On this Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, let us pray for persecuted Christians around the globe.
The Christmas Season has its stresses, to be sure. But for most of us living in the U.S. and other Western countries, our stresses count as nothing compared to the persecutions and martryrdoms being endured by our fellow Christians around the globe.
Earlier today in his Angelus remarks Pope Francis urged all people to speak out against the persecution of Christians, whom he likened to the Church's first martyrs. His denunciation of discrimination suffered by Christians came a day after two Christmas Day car bombings in Baghdad. At least thirty-eight people were killed and 70 wounded (though Aleteia has it on the authority of the director of communications at the Chaldean Patriarchate in Iraq that, contrary to most news reports, one of the bombs was not directed at a Catholic church).
Francis didn't cite any countries in his remarks to tourists and pilgrims in St. Peter's Square as the church today recalls its first martyr, St. Stephen. Francis said that unfortunately more Christians are suffering discrimination and violence now than in Christianity's early times.
The theme of peace also characterized Pope Francis's annual Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi" Message ("To the City and the World"). In his remarks Francis characterized peacemaking as an art:
"True peace–we know this well–is not a balance of opposing forces. It is not a lovely "facade" which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment, but making peace is an art, starting from God's gift, from the grace which he has given us in Jesus Christ."
In the Christmas Day message Pope Francis decried in particular several current global conflicts: among them, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the bloody fighting between Christian and Muslim militias in the Central African Republic, and the ethinic rivalry in South Sudan. In recent days the U.N. has warned warring parties in both the Central African Republic and the South Sudan that reports of "crimes against humanity" are being investigated.
In his Angelus message today, Francis turned specifically to the problem of violence against Christians. Francis said: "We are close to those brothers and sisters who, like St. Stephen, are unjustly accused and subject to violence of various kinds." The Holy Father linked these persecutions to violations against religious freedom: "[Such violence] happens especially where religious freedom is still not guaranteed or not fully realized." He went on to say that even in countries that have protections for human rights "on paper," believers in general, "and especially Christians, encounter abridgements of their liberty and discriminations."
John L. Allen, Jr., senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and one of the world's top Vaticanistas, confirms in his recent book, The Global War on Christians, Pope Francis's claim that persecution against Christians is on the rise. Allen writes: "Christians today are, by some order of magnitude, the most persecuted religious body on the planet, suffering not just martyrdom but all…forms of intimidation and oppression….That's not a hunch, or a theory, or an anectdotal impression, but an undisputed empirical fact of life." Watch our Aleteia interview with John Allen about his book here.
In his Christmas Day message Pope Francis even called upon athiests to join all people of good will in the struggle for peace:
"And I also invite non-believers to desire peace with that yearning that makes the heart grow: all united, either by prayer or by desire. But all of us, for peace."
Daniel McInerny is the editor of the English edition of Aleteia. You are invited to email him at email@example.com, friend him on Facebook ("Daniel McInerny"), or follow him on Twitter, @danielmcinerny.