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The Greatest Story Never Told: Modern Christian Martyrdom

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While Christians in the secular West languish in spiritual mediocrity, Christianity remains a deadly serious matter almost everywhere else.

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By Susan Brinkmann
The Catholic Standard and Times (
12/5/2008 (1 decade ago)

Published in U.S.

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 Parŕ, 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.

"Sinful Animals"

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, Jews, and non-Wahhabi Muslims. The reports of harassment, surveillance, arrest, and torture of Christians in Saudi Arabia are too numerous to relate in this article.

In Bangladesh, Christians are being denied access to water wells and are frequent targets of physical violence and destruction of property.

In Turkey, they are denied access to civil and military jobs, and it is almost impossible to build churches. Since Islamic Law was proclaimed in twelve northern states in Nigeria in 2004, clashes between Christians and Muslims have claimed 12,000 lives from both groups.

The situation in India has become particularly problematic. According to the All India Catholic Union, a Catholic rights group, there have already been more 200 episodes of anti-Christian violence this year perpetrated by Hindu extremist groups. Among these acts are the gang rape of two Christian women, the murder of missionaries and priests, sexual assaults on nuns, ransacking of churches and convents, desecration of cemeteries, and Bible burnings.

Protestant churches have also paid a high price in India. One of the most gruesome killings was the 1999 slaying of Graham Staines, a fifty-eight-year-old Australian-born Christian missionary who was sleeping in his car with his two sons when a large group of extremists doused the car with gasoline and set it on fire. Staines, his ten-year-old son Philip, and seven-year-old son Timothy were found curled up on a back seat, their bodies burned beyond recognition.

The past year in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, saw three Catholic high school girls captured on their way to school and beheaded, a Christian market bombed, and the president of the country refusing to overturn a controversial death sentence looming over the heads of three Catholic men. International groups have recorded 134 reports of violence perpetuated against Christians by extremist groups since 2000, including church bombings, altar desecrations, killings, and false imprisonments.

Voice of the Martyrs, a worldwide organization offering support to persecuted Christians, reports that extremist groups in Indonesia are responsible for the deaths of 8,000 people and the destruction of 600 churches since 1996. This is in addition to the bloody twenty-five-year occupation of the small Catholic country of East Timor that ended in 1999 and left one-third of the Timorese population (200,000, the majority of whom are Catholics) dead. An estimated 100,000 are still being held as political prisoners.

North Korea continues to be among the most repressive regimes in the world. In 2004, a North Korean refugee told the U.S. Commission on International Religions Freedom that not only are Christians being persecuted in that country, "but their next generation and the next generation and the second and third generation will be liquidated as well." Soon Ok Lee, a woman who survived seven years in a North Korean women's prison, testified to watching prison guards murder Christians by pouring molten iron on those who refused to renounce their faith.

The Chinese government continues to detain and repress thousands of Christians and other religious minorities. Anyone caught worshiping outside state-controlled churches is subject to arrest. The Cardinal Kung Foundation, founded by Joseph C. Kung, nephew of Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei, estimates that there are approximately forty-five bishops in China who remain loyal to Rome and who have been arrested or jailed or have gone into hiding or have simply disappeared in recent years.

Joseph told a Congressional-Executive Commission on China in March 2002 that since late 1999, the Chinese government has destroyed 1,200 churches in one eastern province alone. "There are no public churches in China because they are illegal there," he said. "A Holy Mass, a prayer service, and even praying over dying Roman Catholics are all considered illegal and subversive activities by the Chinese government. Religious services for the Roman Catholic Church can be only secretly conducted in private homes or deserted fields. The Chinese government deems these private gatherings of Roman Catholics as illegal, unauthorized, subversive, and punishable by exorbitant fines, detention, house arrests, jails, labor camps, or even death."

Because fact-finding is so difficult, the exact number of priests, seminarians, and lay people who have been incarcerated or killed in the past century because of their loyalty to Christ may never be known.

Inconvenient Christians

Hundreds of Christians are also being murdered worldwide simply because they are troublesome to oppressive regimes, according to Gerolamo Fazzini, the co-director of Mondo e Missione, the magazine of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. He wrote that many die just because of their opposition--in the name of their faith--to those in power. Often missionaries, nuns, and lay people are "taken out of the way because they are inconvenient." Many of their deaths are ascribed to robberies or other crimes. Sr. Barbara Ann Ford is the perfect example. She was killed in May 2001 in Guatemala City while working in defense of human rights. She had been a friend of Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi, who had been killed in 1998. Fr. Arley Arias Garcia was killed a year later in an ambush in Florencia, Colombia. He had been attempting to start negotiations between paramilitaries and guerillas. Ana Isabel Sanchez Torralba, a twenty-two-year-old South American youth with a volunteer mission in Equatorial Guinea, was killed when police opened fire on the bus she was riding in on July 1, 2003.

Deacon Keith Fournier Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you. Help Now >

The Most Persecuted Religious Group

"Christians are, in fact, the most persecuted religious group in the world today, with the greatest number of victims," reports Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's Puebla Program on Religious Freedom. "The most atrocious human rights abuses are committed against Christians solely because of their religious beliefs and activities--atrocities such as torture, enslavement, rape, imprisonment, killings, and even crucifixion. Roman Catholics, together with Protestant evangelicals, are the prime targets."

Shea cites three primary reasons for the increase in the persecution of Christians worldwide: resurgent communism, religiously intolerant forms of Islam, and re-emerging nationalism. A fourth reason cited by many members of international watchdog groups is the continued ignorance or indifference of Christians in the developed West.

Brother Andrew, founder of Open Doors, an international organization supporting persecuted Christians, wrote in "The Calling":

"We in the Western Church don't come close to matching the level of commitment, determination, and strength of many Muslim groups. Until we do, Islam will continue to be the world's fastest growing religion not because of its strength but because of our weakness.

We can and should do much more to support persecuted Christians in the developing world. Financial and prayerful support for the missions is essential, but so is developing an increased awareness of and involvement in the fight for human rights."

In powerful testimony delivered before the House Committee on International Relations, Shea pointed out:

"Religious freedom is pivotal to a free society. Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is the prerequisite for the exercise of all other basic human rights. . . . Where religious freedom is denied, so, too, are other basic human rights."

John Paul II was right in his call to preserve the names and stories of modern Christians who died for Christ. These testaments are one of the most powerful evangelization tools available to us. From the earliest days of the Church, it was the courageous witness of Christians willing to die for their faith that converted so many Romans. It can do the same today, but the story must be told.

Perhaps the only way to awaken Western Christians from their long and indifferent sleep is to publish the greatest story never told under the biggest headline that never ran: "Christians Still Die for Christ!"


Susan Brinkmann is a reporter for the Catholic Standard and Times, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Standard and Times (, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pa.

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