ROME – Pope Francis on Saturday will visit the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island, in downtown Rome, to pray for the memory of the “new martyrs,” a term often used to refer to the thousands of Christians who each year lose their lives because of their faith.
The announcement was made a day after the bombing of two Coptic churches in Egypt, where 45 people were killed on Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week.
The church Francis will visit on Saturday is run by the Community of Sant’Egidio, and since the Great Jubilee of 2000, it’s been dedicated at St. John Paul’s personal request to praying for all those who’ve recently lost their lives because of their Christian faith.
Although he has received criticism from some quarters for not being forceful enough when it comes to anti-Christian persecution, Pope Francis has said much about this issue, even dedicating one of his monthly prayer intention videos to the cause.
“How many of our brothers and sisters in the faith suffer abuses and violence, and are hated because of Jesus!” he denounced last December.
“I’ll tell you something,” the pope said. “The number of martyrs today is greater than in the early centuries [of the Church]. When we read the history of the early centuries, here in Rome, we read about so much cruelty to Christians. It’s happening today too, in even greater numbers.
“Today we want to think of them and be close to them with our affection, our prayer and also our tears,” the pontiff said. “In these days, in Iraq, the Christians celebrated Christmas in a cathedral that had been destroyed. That’s an example of fidelity.”
The overall perception for many is that persecution for religious reasons is perpetrated almost entirely by Islamic fundamentalist groups such as ISIS, responsible for the 45 killed in Egypt earlier in the month and also the attack against the St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai region.
Yet in places such as North Korea and China, persecution and violence come mostly from the state; in India, it comes from radical nationalist Hindus; and in Myanmar, from radical nationalist Buddhists. It’s a global phenomenon that can’t be reduced to a single cause.
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, an academic research center that monitors worldwide demographic trends in Christianity, some 900,000 Christians were killed between 2005 and 2015, making it an average of 90,000 a year, some 240 people a day.
Many dispute this number, putting it instead at around 7,000 to 8,000 a year. This would mean that at least one Christian is killed for reasons related to his faith every hour.
The latest report generated by Open Doors USA, a nonprofit organization focused on serving persecuted Christians, found that one in 12 Christians today experiences high, very high, or extreme persecution for their faith. Nearly 215 million Christians face high persecution, with 100 million of those living in Asia.
Pope Francis has often spoken about the “ecumenism of the blood,” meaning that when it comes to persecuting those who follow Christ, the perpetrators make no distinction between Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestants, Copts, and so on.
The Catholic Church considers martyrs those who were killed in odium fidei, meaning, out of hatred for the faith. However, St. John Paul II stretched that standard on a few occasions, including the 1982 canonization of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who died at Auschwitz because he volunteered to take someone else’s place, not because he was Catholic or a priest.
Through the years, some have even spoken of a de facto new standard for martyrdom — odium amoris, “hatred of love” that could also apply to candidates such as Father Pino Puglisi of Sicily, and that many believe was applied to Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.
Ahead of Francis’s prayer for these new Christian martyrs, it’s perhaps worth remembering some of them, a handful of whom are currently on their way to being recognized as saints by the Catholic Church.
With a low estimate set at one new Christian martyr per hour, it would be impossible to list them all. What follows is Part One in a broader series exploring cases dating back no more than 30 years, and varied in range: From archbishops to religious sisters to teenage boys, but all of them Catholic.
Today we will explore Christians murdered in odium amoris, people killed perhaps not in explicit hatred of the faith, but for their actions, which were motivated by their faith in Christ and led them to give their lives in defense of the poor, human rights, and basic human welfare.
Come back tomorrow for the second part in the series, exploring those killed in the classic standard for martyrdom, odium fidei, meaning hatred of the faith.
A Pakistani human rights activist, politician, and devoted Roman Catholic, Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down (with 27 shots fired), in a residential neighborhood of Islamabad, the national capital, shortly after he’d left his mother’s home.
According to his older sister Jacqueline, Bhatti had gone to visit his mother to express concern for her safety. Reportedly, his last words before leaving were “take care of yourself.”
Bhatti was murdered in March 2, 2011. Shortly after, the terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban took responsibility for the murder, boasting about having slain a “known blasphemer.”
His “crime” was calling for the release of Asia Bibi, an illiterate Catholic mother of four who’s been condemned to death by the Pakistani government under the blasphemy law following a dispute with some Muslim women in her village over access to drinking water. She’s been in prison since 2009.
Bhatti, who in 2008 was named federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, called not only for Bibi’s release, but for the abolition of the blasphemy law altogether.
The layman was also the founder of the “All-Pakistan Minorities Alliance,” the country’s premier organization fighting for the emancipation of religious and ethnic minority groups. Beyond political advocacy, the group also engaged in direct service to the vulnerable.
On March 31, 2011, the Catholic bishops of Pakistan wrote to then-Pope Benedict XVI: They had unanimously approved a petition that Bhatti be enrolled “in the martyrology of the universal church,” meaning declared a saint.
The process to declare him a saint was officially opened after the customary five-year waiting period, in 2016. Therefore, he is already known as a “Servant of God.”
Many observers believe Bhatti could become the “patron saint” of the abundant harvest of new martyrs.
Archbishop Isaías Duarte Cancino, William Quijano and other Latin American martyrs
From the outside, the idea of anti-Christian persecution in Latin America seems counter-intuitive, since the region is home to almost half of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, and also boasts a mushrooming Evangelical Pentecostal population.
In reality, however, belonging to a majority hardly renders Latin America’s Christians invulnerable to harm.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, much of Latin America was gripped by lethal civil wars and military regimes. Although history didn’t always find the local Catholic hierarchy on the right side, countless Catholics were murdered for promoting the Church’s social teaching.
Today the more common form of brutality comes from criminal gangs linked to the drug trade, sometimes dubbed a “state within the state.” This has given the continent the world’s highest murder rate.
Anyone who challenges that violence is at risk – and the odds here are, both the executioners and the victims are likely to be Christian. The former may be indifferent to religious concerns, but the latter are often deeply motivated by them.
Both Cancino and Quijano challenged that violence, and paid the ultimate price.
Head of the church in Cali, Colombia, the archbishop was assassinated in 2002 for denouncing atrocities committed by the country’s bloody guerrillas: The FARC and the ELN.
Yet Duarte is but the highest ranking Catholic official murdered by the guerrillas. After all, during much of the decades-long war, priests, religious men and women, and committed laity were targeted, most seen as enemies of the revolutionary cause for urging youth to stay away from the armed groups.
For years, Colombia was considered the world’s most dangerous country for a Catholic priest.
Talking to Crux in 2015, Colombian Bishop Héctor Julio López Hurtado, kidnapped by FARC in 1997, explained that contemporary Colombia doesn’t really have any St. Thomas More-style martyrs, who died for upholding Catholic doctrine.
It does, however, have scores of Romero-style martyrs, often killed simply for refusing to abandon their posts despite the dangers they faced.
“It’s not so much that there’s violence directed specifically at the Church,” he said. “It’s rather that the Colombian people in general are suffering, and the Church participates in that suffering.”
Quijano was murdered by the gangs, or maras, in El Salvador, in 2009. He was a 21-year old layman, a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio.
He ran a “School of Peace” attempting to keep young Salvadorans out of gangs, and was shot to death by unidentified assailants while returning to his home.
Fathers Michał Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzałkowski were born in Poland, and these two Conventual Franciscan friars are also a testament to the violence against Christians in Latin America.
They were murdered by the Shining Path guerrillas in Pariacoto, Peru, on Aug. 9, 1991. Tomaszek was 31 and Strzałkowski 33. Both had arrived in Peru two years prior.
They were killed for “preaching peace to the people,” according to the terrorists from Shining Path. They also said that the friars “deceive the people by distributing food from Caritas, that is imperialism” and with prayer, the saints, Mass, and reading of the Bible they “bog the minds of the people.”
The friars were taken from the friary and led to the town hall, where the terrorist put them in the priest’s own jeep, drove them to a place called Old Town, near the cemetery and executed them: One received a gunshot to the neck and the other two shots, one in the back and one in the head.
According to the guerrilla, embracing the Catholic faith meant people no longer wanted the revolution they were promoting: “We must kill those who preach peace. Religion is the opium of the people, a way of keeping them under control.”
The two priests were beatified in Peru on Dec. 5, 2015.
Father Pino Puglisi
Already beatified, Puglisi was an Italian priest who openly challenged the mafia who controlled the Palermo neighborhood where he worked. He was killed on Sept. 15, 1993, the day of his 56th birthday.
Puglisi worked hard in changing his parishioners’ mentality through his sermons, in which he pleaded with them to give leads to the authorities about the Mafia’s illicit activities. Preaching not only with words but with deeds, he refused to take money from the Mafia or to hire contractors associated with organized crime, and he refused to have the Mafiosi marching at the head of religious processions.
One of the hitmen who killed Puglisi, Salvatore Grigoli, later confessed and revealed the priest’s last words as his killers approached: “I’ve been expecting you.”
The motives of his assassins may not have had anything to do with Christianity, but Puglisi’s certainly did.
Italy’s organized crime has killed countless people, and Puglisi is far from being the only whose canonization process is moving along.
For instance, Rosario Livatino, a young judge who was murdered in 1990 is also on his way to being formally recognized as a Catholic saint. However, Pope John Paul II once defined him as a Martyr of Justice and in an indirect way, of the Christian faith.