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Pope Benedict XVI honored men and women -- Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant -- who were killed during the 20th century because of their Christian witness.

ROME (CNS) - Even in the darkest situations of violence and oppression, the power of love for God and for others is stronger than hatred and death, Pope Benedict XVI said.

"In defeat, in the humiliation of those who suffer for the cause of the Gospel, there acts a force that the world does not know," the pope said April 7 as he honored men and women -- Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant -- who were killed during the 20th century because of their Christian witness.

"It is the force of love, defenseless and victorious even in apparent defeat. It is the force that challenges and vanquishes death," Pope Benedict said.

The pope honored the Christian martyrs and witnesses during a visit to the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Rome's Tiber Island.

Pope John Paul II entrusted the basilica to the Community of Sant'Egidio and later designated it as a shrine to the Christian victims of 20th-century wars and persecution, including victims of the Nazis and the communists in Europe and of civil wars and military dictatorships in Africa and Latin America.

Pope Benedict's visit to the church also marked the 40th anniversary of the Sant'Egidio Community, which was founded in Rome and now has more than 50,000 members in more than 70 countries.

Bible reading, evening prayer and direct assistance to the poor and aged are the basic activities of the community, but they also are involved in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, medical care for people with AIDS and peacemaking.

During his visit, Pope Benedict spoke of the side altars in the tiny Basilica of St. Bartholomew.

Each little chapel contains reminders of modern individuals who died for their faith or their love of others: a Bible belonging to a Catholic murdered while hiding in a church in Rwanda; a letter from Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian beheaded for refusing to fight in Hitler's army; a missal used by murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador; a chalice, paten and stole used by Father Andrea Santoro, an Italian priest killed in Turkey in 2006.

A large icon above the main altar also pictures German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, executed by the Nazis; Russian Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow, imprisoned by the communists in the 1920s; Father Giuseppe Puglisi, murdered by the Mafia in Sicily; as well as scenes recalling the Armenian genocide and religious persecution in Albania.

Pope Benedict asked the 400 people crammed into the church and the thousands more watching on large screens outside to consider "why these martyred brothers and sisters of ours did not try to save the indispensable gift of life at all costs. Why did they continue to serve the church despite serious threats and intimidation?"

The martyrs were following Jesus, who said there was no greater love than to give one's life for another, he said.

"Every witness of the faith lives this greater love and, following the example of the divine master, is ready to sacrifice his life for the kingdom," the pope said.

Pope Benedict said that when Christians truly live the Gospel they risk becoming objects of persecution like Jesus.

"The fraternal coexistence, the love, the faith, the choices in favor of the smallest and most poor, which mark the life of the Christian community, sometimes give rise to violent loathing," he said.

But the example of the martyrs and, especially, the resurrection of Jesus demonstrate that faith, love and concern for the poor are values stronger than hatred and death, he said.

Pope Benedict asked the members of Sant'Egidio to "imitate their courage and perseverance in serving the Gospel, especially among the poor. Be builders of peace and reconciliation among those who are enemies or fight one another. Nourish your faith with listening to and meditating over the word of God, with daily prayer and with active participation in the holy Mass."

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Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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