Persecution of Christians and martyrdom in today’s world
The European People's Party's Annual Interreligious Dialogue took place on 11 and 12 December 2014 in the European Parliament with participants grappling with the issue of the persecution of religious minorities in conflict zones. The spotlight fell on Near and Middle Eastern countries where Islam predominates.
Whenever talk turns to the persecution of Christians, most people immediately think back to the first few centuries of the Church: we recall the dreadful accounts of Christians, men and women alike, who rejected the Roman imperial cult and as a consequence were thrown into the jaws of wild animals. The Church praised these acts of faith most highly in 'Acta Martyrum'.
But even today, the persecution of Christians is still a tragic reality. In his recently published book 'The Global War on Christians', American journalist John L. Allen provides evidence that Christians are the most persecuted religious group on earth in the 21st century. The Christian aid organisation Open Doors estimates that, across the globe, 100 million people are being persecuted or discriminated against because they belong to the Christian faith. In the worst cases, people are being beheaded, burned alive or crucified.
Islamic extremists point to the Koran to justify the persecution and murder of 'infidels'. But it's not just Christians who are falling victim to this religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. In June 2014, Northern Iraq was the scene of the abduction of 4000 women and girls from the Yezidi religious community by terrorists working for what is known as 'Islamic State'. They were subsequently sold as slaves.
Before venturing into any theological and spiritual reflections on martyrdom, we should be clear that unspeakable injustice and suffering is being visited upon innocent people. Persecution and discrimination on religious grounds violate the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, a right which is enshrined under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 9 of the Convention on Human Rights and Article 10 of the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights. No one goes out looking for persecution and martyrdom. No one can declare themselves a martyr. Suicide bombers who make such a claim are perverting the meaning of faith and religion.
In the eyes of the Catholic Church, a martyr is a person who is killed for his faith, freely accepting this death and suffering it in a non-violent fashion. A short time ago, Pope Francis suggested that the term ‘martyr’ be extended to include those who are murdered for standing up for justice. He was referring to Archbishop Oscar Romero from El Salvador, who was shot dead at the altar in 1980 for championing justice and human rights. On 3 February 2015, Pope Francis officially declared him a martyr and confirmed that he would soon be beatified. Oscar Romero represents many thousands of people in Latin America who were murdered for their commitment to justice, a basic element of Christian faith.
The theologian Jon Sobrino from El Salvador calls the Latin American martyrs 'Christlike martyrs', since they followed in the footsteps of Jesus and were slain for the same reasons. They are witnesses to Christ: the kingdom of God for the poor. Proclaiming the kingdom of God means identifying with the poor, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised. Martyrdom is also a sign of the true Church. Oscar Romero referred to this in a sermon given shortly before he was murdered: "Persecution is a sign of the authenticity of the Church. A Church which endures no persecution but rather enjoys its privileges and builds upon earthly things should be afraid, for this is not the true Church of Jesus Christ!"
The martyrs show that the sins and death witnessed in days gone by are still real and powerful. They are illuminating, insofar as they cast light on the truth of the world, which is that ours is a world of victims. Yet they also show that history has proved that mercy and resurrection exist. The martyrs call for change and solidarity. They evangelise. The martyrs open up new landscapes in which we can build our lives. They show that love and solidarity are an alternative to the prevailing logic of violence and oppression. They show that it is possible in this world to live as Christ lived and die as He died. The blood of the martyrs thus becomes the seed from which an authentic Christian life can blossom – and this goes for Europe too.
Martin Maier SJ
Translated from the original text in German