Young people attending World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, will perhaps be aware as never before of the dangers facing Christians around the world.
The point has been driven home by the death this week of French priest Jacques Hamel, killed by Islamic State sympathizers while saying Mass.
Father Hamel’s bishop, Archbishop Dominique Lebrun, cut short his stay in Krakow to return to Rouen, where the parishioners of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray have been in shock.
But as others are pointing out, Father Hamel’s martyrdom is but one in a long line of attacks on priests and Christian laity around the globe, a phenomenon that may be increasing in frequency.
John L. Allen, author of The Global War on Christians, bluntly suggested that speakers who came to Krakow ready to give catechetical talks or homilies to the young people simply scrap those talks and focus on the martyrdom that so many are undergoing.
“For the rest of this week, young pilgrims taking part in WYD will be experiencing a series of catechetical and formation sessions, led by bishops and other world-class teachers, apologists and experts,” Allen wrote at Crux, where he is editor. “In light of what’s happened, whatever pre-packaged talk a given presenter had ready probably should be tossed out the window, and instead WYD should use this chance to educate young Catholics around the realities of anti-Christian violence around the world.”
The numbers Allen reports are eye-opening:
Here are the realities to which the WYD pilgrims should be exposed. The high-end estimate for the number of Christians killed for the faith in the world today every year, which comes from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, is around 100,000. Other observers believe the number is much lower, perhaps closer to 8,000. (Much depends on how one defines a death “for the faith.”) Even that low-end estimate, however, works out to one new martyr every hour of every day. That means that during the one week these young people will be having a blast in Krakow, somewhere around the world, at least 168 Christians will make the supreme sacrifice for the faith.
Allen provides a number of real-life examples. None, perhaps, is more striking than the story of Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, who was serving in Kandhamal in India. She and a local priest, Father Thomas Chellen, were dragged into the streets by frenzied Hindu radicals shouting “Kill Christians!”
Barwa, the niece of Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, was raped by at least one man – she can’t remember the number, as she lost consciousness during the attack – and later was paraded through the streets of the village semi-naked while the mob continued to howl. Today Barwa is working on a law degree to fight for justice for other victims, and she takes comfort in a spiritual explanation of her ordeal. “Because Jesus Christ wasn’t a woman, there were certain kinds of suffering he couldn’t experience in his own body in order to save the world,” she says. “I like to think I helped to complete his sacrifice.”
A former Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, Allen acknowledges that WYD is already set up for “a meaningful and eye-opening education” on today’s martyrs. On Friday, for example, during the Way of the Cross, Christians from Iraq will pray the Our Father in Aramaic, and their bishop will be speaking at a center for English-language pilgrims sponsored by the Knights of Columbus.
Vatican Insider also provides a service in a comprehensive report on the priests who have given their lives for the faith in recent years. As in the case of Father Hamel, many were killed while celebrating Mass or praying the Divine Office.
Missionary Jesus Reynaldo Roda of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate was gunned down in his chapel on the island of Tabawan (southern Philippines) while he was reciting the rosary. Andrea Santoro was absorbed in prayer in the church of Trabzon, Turkey, when he was shot in the back. … Thaier Saad Abdal was killed during Sunday mass in an attack on the Syro-Catholic cathedral of Baghdad, in Iraq. Acting as a human shield, he told the terrorists: “Kill me, not this family with children.” There are many stories of Catholic priests all over the world who have paid for their loyalty to the Gospel with their life. These are stories of modern day martyrdom because all of the priests involved were going about their daily pastoral activities: they were busy with the liturgy, or they would walk to remote villages in rural or mountainous areas, just to celebrate Mass; they benefited the poorest among people or worked to advance social progress, education and development.
VI cites data published annually by Fides, a Vatican news agency that works within the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples to monitor missionaries and pastoral workers who have suffered violent deaths. “There has been a real escalation of martyrdom in recent years: 115 missionaries were killed between 1980 and 1989; this figure surged to 604 victims between 1990 and 2000 (the Rwandan genocide majorly contributed to this increase), while the total number of pastoral workers killed over the past 15 years (2001-2015) is 365,” VI says.
In many cases the reasons for the killings are unclear, while in others, according to Fides, they are “personal hatred or robbery attempts.” Then there are cases of violence “in odium fide,” or in hatred of the faith. From all accounts, that appears to be the case in Tuesday’s slaying of Father Hamel.
Here is an outline of other priests killed in recent years, as reported by Fides and Vatican Insider:
Adolfo Enríquez, parish priest of Vilanova dos Infantes, murdered in 2015.
Don Michele Di Stefano from the diocese of Trapani, beaten to death with a stick in his own bed, 2013.
Andrea Santoro, shot in the back while praying in his church in Trabzon, 2006.
Bishop Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia and President of the Turkish Episcopal Conference, stabbed to death by his driver at his residence in Iskenderun, 2010.
Raghiid Ganni, killed in front of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, 2007.
Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Pauos Faraj Rahho, kidnapped as he left the church, 2008. One month later, the kidnappers returned his lifeless body.
Wasim Sabieh and Thaier Saad Abdal, killed in a terrorist attack carried out in the Syro-Catholic cathedral of Baghdad, which left dozens dead and wounded, 2010.
François Murad, killed in the monastery of Custody of the Holy Land, in Ghassanieh, 2013.
Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit, kidnapped, beaten and shot by armed men, 2014.
Paolo Dall’Oglio, Italian Jesuit, founder of the monastic community of Mar Musa, disappeared in 2013.
Central African Republic:
Christ Forman Wilibona, killed in Bossangoa, 2014.
Paul-Emile Neale, along with 18 people at the Church of Our Lady of Fatima, 2014.
In the Philippines:
Fausto Tentorio, Italian missionary from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and parish priest of Arakan Valley on Mindanao, 2011.
Jesus Reynaldo Roda, who led a small missionary station in the Sulu islands and had refused body guards after threats from Islamic rebels linked to the Abu Sayyaf group, 2008.
Thomas Kochupuryil, rector of the major seminary in Bangalore, beaten to death, 2013.
The VI article ends with information that some may find surprising:
Yet, as Fides news agency reports, in recent years, it has been Latin America that has held the record in terms of priest assassinations, given the extreme social violence seen in South American countries. One of the most striking cases was the one involving Luis Alfonso León Pereira, who was killed in the sacristy as he was preparing for Mass, on the evening of 15 July 2015, in the parish church of St. Mary Mother of the Church in Montería, Colombia. A homeless man had entered the church to steal. The priest caught him and the man fatally stabbed him in the neck with a broken bottle.