Christian Martyrs of the 21st Century: The Reckoning Continues

SANDRO 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:
"The 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 Church."

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 Tirkey.

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 it is:


Murdered for Convenience: Martyrdom Worldwide
by Gerolamo Fazzini

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.

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.

The 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.

There 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.

Many Victims 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.

If Pakistan 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 Catholic missionaries.

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 Strikes

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.

A 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 Communist Countries

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.

There 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.

The situation 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.

Africa, 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.

How 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 of genocide?

An Analysis of the Causes

It 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.

Sister 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.

In the 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.

Sometimes direct 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, perhaps, martyrdom?

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 chaplain.

The Laity also on the Front Lines

Running 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.


Additional Resources

A link to the magazine fo the Catholic University of Milan in which this article was published, in the July-August, 2004 edition: "Vita e Pensiero"

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:

Christians Persecuted in Asia. And Even the Buddhists Are on the Enemy’s Side (27.7.2004)

Enemy Islam. An Interview with the Bishop of Rumbek, Sudan (3.6.2004)

The 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 (6.12.2003)

In Chains For Jesus. Cardinal Swiatek’s Prison Diaries (17.11.2003)

The India of Blessed Teresa Is Also the India of Christian Martyrs (16.10.2003)

Cuba. Fidel Castro Increasingly Fearful of Catholics (11.4.2003)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

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.

THE AUTHOR

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


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