one hundred of them, in forty nations.
That's without counting the unnamed victims or those who have fallen in war. A
warning from the pope, even as India produces new killings and aggressions a t
the Angelus of Sunday, August 29, the day on which Christian tradition commemorates
the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, John Paul II warned Christians to be ready
each day to give the "supreme testimony of blood for the sake of truth and justice,"
in the presence of the modern-day Herods:
"They may be relatively few
who are called to make the supreme sacrifice, but all Christians must be ready
to give consistent witness each day, even at the cost of suffering and serious
sacrifices. We really need a commitment that is at times heroic in order not to
give in, even in daily life, to the difficulties that urge us to compromise, and
in order to live the Gospel 'sine glossa'."The pope recalled as a
model the martyrs of our time, who are too frequently ignored:
heroic example of John the Baptist brings to mind the martyrs of the faith who
throughout the centuries faithfully followed in his footsteps. In a special way,
I recall the many Christians who, during the past century, were victims of religious
hatred in various European nations. Even today, in some parts of the world, believers
continue to be subjected to harsh trials of their faithfulness to Christ and his
The pope's reminder came on the very day on which funeral
ceremonies were being held in India for Fr. Job Chittilappilly, the 71-year-old
pastor of Thuruthiparambu,in Kerala, who was killed the previous Saturday while
reciting the rosary in his church.
And his death came while in other Indian
states, Orissa and Jharkhand, bands of Hindu fanatics assaulted Christian churches
and homes, stabbing a Catholic pastor, John Sunderam,and his assistant, Fr. Albino
From 2000 until today, there have been about forty countries in
which at least one case of death due to violence against Christians has been verified,
and more than one hundred victims in all. Gerolamo Fazzini, co-director of Mondo
e Missione, the magazine of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions
in Milan, made a systematic account of these in the latest issue of Vita e
Pensiero, the bimonthly magazine of the Catholic University of Milan. Here
for Convenience: Martyrdom Worldwide
by Gerolamo Fazzini
to John Paul II, the Catholic Church has become aware of the fact that the experience
of martyrdom is still extremely relevant. The "brief century," marked by totalitarianism,
has left behind itself a long trail of Christian blood. But the third millennium
also opens with the sign of martyrdom: a martyrdom with many faces that shows
itself increasingly as a "global" experience.
And not only in the geographical
sense. Today many of those who end up among the ranks of the martyrs are the exponents
of the local Churches, demonstrating an ever-growing commitment ad gentes;
it is not rare that those killed are laymen, who are more vulnerable than priests
or bishops. One example among many: Ana Isabel Sanchez Torralba, just 22 years
old, was a South American youth with the Calasantian volunteer missions, on her
first foreign mission. She was killed in Equatorial Guinea on July 1, 2003, during
a police inspection.
About forty countries have seen at least one death
resulting from violence against Christians in the period of 2000-2003. The martyrology
produced by the Vatican agency Fides speaks of 31 victims for the faith
in 2000, 33 in the next, 25 in 2002, and 14 in 2003. And since the beginning of
this year we must also record another series of killings in various countries.
Glaring Case of Columbia
In terms of the gruesomeness of the
crimes, the number of victims involved, and the duration of the ongoing conflict,
the case of Colombia is absolutely unique. This proves wrong those who attribute
solely to the anti-Christian furor of Muslim extremists on the one hand, and of
communist governments on the other, the number of martyrs that the Church of the
21st century must now acknowledge. Just over the last three years in Colombia
there have fallen under the blows of both the guerillas and the paramilitaries
a bishop and various priests, seminarians, and laymen, because of their Christian
testimony and their defense of justice and human rights. The Colombian Church
pays a high price for its fidelity to the Gospel and its commitment to creating
true peace. In the martyrology compiled by Fides, Colombia earned in 2003
on a par with Uganda the classification of the country where the
greatest number of martyrs has been recorded, with six victims for each country.
are other officially Catholic countries of Central and South America where people
continue to die for their opposition, in the name of their faith, to those in
power, whether fazenderos, narcotics traffickers, the army, or the death squads.
The violence no longer happens on a large scale as in years past, in the time
of Archbishop Romero or of the dictators who drenched various countries in blood.
And yet blood continues to be spilled in Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc.
So much so that the theology magazine Concilium recently proposed, precisely
in reference to the situation in Latin America, the reformulation of the very
concept of martyrdom in the light of so many personal accounts of people killed
not explicitly "in hatred of the faith," but in the name of the evangelical values
of solidarity, justice, and peace.
in the Muslim Countries
Where explicit aversion to the Christian
faith does reap the greatest number of victims is in the Muslim-majority countries,
as proved by a recent book by Lebanese author Camille Eid, To Death, in the
Name of Allah. September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have, in
some contexts, further complicated matters: religious extremism has blended with
an anti-Western hatred that has brought about the singling out of Christianity
as an enemy ipso facto.
A few examples. At the beginning of June,
the agency Asia News published the story of a campaign on behalf of Brian
Savio O'Connor, an Indian Catholic kidnapped six months ago by the Muttaqa, the
Saudi religious police, on a street in Riyadh. He was brought to a mosque, where
he was tortured and beaten, and then imprisoned in Riyadh. Known to be an exemplary
citizen, O'Connor was accused of using drugs, selling liquor, and above
all of preaching Jesus Christ. But it seems certain that the drug charges
were fabricated by the police, and that O'Connor was instead threatened with death
unless he renounced his faith.
Last May 24, a young Catholic, Samuel Masih,
died in a hospital in Lahore, at the hand of a policeman charged with his custody.
He had ended up in prison for presumed offenses against the Islamic religion.
In reality, at the moment of his arrest in August of 2003 Samuel was doing his
job: cleaning a garden. He had piled up some garbage near the wall of a mosque,
planning to come back again to burn it. But his act was considered blasphemy:
the muezzin of Lahore beat him bloody before handing him over to the police. The
murder of Samuel Masih is the latest in a series of violence carried out by Muslims
against Christians: a series of which, in Pakistan, one cannot see the end. Also
last May another young man, Javed Anjum, died from tortures inflicted upon him
by Islamic militants. Christian leaders have been threatened with death in Quetta,
and a Protestant pastor, Wilson Fazal, was kidnapped and tortured.
is today one of the most problematic situations for Christians, one of the critical
situations that must be noted is the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, which
unlike the rest of the country has a Muslim majority: in 1997 the bishop of Jolo,
Benjamin de Jesus, was killed, and recently there have been death threats against
Indonesia has also witnessed strong tensions in
recent years, especially in the Moluccas, and Christians of various denominations
have frequently paid the price.
In the Middle East, Churches with ancient
traditions (going back all the way to apostolic times) live today in extremely
difficult conditions, subjected to very heavy restrictions on their freedom, and
not rarely to violence.
The word "martyrdom" is tremendously relevant in
Sudan as well, as shown in a recent denunciation made by the bishop of Rumbek,
Cesare Mazzolari, a Combonian missionary.
Let's look at Egypt. Geopolitical
common opinion considers this a "moderate" country, but it is certainly not a
place where Christians are permitted the full exercise of their right to religious
liberty. As Coptic Catholic patriarch Stephanos II Ghattas said in a recent interview
with Mondo e Missione, Christians there are second class citizens. This
is proven by the fact that a few months ago 22 persons were arrested simply for
having converted to Christianity.
When Hindu Extremism
But it is not, in any case, Muslim extremism alone
that strikes the Church. Hindu extremism is no less dangerous and devastating.
Recent years in India have seen a steady downpour of killings aimed against representatives
of the Catholic Church, by elements connected in some way with the political and
military groups that expound the ideology of hindutva, according to which national
and religious identity are all of a piece. On the basis of this doctrine, an Indian
who converts to Christianity or Islam must be considered as a deviant element
and excised from the from the body of the nation, unless he reconverts.
wave of fundamentalist religious violence has recently overrun the country, and
Catholics have paid the price on many occasions. On March 2 in Gujarat, two Catholic
priests and two laymen were attacked by a group of activists from Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh (RSS; "The National Body of Volunteers"), an extremist Hindu group. Fr.
Nicholas Martiz, novice master for the Missionaries of the Divine Word, Fr. George
Bhuriya, a parish priest, and two of their faithful, were assaulted while they
were traveling by jeep to the local police station to denounce an attack against
the mission's Catholic school. The same day, a group from the RSS had burst into
the mission school, terrorizing the students and professors.
Still in Gujarat,
a mission of the Society of the Divine Word was completely ransacked and burned
by activists of the RSS and of the World Hindu Council. Fr. Chackochan and Br.
Gnanarul, residents of the mission, were wounded by the aggressors. In the light
of this one understands why the bishops, who were extremely concerned before the
last election about a possible victory of the BJP, the Hindu national party, breathed
a sigh of relief when the ballot boxes showed the defeat of the party and its
dismissal from government.
More Persecution in
In the communist countries, living conditions
for Christians remain difficult, and are sometimes dramatic. In China, despite
the official proclamations, religious liberty remains an elusive concept and there
continue to be arbitrary arrests and detentions of bishops, priests, and laymen,
of Catholics and Protestants, who refuse to submit to the communist party.
are signs of improvement in Vietnam, but the office for religious affairs maintains
its strict control over seminaries and episcopal nominations, as well as its de
facto control over the exercise of worship.
In regard to Laos and North
Korea, Amnesty International recently drew a decisively alarming picture: in these
countries, human rights violations are practiced systematically.
in Cuba is better than it was in the past, with a few small developments in favor
of the Church having been introduced after the papal visit in '98. But Cuban society
remains one in which the head of the communist regime maintains rigid control
over all cultural, religious, and political expressions which in some way are
seen as potentially hostile toward the government.
the Continent of Blood
Of the thirty-nine countries that have
been the theater of massacres of Christians in the last four years, almost half
of them are in the torture chamber of the African continent. This is no coincidence.
The Africa of a thousand forgotten wars, of endemic violence, of violence-breeding
poverty, requires of the Church a particularly exacting testimony. In many countries,
priests, religious, and laity have lost their lives for the simple reason that
they did not abandon their community in the hour of war, though they knew perfectly
well what they were facing.
Fr. Peter Obore, Sudanese, was certainly not
unaware of the risks he was taking by working in North Uganda, tormented by the
raids of the Lord's Resistance Army, where he met his death on November 24, 2001,
at the hand of that ferocious rebel army that sows death to this day.
can we forget, ten years later, the enormous tragedy of Rwanda where even
if many of those who raised a machete against their brothers were statistically
considered Christians more than two hundred priests, sisters, bishops,
seminarians, and laymen gave their lives for refusing to conform to the logic
An Analysis of the Causes
is not rare that missionaries, sisters, or laymen are taken out of the way because
they are inconvenient. Fr. Gopal, killed in Pukthel, India, on October 12, 2001,
paid with his life for his active participation in the government's program for
sensitization against violence. He was killed by guerillas in retaliation.
Barbara Ann Ford, killed on May 5, 2001 in Guatemala City, was working for the
defense of Indians' human rights and for the psychological rehabilitation of victims
of the civil war. Many suspect that this factor, together with her friendship
with auxiliary bishop Juan Gerardi, who was killed in 1998, was the real reason
why she was eliminated, and not official explanation of a robbery.
case of Fr. Arley Arias Garcia, killed on May 18, 2002 in an ambush in Florencia,
Colombia, there is no doubt of the "offenses" attributed to him by his assassins:
the religious was in fact seeking to start negotiations between the paramilitaries
and the guerillas.
It may be surprising, but an examination of the circumstances
in which missionaries and ecclesiastical personnel have been killed in the last
few years, a disturbing fact emerges: these are frequently casual deaths, homicides
provoked by banal motivations like mugging or robbery.
An Irish Salesian,
Fr. Declan Collins, was killed during a mugging in Johannesburg, one of the most
dangerous cities in the world, where he took care of a parish and occupied himself
particularly with the marginalized people of the suburbs.
Of Sister Dionita
Mary, an Indian teacher, killed in her country on January 21, 2001, one reads
that she was slaughtered during a robbery in her home.
This was the motivation
for the homicide, on October 19, 2002, of Alberto Neri Fernandez, an Uruguayan
lay member of the Focolare, who was working in Brazil.
contact with the life of the people brings about deaths that apparently have nothing
of the heroic about them. Fr. Pietro De Franceschi, an Italian Sacred Heart missionary,
died in Mozambique on February 1, 2001, swept away by a flood while he was helping
a woman who needed to be taken to the hospital. In all these cases, it is clear
that the definition of martyrdom "from hatred of the faith" does not apply. But
how can we not call martyrs gray martyrs, if one prefers those who
remain and endure in contexts that are potentially extremely dangerous to proclaim
the Gospel and give witness to Christian charity? An Italian missionary in Colombia,
Fr. Gaetano Mazzoleni, gave me copies of two different threatening letters, coming
from the FARC, the left-wing guerillas, and from the paramilitaries, received
by his community in the southern Amazonian part of the country. One letter was
accompanied by a bullet. Remaining there after such a warning isn't that,
In some cases, martyrdom takes the shape of a paradox,
that paradox that is fully contained within the logic of the cross. For example,
how can we not call a bitter joke the murder, on July 29, 2002, of Br. Yves Marie-Dominique
Lascanne, a little brother of the Gospel, of French origin? The one who raised
his hand against the founder of the Foyer de l'Espérance, a center for
boys from the street, was one of his former beneficiaries. As for Jesus, there
was a Judas who did not understand the love of the Master. An analogous destiny
met Fr. Celestino Digiovambattista, an Italian Camillian, killed in Burkina Faso
on October 13, 2001 by a demented man during a visit to the prison where he was
The Laity also on the Front Lines
down the list of countries that are theaters of massacre, one discovers a variety
of situations that match the various modalities of presence and testimony that
each local Church offers. Here, too, we are in the presence of a form of globalization:
evangelization is no longer the exclusive patrimony of the missionary institutes
"ad gentes"; the local Churches provide proof of new forms of initiative. According
to the data from 2003, of the 29 martyrs recorded by "Fides," 22 of them were
seminarians, priests, and lay men and women who paid with blood for their fidelity
to the Gospel.
Among the layers of statistics may be found stories of victims
who were less well known, but significant. Together with Fr. Saulo Careno, killed
in Colombia last November 13, there was for example also Marita
Linares, a hospital employee, just as beside Fr. William de Jesus Ortez, a parish
priest in El Salvador, assassinated by gunfire inside his church on October 5,
there was also the sacristan, Jaime Noel Quintilla, just 23 years old. More: the
ambush with which the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, on September 1, 2003,
killed Fr. Lawrence Oyuru, cost the lives of 25 other people. We know none of
their names, and no one will open their cause for beatification. But the Christians
of the developed world, less familiar with martyrdom, should look also to them
as models. Silent, but still models.
A link to the magazine fo the Catholic University
of Milan in which this article was published, in the July-August, 2004 edition:
The words of John Paul II at the Angelus, on the feast
of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist: “Angelus”
August 29, 2004
A note from the Indian bishops' conference on the assaults
carried out on churches and homes in the country at the end of August: Church
Leaders Condemn Desecration of a Church in Orissa
And two dispatches
from the agency "Asia News": Priest
Seriously Injured in Attack against Catholic Church; New
Attack against Catholics in Orissa
The martyrology published each year
by the news agency "Fides" of the Vatican Congregation for the Propagation of
the Faith: A Dossier
on the Martyrs of the Church
From the agency "Asia News”, the campaign
for the release from the Saudi Arabia prison of Brian Savio O'Connor, a Catholic,
imprisoned for having preached Jesus: Save
O'Connor, the Christian
On the Chiesa website, other articles
on this topic:
Persecuted in Asia. And Even the Buddhists Are on the Enemy’s Side (27.7.2004)
Islam. An Interview with the Bishop of Rumbek, Sudan (3.6.2004)
Gulag Archipelago in Romania: The Story No One Has Told Before (30.3.2004)
“Moderate” Islam in Egypt But not for Converts to the Christian Faith
In Chains For Jesus. Cardinal Swiatek’s Prison Diaries (17.11.2003)
India of Blessed Teresa Is Also the India of Christian Martyrs (16.10.2003)
Cuba. Fidel Castro Increasingly Fearful of Catholics (11.4.2003)
Gerolamo Fazzini. "Murdered for Convenience: Martyrdom Worldwide."
Vita e Pensiero (July/August, 2004).
Vita e Pensiero is
the bimonthly magazine of the Catholic University of Milan. Reprinted with permission.
Gerolamo Fazzini is co-director
of Mondo e Missione, the magazine of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign
Missions in Milan.
The Introduction to this article was provided by Chiesa.
Copyright © 2004 Vita e Pensiero