ROME — As Christians commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus on Good Friday, attacks on believers in various parts of the world are causing many pastors and other leaders to cast modern martyrdom as an extension of Christ’s agony which, they say, will also end in the resurrection.
During the Easter period, Christian churches in India have stepped up security fearing attacks from radical Hindus, a university in Kenya is recovering from a rampage by Muslim extremists that targeted Christians and left an estimated 147 people dead, and fear hangs over Church services in Iraq and Syria where Christian holy days tend to be favorite windows for ISIS assaults.
Facing those realities, Pope Francis said on Wednesday that the Christian martyrs of today, by shedding their blood, join Christ in serving the Church as witnesses to the faith.
“Even today, there are many men and women, true martyrs, who offer their lives with Jesus to confess the faith,” the pope said. “It is a service: Christian witness to the point of shedding blood.”
Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem delivered a similar message during his Holy Thursday homily, while commemorating Jesus’ Last Supper.
Every Mass, Twal said, represents the “unique sacrifice” made two thousand years ago by Jesus, calling it “a love given without limits.”
Jesus was “not afraid to give himself up to be mocked, trampled, humiliated, crucified,” Twal said.
Iraqi and Syrian Christians, Twal said, are examples today of this humiliated love. They’re forced to leave everything behind and to begin walking without knowing where to go, he said, with their only possessions the clothes on their backs, but with “an unshakable faith in their hearts.”
The Patriarch called for the world to hear the voice of Christ from these persecuted people, and to “extend our hands to help the Christians of the Middle East to come down from the Cross that individual interests and selfishness have erected for them.”
The suffering of Christians in areas under the influence of ISIS is well-documented.
For instance, a February report from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child indicates that Islamic State militants are selling abducted Iraqi children at markets as sex slaves, killing others “by crucifixion or burying them alive.”
Talking to Vatican Radio this week, a papal envoy in Iraq, Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, said the suffering of Iraqi minorities is “precious in God’s eyes because it’s united to Christ’s suffering this Holy Week.”
Filoni was dispatched to Iraq by Pope Francis to bring material and spiritual aid to the thousands of Christians and other minorities living in refugee camps all over the country.
News of fresh Christian martyrdom comes from all over the world.
In Kenya on Holy Thursday, 147 people are believed to have been killed when at least four gunmen of the Somalia-based Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab burst into a local university before dawn, shooting Christian students during morning prayer services.
“If you were a Christian you were shot on the spot,” student Collins Wetangula told the Associated Press. “With each blast of the gun I thought I was going to die.”
The students were reportedly divided by their faith, and those who could recite the Quran were set free. Those who couldn’t were either killed or abducted.
By Friday morning, more than 300 students were still unaccounted for.
Pope Francis condemned the attack as an act of “senseless brutality” and called for those responsible to change their violent ways. In a telegram of condolence Friday, Francis also urged Kenyan authorities to work to bring an end to such attacks and “hasten the dawn of a new era of brotherhood, justice and peace.”
In India, after a series of attacks on churches in the capital, New Delhi, the local police enlisted more than 10,000 officers to guard the services during Holy Week.
The Indian Express reported on Wednesday that churches are being barricaded along a half-mile radius, fearing terrorist attacks from extremist Hindus.
Last month, a nun in her 70s was gang-raped by a group of men in India. The men who attacked the Convent of Jesus and Mary School also ransacked the chapel and destroyed holy items, police said.
Last Friday in Egypt, while locals were celebrating a Mass to mark 40 days since the death of the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS in Libya, a church that was being built in their memory was attacked with petrol bombs by Muslims protesting its proposed location.
On the same day, a mob identified by witnesses as composed of members of the Muslim Brotherhood attacked the home of a family of one of the martyrs.
British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, presided over a prayer vigil in Rome this Tuesday, organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a movement that specializes in inter-faith dialogue.
During his sermon, Gallagher strongly condemned terrorism, saying that a martyr is someone who gives his or her life for the love of God, not who sheds it. A martyr is the victim, he said, not the victimizer.
The common thread of all martyrs, he said, is their great love for Christ. Every martyr makes the choice of following Jesus, Gallagher said, adding that this choice has its consequences.
“As we know, living the Christian faith with integrity inevitably leads to sacrifice,” he said.
During the prayer service, all the Christians martyred during the past year were remembered. Organizers said all were killed in odium fidei, meaning “hatred of the faith,” but not all fell victim to religious extremists.
From the Americas, five Mexican priests and clerics working in various locales were killed for condemning organized crime, drug trafficking, and poverty; they, too, were commemorated.
During the ceremony, organizers said that the new martyrs draw inspiration from the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a champion of human rights and the poor who was shot to death while saying Mass in 1980.
Romero, they said, was as “unforgettable shepherd” and a “witness of peace.” The late archbishop is set to be beatified in a San Salvador ceremony on May 23.
For those who live comfortably in the West, Gallagher said, the important thing is to remember that on the other side of the world, people suffer for their faith, especially Christians and other minorities, such as a Shiite recently killed in Yemen by Sunni Muslims.
“It’s only right to commemorate them,” Gallagher added. “We believe that now they share Christ’s fate in the resurrection.”
In a CNN column on Good Friday signed by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, along with two producers of a Bible documentary, the authors launch an examination of conscience about anti-Christian violence.
“When history writes of our time, will we be able to say that we tried everything in our power to cease this attempt to eliminate 2,000 years of Christianity from the Middle East and to stop this threat before it spreads to other nations?” they ask.
The producers are Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, creators of “A.D. The Bible Continues.”
“These communities need our love and support like never before,” the writers said, “and they also need security and protection from the world like never before.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.