ROME — On Saturday, Pope Francis will lead a prayer service in downtown Rome for the world’s new martyrs, meaning people killed around the world because of their Christian faith.
The event is organized by the Community of Sant’Egido, an Italian-born lay movement that focuses on social justice and ecumenism. For this reason, on its long list of martyrs killed in odium fidei, meaning in hatred of the faith, the victims are bound to include others Christians as well as Catholics.
Just last week Cardinal Kevin Farrell, chosen by Pope Francis to head the new Vatican office for family, laity and life, headed a service for Sant’Egidio to honor the new martyrs. Dozens of people from every continent were acknowledged that day, beginning with 47 Coptic Christians in Egypt killed on Palm Sunday.
“The history of the Church is crossed by stories of innumerable men and women who poured their blood for faith,” Farrell said on April 11. “In recent decades, especially, there has been a recurrence of the persecution of Christians who have always been the most persecuted religious group.”
Taking this into consideration, the following set of examples rounds out that of yesterday, which described several of those killed in what many observers describe as odium amoris, “hatred of love.” These victims instead seem to satisfy the older, traditional test for martyrdom, which is being billed in odium fidei, or “hatred of the faith.”
The pan-Christian flavor of the group illustrates what Pope Francis describes as contemporary martyrdom’s “ecumenism of blood.”
“When terrorists or world powers persecute Christian minorities or Christians, when they do this, they don’t ask: ‘But are you Lutheran? Are you Orthodox? Are you Catholic? Are you a Reformed Christian? Are you a Pentecostal?’ No! ‘You are a Christian!’” Francis said in 2016, talking off-the-cuff to an inter-Christian delegation.
“[Persecutors] only recognize one of them: the Christian. The enemy never makes a mistake and knows very well how to recognize where Jesus is. This is ecumenism of blood.”
Seeing that the lowest estimates put the number of Christians killed for their faith today at one per hour, the following rundown is far from complete. However, it’s intended to show the scope of the violence, and perhaps serve as a reminder that worldwide, over 200 million Christians are at risk of persecution.
Sisters Anselm, Marguerite, Regina, and Judith
These four sisters, identified only by their first names, were assassinated on March 4, 2016 in Yemen. They were serving as caretakers at a Missionaries of Charity’s convent and nursing home in Aden.
Another 12 people were murdered that day by ISIS gunmen, and Indian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a member of the Salesians, was kidnapped and remains missing.
Sister Sally, superior of the local community, lived to tell their story. After the attack, she asked for prayers, so that the blood of those killed “will be the seeds for peace in the Middle East and to stop the ISIS.”
The Sunday following their death, the pope, after leading a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square in the Angelus prayer, hailed the sisters who were caring for the elderly in this war-stricken land as “the martyrs of our day” and said, “they were killed by their attackers, but also by the globalization of indifference.”
The previous day Francis had expressed the hope that “this pointless slaughter will awaken consciences, lead to a change of heart and inspire all parties to lay down their arms and take up the path of dialogue.
“Their names do not appear on the front page of the newspapers, but they gave their blood for the church,” the pope said at the time, before calling them “martyrs of charity.”
It’s unclear at this time if a canonization cause for these sisters will be opened after the customary five-year waiting period.
The Kandhamal victims
In terms of contemporary anti-Christian persecution and new Christian martyrs, “Kandhamal” may be the single word that best captures the whole story: Little known outside the circle of close observers, in a matter of just a few days in August 2008, a series of riots led by radical Hindus left roughly 100 people dead, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 people displaced.
Forced to hide in nearby forests, many more died of hunger and snakebites.
The victims were both Catholic and Protestant. The violence was perpetrated by radical Hindus, fueled in many cases by lack of any formal education: Tribals, meaning members of India’s indigenous groups, were convinced to assault Christians on the basis of myths. Some were told that Christians would force them to eat beef, considered a great sin in Hinduism, while others were persuaded that if they didn’t kill Christians, they’d turn into bats.
Back in 2015, Crux interviewed many of the Kandhamal widows, including Kanaka Rekha Nayak. She is a Dalit (“untouchable”) and a Christian who watched her husband Parikhit die at the hands of an angry mob shouting praise to Hindu gods. Both she and her husband were converts to Protestantism in a largely Hindu village.
Parikhit was burned with acid and had his genitals sliced off. His attackers, once neighbors and even friends, then cut open his stomach and ripped out his intestines to wear them around their necks like a trophy.
Asmita Digal spoke about her husband Rajesh, a Pentecostal pastor who was severely beaten because he wouldn’t recant his faith. After refusing a second time, he was buried in a pit up to his neck for two days.
When he asked for water, his tormentors urinated in his mouth.
Given a final chance to repudiate his faith, Digal declined for a third time. At that point, he was beaten to death with clubs, axes, and sticks. To this day, his body has never been found.
The sainthood process for the Catholics martyred in these attacks has been opened. However, it may be a painfully slow process, since there’s much documentation needed and many of the victims didn’t even have birth records.
Father Jacques Hamel
Hamel was slain by two men professing loyalty to the Islamic State as he was saying Mass in Normandy, France, on July 26. The canonization process for the 86-year-old priest was officially opened by the Diocese of Rouen, with the support of the pope, who’s already on record calling the murdered priest a martyr.
The two perpetrators, killed by the police, had taken Hamel and several others, including two nuns, hostage during the early morning Mass. In less than 40 minutes, they slit the priest’s throat and wounded three other people.
Hamel had retired nearly a decade ago, but continued to serve as an assistant priest at the church in St Etienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb of Rouen. When the two assailants burst into the church on July 26, he was leading the service in the absence of the regular priest.
A few months after the attack, Francis celebrated a Mass in the Santa Marta residence, the hotel within Vatican grounds where he lives, and where he says Mass every morning.
In his homily, the pontiff called the priest “blessed,” the step prior to sainthood, asking the faithful to pray for his intercession, so that he “gives us the courage to say the truth: To kill in the name of God is satanic.
“This man accepted his martyrdom next to the martyrdom of Christ, on the altar,” Francis said during his improvised homily, which was interpreted into French as he was delivering it. “He was beheaded on the Cross, as he was celebrating the sacrifice of Christ’s cross [the Mass].”
During the prayer service on Saturday, Francis will hear a testimonial by Hamel’s sister, Roselyne.
Father Andrea Santoro and Archbishop Luigi Padovese
Santoro, a missionary priest in Turkey, was shot dead from behind while kneeling in prayer on February 5, 2006 by 16 year-old Oguzhan Akdin, who shouted Allahu Akbar, meaning “God is great.”
Reports from the time quote the then apostolic vicar to Anatolia, Archbishop Luigi Padovese, saying that neither the killer nor his mother showed any remorse during the trial. She even compared her son to Mehmet Ali Ağca, the man who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981. She said his son’s deed “was committed in the name of Allah and was a gift to the state and the nation.”
The murderer’s father, on the other hand, told Italian reporters that his son had psychiatric issues, but he was still found guilty of premeditated murder.
Condemned to 16 years in prison, he was released last year by the Turkish government to make room for new prisoners allegedly involved in a coup attempt in July of last year.
Padovese, who was later murdered himself, warned repeatedly of the growing climate of anti-Christian propaganda, saying that this was part of the backdrop to Santoro’s killing. Soon after, three other Catholic priests were attacked in Turkey, but none of them killed.
The archbishop was murdered in 2010 when his own driver, a Muslim fundamentalist, cut off his head. Murat Altun, the murderer, continued to yell Allahu Akbar during the attack. Padovese was stabbed in the chest eight times, tried to run away, and Altun eventually cut his head off.
The killer claimed he had received a revelation which identified Padovese as the Antichrist.
Sisters Bernadetta Boggian, Lucia Pulici and Olga Raschietti
These three Italian nuns, members of the Xaverian order, were killed in Catholic-majority Burundi in 2014. The crime remains a mystery, yet for Sant’Egidio, there’s no doubt regarding their martyrdom: A catechism, a rosary, and other objects belonging to them are showcased in the several chapels honoring the new martyrs present in the Church of St. Bartholomew on Rome’s Tiber Island that Francis will visit on Saturday.
Pulici, 75, and Raschietti, 82, were found dead on September 7 in their mission residence in the capital of Bujumbura. Boggian, 79, who had found the bodies, was killed the next night. The first two were stabbed to death, while Boggian was beaten and beheaded.
In telegrams sent at the time to Archbishop Evariste Ngoyagoye of Bujumbura and Sister Ines Frizza superior general of the Xaverian Missionary Sister of Mary, the pope expressed his sadness concerning the “tragic deaths” of these “faithful and devout nuns.”
The messages also said the pope hoped that “the blood they have shed may become the seed of hope to build true fraternity between peoples.”
Abish Masih, 10, Intan Olivia Marbun, 2, and other martyrs
Masih was only 10 years old when he was killed in Lahore, Pakistan. He was one of the 15 killed on March 15, 2015, when two blasts took place at St. John’s Catholic Church and Christ Church during Sunday service.
The number of victims would have been much higher if it wasn’t for Akash Bashir, a 20-year-old Catholic working security at St. John’s Church that day. Bashir prevented a suicide bomber from coming in, hence reducing the impact of the blast. As Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore told Crux on Wednesday, his sacrifice was “a lesson not only in being willing to risk one’s life, but in what the purpose of being really is.”
Although most have remained unnamed for the public, the number of new martyrs from Pakistan continues to grow, and justice remains elusive to the families of the victims.
Marbun was the only victim of a November 2016 attack against a church in the city of Samarinda, in Borneo. The attacker, identified as a militant linked to local extremists supporting ISIS, threw petrol bombs at a group of small children playing outside the church on a Sunday. Three other children were injured, but no other casualties were reported.
Mary Muchiri Shee was a university student working on a thesis titled “Interfaith Dialogue: A bridge between Islam and Christianity.” She was one of the 148 Christian students assassinated on April 2, 2015 in Kenya’s Garissa University.
Emmanuel Dike, was only 4 years old when he was killed on Christmas Day 2011 alongside 45 others during Mass at St. Theresa’s Church, in Madalla, Nigeria. He was survived by his mother, Chioma, who lost her husband and three of her five children in that blast.
Remarkably, as of August 2015, she had no hatred for the Boko Haram terrorists who devastated her family.
“I’m not angry,” Dike told Crux. “I pray for God to forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.”
These are only a handful of names among the many victims caused by terrorist attacks which, when they occurred, shook the world.
Yet little is said today about Garissa University, or for that matter, the Chibok school girls, kidnapped in Nigeria as they were going to school. Boko Haram terrorists took 276 Christian girls, forced them into conversion, marriage, and/or slavery. Some 200 of them remain missing.
It’s for those new martyrs too, who go unremembered, that Pope Francis will pray on Saturday.