When most people think of Christian martyrs, they think of the early Christians who were persecuted and killed during the first few centuries of the Church. However, most people don’t realize that the number of early Christians killed for their faith is small compared with the number of contemporary Christians murdered in atrocities that get little attention in the Western world. 

An international conference on this topic took place at the University of Notre Dame Nov. 4-6 and brought together scholars, experts and oppressed Christians themselves to raise consciousness about persecution of Christians, and to explore how the Church has responded and might respond in the future. Sponsored by Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life, the conference was titled “Seed of the Church: Telling the Story of Today’s Christian Martyrs.”

Responding to martyrdom

Todd Johnson, a historian and demographer of Christianity, set the context with the startling estimate that more than 70 million people had been killed over the centuries because they were Christian, with more than half of those deaths occurring since 1900. Of those 70 million martyrs, more than 12 million were Catholic, with 11 million of those killed in the second millennium alone, many by Joseph Stalin and the Nazis. 

Icon of modern-day martyrs. Courtesy of Daniel Philpott

Johnson, an associate professor of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, explained that those estimates were based on an expanded definition of martyrs as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.” 

Allen Hertzke, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, said that the “suffering church” faces very different situations in different parts of the world. Yet, a “pervasive, relentless and vicious persecution” can and has eradicated Christian witness by combining old ways of persecution with new ways, such as “cleansing” of entire communities. Between 2006 and 2009, he said, Christians were harassed or worse in 130 different countries. 

This issue is “momentous for the fate of the world,” he said, because Christianity is linked to the concept of human freedom and is the world’s largest religion, as well as the most globally dispersed and persecuted in diverse contexts. 

Experience with some of that harassment and persecution was related by several conference speakers, all of whom acknowledged that sometimes violence is perpetrated by Christians themselves on other faiths as well as on fellow Christians. Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria, said that persecutions in Africa were very complex and different from the Middle East. The violence and persecutions in Africa often involve politics, ethnic differences and land ownership. Further, sometimes subgroups of the faiths attack each other. 

In Nigeria, Bishop Kukah said that most of the violence is politically motivated, and since Catholics are a minority in his diocese, they face discrimination such as denial of access to land to build churches, denial of state employment and denial of inheritance rights. The way forward, he insisted, is to continue on the path to democracy for a fair and just society by building relationships through dialogue and insisting that governments protect all their citizens.

Regression in policies

Martyrdom History
Top 10 martyrdom situations in Christian history, ranked by size: 

Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, director of Prashant, a Jesuit center for human rights, justice and peace in Ahmedabad, Gujaret, India, said that Christianity in India goes back 2,000 years, and India is known as a welcoming and tolerant country. However, some factions do not want the different faiths to live in harmony, he said, and some have attempted to undermine the constitution of India, which guarantees freedom of religion. In 2003, for example, an anti-conversion law was passed requiring people to obtain permission of the civil authority to convert to another religion. 

In some states of India, he added, extremist Hindu groups target those who have converted to Christianity, and Christian villages and churches have been burned down. Thus Father Prakash said he works to encourage bonds between the various faiths in India to achieve religious freedom. 

Father Gianni Criveller gave his perspective on the persecution of Christians in China, where he has worked for years. He is a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and is a professor at Holy Spirit Seminary College of Theology and Philosophy in Hong Kong. 

Even though the religious persecution conducted under Mao Tse-Tung has lessened, he said, the ideological arguments and instruments persist, and people of faith are subjected to strict control, correction and supervision, with some Church leaders being arrested or disappearing. 

“The believers are considered second-class citizens that need the exhortations and guidance of the [Communist] party’s officials,” Father Criveller said. 

Since late 2010, he said, there has been a “worrisome regression” in Chinese government policy toward the Catholic Church. Thus government control, along with the growing secularization and materialism of Chinese society, is having a negative effect on Catholicism in China, and the faith is not growing there; indeed, it is diminishing.

A lasting witness

Msgr. Angelo Romano of the Community of Sant’Egidio and rector of the Church of San Bartolomeo in Rome assured the conference that the “new martyrs” are not forgotten. He explained that in 1999 Pope John Paul II created a commission to study Christian martyrs of the 20th century. Pope John Paul II dedicated the San Bartolomeo church as a basilica to indicate solidarity with the new martyrs and encourage meditation on their witness. An icon of the new martyrs depicting their stories was created by Renata Schiachi, a member of the Sant’Egidio community, and placed on the high altar in San Bartolomeo. 

At a Nov. 5 Mass in Notre Dame’s Sacred Heart Basilica, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganὸ, apostolic nuncio to the United States, blessed a copy of the icon that will be placed in the basilica. 

Daniel Philpott, associate professor of political science and peace studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, told OSV that when he and Institute for Church Life director John Cavadini planned the conference, they wanted to incorporate the witness of the Community of Sant’Egidio and to establish an ongoing witness to today’s martyrs at Notre Dame. 

“It is our prayer,” Philpott said, “that the icon will encourage visitors to the basilica to mediate on the witness of today’s martyrs and thus encourage the Church in the United States to stand in solidarity with today’s martyrs.” 

Ann Carey writes from Indiana.