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The Greatest Story Never Told: Modern Christian Martyrdom
While Christians in the secular West languish in spiritual mediocrity, Christianity remains a deadly serious matter almost everywhere else.

ICC Note: This is a powerful article that challenges western Christians’ passion for and commitment to Christ.

By Susan Brinkmann
12/5/08 PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (The Catholic Standard and Times/www.cst-phl.com) – 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 Parà, 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… [Go To Full Story]