By Susan Brinkmann
The Catholic Standard and Times (www.cst-phl.com)
While Christians in the secular West languish in spiritual mediocrity, Christianity remains a deadly serious matter almost everywhere else.
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (The Catholic Standard and Times) - Samuel Masih was a simple street cleaner. One day, while cleaning a garden in Lahore, the twenty-seven-year-old Pakistani Catholic was accused of deliberately piling garbage against the wall of a mosque. He was arrested and thrown in jail, where he was repeatedly tortured for his faith. While being treated for tuberculosis, which he contracted in prison, a police constable decided to earn a place in Janna’ (Paradise) by killing him with a brick-cutting hammer.
Thousands of miles away, on a beautiful mid-August day, thirty-two-year-old Fr. Jesus Adrian Sanchez was giving religious instruction at a school in the rural area of Chaparral (Tolima), Colombia. An armed man burst into the classroom, ordered him outside, and shot him dead.
Deep in the Brazilian rainforest, a seventy-three-year-old Sister of Notre Dame, Dorothy Stang, was used to living among people who wanted her dead. She had long been trying to protect peasant laborers from exploitation by logging firms and ranchers. One day, while walking to a meeting of poor farmers near the town of Anapu in the western Brazilian state of Parà, two armed men intercepted her on the path. She knew what they were there to do. Taking out her Bible, she began reading to them and, for a precious few minutes, they listened before opening fire. Sr. Stang was shot six times in the head, throat, and body.
These are only three of the more than 100 Catholics who bear the unique distinction of being the first martyrs of the twenty-first century.
According to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the official martyrology contains the names of 132 Catholics who have died for the faith since 2001. But this is not a complete list. Its 2005 report acknowledges that there are “many more possible ‘unknown soldiers of the faith’ in remote corners of the planet whose deaths may never be reported.”
Dying for Christ seems almost surreal to most Westerners. We live in a part of the world where Christianity rarely makes the news unless it is to be mocked or defamed. Otherwise, the media is strangely silent about modern Christian martyrdom. “Three things distinguish anti-Christian persecution and discrimination around the world,” said Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “First, it’s ugly. Second, it’s growing. And third, the mass media generally ignore or downplay its gravity.”
The Bloodiest Century
The secular West has been looking the other way for a very long time. Even the average church-going Christian is not likely to know that 45.5 million of the estimated 70 million Christians who have died for Christ did so in the last century. For this reason, scholars such as Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, refer to the past century as one of the darkest periods of martyrdom since the birth of Christianity.
These appalling numbers are what prompted Pope John Paul II to urge the faithful to do everything possible to recover the names and stories of these martyrs. “At the end of the second millennium, the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs,” he wrote in his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente. “This witness must not be forgotten.” He established a special Jubilee Year Commission on New Martyrs to collect these stories, which resulted in the publication of the names of more than thirteen thousand Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant martyrs of the faith.
Many of these names are familiar: St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Edith Stein, and Dietrich Boenhoffer, all of whom won the martyr’s crown in Nazi concentration camps; Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in 1980; and Bl. Miguel Pro, a Jesuit priest who was executed by the Mexican government in 1927.
Thousands of others are less well-known. Among them is Bl. Peter To Rot, a thirty-three-year-old catechist and native of Papua New Guinea, who was murdered by the Japanese occupation force in 1945 for refusing to embrace the practice of polygamy. Referred to as a “martyr for marriage,” he was declared blessed in 1995 by John Paul II.
Isidore Bakanja was a twenty-two-year-old Congolese Christian who was savagely beaten by atheists for preaching Christ on the Belgian rubber plantation where he worked. He forgave his attackers before he died on August 15, 1909, after six agonizing months of suffering. John Paul II declared him blessed in 1994.
Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko was a thirty-seven-year-old Polish priest who had been closely associated with the Solidarity movement and an outspoken opponent of the Communist regime. He was beaten, tortured, and murdered by three police officers on October 19, 1984. The process for his beatification was opened in 1997.
Protestants have also paid the highest price for Christ. Among them was a sixteen-year-old Anglican catechumen named Manche Masemola. She was killed by her own parents in 1928 for converting to Christianity. Esther John, a Presbyterian evangelist, was killed by a Muslim fanatic in Pakistan in 1960. Wang Zhiming, a pastor and evangelist, was killed in China in 1972 during the cultural revolution. Janani Luwum was assassinated in 1977 during the rule of Idi Amin of Uganda simply for being an Anglican archbishop.
Communism, Genocide, and Civil War
These are the names of some martyrs whose circumstances are known. The true extent of Christian persecution during the past 100 years is believed to be of staggering proportions.
Royal attributes the deaths of millions of Christians in the last century to Communism. In China, estimates run as high as 50 million total lives lost, while the Soviet Union claimed another 25 million. While not all of those killed were Christians, Royal believes that, because these numbers are so high, this is where the majority of Christian victims can be found in the twentieth century. As the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky so aptly put it, Communism typically killed as many people in a day as the Inquisition killed in all the centuries of its existence.
Rebellions, civil wars, and dictatorships have also taken their toll on Christianity. By the end of Spain’s civil war in 1939, the names of 7,000 martyrs were submitted to the Holy See. In the past fifty years, 300,000 Christians in North Korea have vanished without a trace.
Other genocidal conflicts occurring later in the century were also costly for Christians. In Rwanda, the press was largely silent about the deaths of 200 priests, sisters, bishops, seminarians, and laymen who gave their lives for refusing to renounce the gospel and accede to the genocide.
Not mentioned in the many reports about the situation in Darfur, Sudan, is the ongoing campaign of terror against Christians by the government of Khartoum. Various relief agencies have reported widespread persecution of Christians who are being raped, tortured, enslaved, or burned alive. Christian Solidarity International reports an estimated 25,000 Christian children have been sold into slavery.
While Christians in the secular West languish in spiritual mediocrity, Christianity remains a deadly serious matter almost everywhere else on the planet.
The world’s 2.1 billion Christians are a religious minority in eighty-seven countries. The Geneva Report of 2002 estimates that up to 200 million Christians are being denied their full human rights, as defined by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, simply because they are Christians. Since 2000, there have been forty countries where at least one verifiable death attributable to anti-Christian violence has occurred.
According to a report by the Catholic aid group Aid for the Church in Need, Asia and the Middle East are the most dangerous places in the world for Christians. These areas represent six of the eleven countries listed as “Countries of Particular Concern” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom because of “ongoing egregious violations of religious freedom.”
The situation for Christians in Iran continues to deteriorate. During President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first six months in power, he called for an end to the development of Christianity in the country. A report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom finds that Christians are increasingly subject to harassment, arrests, close surveillance, and imprisonment. The head of Iran’s Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, has publicly referred to non-Muslims as “sinful animals.”
An Assyrian-Chaldean Christian organization in Iraq has reported eighty-eight Christian victims of violence since 2003. Dozens of churches have been bombed or attacked by Muslim extremists, and the tiny minority has become a target of Sunni Arabs, Shiites, and Kurds. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have already been forced to flee the country.
In Egypt, Christians are frequently arrested, tortured, and imprisoned just for converting. In early 2005, for example, Gaseer Mohamed Mahmoud, a Christian convert, was tortured for refusing to renounce Christ. His toenails were pulled out and he was kept in a water-filled room, beaten, whipped, and confined to a mental hospital. Only pressure from the international community saved his life. He was released and is now in hiding.
In Saudi Arabia, it is considered a religious obligation for Muslims to hate Christians and Jews. Apostasy from Islam warrants a death sentence. The Saudi Ministry of Education textbooks for elementary and secondary school children demonize Christians ...
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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Standard and Times (www.cst-phl.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pa.