|01-01-2006 - Traces, n.1
Martyrs Because of the Friendship of Christ
From Latin America to Asia, through Africa and Europe, over 600 missionaries have been slaughtered in the past fifteen years, victims of the world’s hatred and the new violence against Christians
by Giancarlo Giojelli
The new martyrs of the third millennium have European, Asian, African, and Latin American faces. The new martyrs of the third millennium speak well-known languages and languages unknown to most. The new martyrs of the third millennium are unheard of in the West; few protest on the streets for them. And yet they are many, multitudes.
There are martyrs everywhere. In Europe, where Islamic fundamentalism is growing in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia, and in Kosovo, where, in the past five years of so-called peace, hundreds of Orthodox churches that had survived five centuries of Ottoman domination have been destroyed. And let’s not forget that until only fifteen years ago in Albania, only a few hours by ferry from Europe, God could not be mentioned, churches were museums of atheism, and all priests and nuns were either in prison or in hiding.
America, Africa, and Asia
In Latin America, the Christians and priests who oppose the violence of the drug lords and the abuse of power against the poorest still risk their lives. In Africa, in southern Sudan, not only in Darfur, the war continues and the Christian villagers in zones where petroleum has been discovered continue to flee for fear of persecution, retaliation, and kidnapping by the paramilitary militias tied to the Islamic government of the north, which wants their land and seeks to impose sharia, Koranic law. The peace treaty signed a year ago is not enough. In Uganda, the clandestine army of child soldiers in the north has declared war on the Catholic missions trying to save the young kidnap victims who have been forced to fight. Last year, in Nigeria, there were over 12,000 deaths, most of them Christians, victims of the violence following the proclamation of Islamic law in twelve states of the country. In Asia, in Saudi Arabia, it can happen that forty Christians joined for prayer can be arrested. In Dar al Islam, the “sacred land of Islam,” Mass cannot be celebrated and the Cross cannot be displayed. Elsewhere, for the fundamentalists it is Dar el Harb, the “home of war,” war on the infidels. In Pakistan, the anti-blasphemy law continues to reap victims: no one must proclaim a creed denying the sacred inspiration of the Koran and the Prophet, on pain of death. In other words, woe to those who call themselves Christians publicly. Buddhist extremists attack Christian churches in Sri Lanka and Hindus do the same in India. But religious fundamentalism is not the only pitiless persecutor of Christians. Communist and totalitarian regimes cannot stand those strange figures that believe in a God who does not bow down before human power. In North Korea, the only religion allowed is the cult of the leader, Kim Jong II, and his father. Believers in a faith must register as such, and are monitored. Life is made very difficult for them. In fifty years of regime, 300,000 Christians have disappeared, as well as almost all the priests and nuns.
China: an extreme situation
The most egregious example is China, where a few weeks ago sixteen nuns were brutally beaten by an enraged mob because they had defended a Catholic school from demolition. The police did not intervene. In November, however, they arrested six priests of the Catholic Church linked to Rome (called the clandestine Church, and considered a dangerous cult, because it eschews the official Church controlled by the Communist government, which nominates official Church bishops and monitors official Church preaching.) In this violent situation, even the prelates are disoriented. Some, like the Catholic bishop of Shanghai, Bishop Tin, after 27 years in prison, refused exile in a Western nation and accepted an inferior role, just so he could continue in a work, however limited, of religious assistance to respond to the deep need manifested among the faithful. Father Bernardo Cervellera, a PIME missionary and Director of Asia News, who has spent his life in China and the Middle East, is one of the few people who, in spite of grave danger, has taken on the responsibility of testifying to what is happening in those countries.
Religious freedom and businesses
“Certainly, China today is the place of greatest suffering, where persecution of Christians and the Catholic Church is more egregiously evident,” Father Bernardo tells us. “There is incredible physical violence by the government against priests, nuns, laypersons, and bishops, and a continuous suffocation of all religious initiatives; the number of martyrs is very high. Fifteen million Catholics, eighty million Christians, live under the threat of having their homes and land requisitioned, and of being abducted. The bishops were not allowed to attend the Synod on the Eucharist, which certainly didn’t speak of politics and the denial of democracy, but only about the Sacrament. They are afraid of a piece of consecrated bread!”
Two bishops from Baudin have been missing for seven years, imprisoned or perhaps murdered. No one knows anything, not even their families. The Italian government has tried to take action, asking and pressing for information. Some Parliament members have spoken up. The Vatican has declared itself open to establishing diplomatic relations, but firmly asks for the religious freedom denied today.
And yet, we have the perception that China is a democratic country that has overcome Communism, simply because we are fascinated by the market and see the development of capitalism as freedom. “I’ll make a prophecy: if religious freedom does not come, the same Western entrepreneurs who are attracted today by their greed for markets will fall victim to the same persecutions that today strike the Christians,” continued Father Bernardo. “For that matter, it is already happening. Factories are being requisitioned, contracts are being broken, machinery is being confiscated, and corruption is rampant.”
Evident and forgotten persecutions
Father Piero Gheddo, missionary, writer, and journalist, was among the few and the first in the 1970s and 1980s to denounce the martyrdom of Christians in the Southeast Asian countries “liberated” by the Vietcong and the Khmer Rouge. “Everywhere, the diversity of Christians is an irritant,” says Fr. Gheddo. “There are situations where the persecution is evident and egregious, as in China and Vietnam, and those where religious freedom is denied and limited, as in Saudi Arabia. In other situations, what has been going on for years has been forgotten, as in Sudan. There are countries where persecution comes not so much from the governments, but from Muslim fundamentalists who incite the crowds against Christians, and missionaries are killed. It is happening in Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Moluccas.” It happened in the 1990s in East Timor, where 300,000 Christians, half of the population who wanted independence from Muslim Indonesia, which had annexed the ex-Portuguese colony, were massacred before the UN’s intervention. But, paradoxically, the persecutions do not impede conversions–to the contrary, just as in the times of the early Christians. “In the Christian villages,” says Fr. Gheddo, who at the age of 76 is departing for Africa, “people live differently, more humanly, and the others take notice. The Christian schools welcome all, and everyone has the chance to live with more dignity. There is no doubt that Christians live their faith imperfectly; we all have many contradictions; we are all sinners, and yet something greater communicates itself. It’s not so much the preaching, but the different life that announces the Gospel. And this is what bothers Islamic fundamentalists or Communist governments: this different life.”
Fr. Andrea Pacini, Director of the Edoardo Agnelli Center for the Study of Comparative Religion, established by the Agnelli Foundation to pursue themes tied to religions, is worried about the consequences this violence might have on the integration processes, even in the Northern Hemisphere.
“One shouldn’t generalize, but it is true that in the Muslim world there is a tendency to limit the exercise of religious freedom. There are situations in which religious minorities are allowed freedom of worship, and others in which even saying Mass is prohibited. Saudi Arabia is the most glaring example, and it is a fact that this situation has been ignored for a long time because of the cooperation Saudi Arabia has given and still gives the West on an economic level; the reformist Muslim intellectuals themselves rebuke us for this myopia. And it is a grave myopia; the defence of values has been obscured by a strategic, military, and economic alliance. And then there’s the situation in Iraq and Pakistan. You cannot deny the meager attention of the media and the public. And yet we should consider religious freedom as a litmus test for freedom and respect of human rights in general. I see a further danger, that the fundamentalism of the Muslim countries and the denial of religious freedom have repercussions in the relationships among the different cultures and the different religions in the Western world, where the immigration rate is higher. The Muslim becomes a danger, and no distinction is made between fundamentalism and moderate Islam, which also becomes a victim of the extremists. On the institutional level as well, more should be done, but it is a question of governments, not just one government. It is an international question that should be dealt with as such. For example, the European Union should take charge of dealing with these issues. With Eastern Europe it worked–aid in return for liberalization and respect for human rights. It was a different situation, I realize, but loosening the dictatorial grip brought freedom to many countries.
The universality of the Church
Attilio Tamburrini, Director of Aid to the Church in Need, publishes an invaluable annual report on the state of religious freedom in the world. “There are moments when persecution is more felt in certain areas, and others that garner less attention. Islamic fundamentalism is on the attack today in Indonesia, and in China I would define the situation as structural. There, a governmental will is at work. Everywhere, though, the motivation is the same: the Christian is free; he has a concept of man as a unique being, unyielding to power. The Christian answers to a Master who is not of this world. In terms of the Catholic Church, in particular, what irritates is her universality. This is why governments try to create national churches, where the faithful are isolated, and the powers that be can better manipulate them. In India, the Christian concept of man has led to the establishment of schools open to all; an ‘untouchable’ can graduate from university, and this scandalizes the concept of a caste society. This is why the Catholic schools and universities undergo enormous difficulties; they are hindered by the local powers and some have been destroyed and burned.”
“The Italian government,” continues Tamburrini, “does something, but it could do more. The only government that moves decisively is America, because in the United States there is great popular sensitivity about religious freedom. Here in Italy, public opinion is disinterested. The first mobilization should be on the ecclesiastical level; when I give conferences on this topic, people ask me why no one has told them these things. The first point is information. John Paul II spoke with clarity, and Benedict XVI speaks, and speaks forcefully; Cardinal Ruini also recently did so. But the problem is the ecclesiastical base. Sensitivity diminishes bit by bit as you go down toward the base. I have seen Catholics on the streets protesting the nth death sentence in the States. Rightly so. But the Catholics killed throughout the world? A good initiative would be a Day for the Church that Suffers. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that when Peter was arrested, the entire Church prayed for him. Today, what do we do for the persecuted Christians?”
It is calculated that over 250 million Christians live in situations of risk because of their faith. There are 160,000 victims every year, simple faithful, priests, and nuns. Over 600 missionaries have been slaughtered in the last fifteen years.
And yet–and this is the most impressive thing–the more the persecutions grow, the more conversions increase. From the martyr countries we hear every day not just stories of torture and violence, but incredible testimonies of loyalty to the Church and a dizzying increase in the number of vocations. For example, in China, in Hebei, where the anti-Catholic violence is the fiercest, seventy priests operate clandestinely, and there are 140 theology students in the underground Church’s seminary. This is the prophecy that John Paul II intuited on May 13, 1981, the day he was struck by a bullet shot by Ali Agca. The third secret of Fatima, revealed at the beginning of the new millennium: a long trail of martyrs, guided by a bishop dressed in white, himself a martyr as well, who nourishes with his blood the Church of God.