John Allen draws attention to the  Nov. 4-6 conference at Notre Dame, “Seed of the Church: Telling the Story of Today’s Christian Martyrs.” 

Sponsored by Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life, the event’s aim was to raise consciousness about the widespread persecution of Christians around the world. Statistical overviews and policy analyses were interspersed with first-hand testimony from some of the danger zones, including Nigeria, China, India and the Middle East.

Although it’s dangerous to reduce a rich gathering to a few sound bites, here are three quick takeaways:

  1. It’s difficult to get exact counts of new Christian martyrs, partly because much depends on how you define “martyrdom.” By any standard, however, the scale of anti-Christian violence is stunningly vast. In fact, this may be one of the reasons it’s difficult to raise an alarm: the numbers are so big it’s hard to believe they’re real.
  2. The threats Christians face are incredibly complex, and often a superficial reading generates more heat than light. Bishop Matthew Kukah of Nigeria, for instance, insisted that interpreting his nation’s Boko Haram movement primarily through the prism of Muslim/Christian conflict gets things wrong.
  3. There are no easy answers about how best to defend Christians at risk, and just about every time you think you’ve got one, somebody smarter than you points out a potential pitfall.
The article is difficult to summarize in light of many nuances.

1. A vast scale

Todd Johnson, a Protestant expert on religious demography, defines a martyr: “Believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in a situation of witness, as a result of human hostility.”

That’s a more expansive standard than the traditional Catholic test for martyrdom of being killed in odium fidei, “in hatred of the faith.” It’s in keeping, however, with John Paul II’s decision to stretch the concept of martyrdom to include those killed in hatred of the church, and many theologians’ willingness to include also those killed out of hatred for the virtues inspired by the faith.

A vigorous discussion ensued, with Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma calling for a more careful way of sorting through situations such as the Congo wars in order to establish how many of its fatalities truly count as martyrs. He suggested using methods employed by the Pew Forum, including “decision rules in advance” and “strong inter-coder reliability” to make the numerical estimates more iron-clad.

The idea was that it doesn’t help the cause to float inflated statistical claims, which can then be knocked down or dismissed.

In his wrap-up, Johnson laid out several factors he believes could impact Christian martyrdom today, in the sense of making it more or less common:

  • The world is less religious in 2010 than in 1910, generating mounting tensions between nonreligious and religious folk. Yet the world is more religious in 2010 than in 1970, following the collapse of communism and the global expansion of both Christianity and Islam, creating new conflict zones between the faiths.
  • There are 214 million migrants today, 80 percent of whom are Christians and Muslims.
  • In 1800, Christians and Muslims together represented one-third of the global population; by 2011, it will be two-thirds. How the relationship between these two faiths unfolds, he said, will be enormously consequential.
  • Surveys report that 86 percent of all Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus in the world report they do not personally know a Christian, pointing to a “relationship gap” among the major religions.

2. Complex situations

Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, located in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria, told a story that drives home the problem with simplistic takes on anti-Christian persecution.

…Beyond direct violence, Kukah went on to tick off 10 other forms of persecution faced by Christians in northern Nigeria:

  • Denial of access to land to build churches
  • Denial of freedom to Muslims who want to embrace Christianity
  • Denial of inheritance rights to Christian women who marry Muslims
  • Denial of access to the state media
  • Denial of access to state employment (Kukah told the story of three young Christian men in his area named Philip, Thomas and James who applied to become police officers. He said they were told they’re ineligible because nobody with such names could be indigenous to the area.)
  • Denial of access to state contracts
  • Non-payment of compensation for destroyed churches
  • Bias in the allocation of federal projects, with state-funded hospitals, schools and so on, routinely built in Muslim rather than Christian areas
  • Kidnapping and forced marriages of Christian girls
  • Lack of access in government schools to Christian religious education

Turning to China, Fr. Gianni Criveller, a professor at Holy Spirit Seminary in Hong Kong and a veteran Sinologist, described persecution of the church in the world’s new superpower in these terms: “The country has changed, but religious policy hasn’t.”


Adding another layer of complexity, FrCedric Prakash of India argued that sometimes anti-Christian persecution is aided and abetted, even if unwittingly, by Western interests.

Prakash’s example would seem to illustrate that politics can complicate accurate diagnosis, not to mention that backing somebody just because they’re tough on your perceived enemies begs the question of what happens when they turn on your friends.

Allen concludes the article…

3. No easy answers

In general, pretty much everybody could agree on a few basics to express solidarity with suffering Christians:

  • Prayer, which is important not only in spiritual terms but for creating a culture in the church — a bit like the old prayer for the “conversion of Russia” kept the cause of the persecuted church behind the Iron Curtain alive.
  • Direct humanitarian assistance to people who are hurting. Right now, for instance, thousands of Christian refugees in Syria are in danger of not surviving the winter, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association has launched an emergency appeal on their behalf. (Details can be found here.)
  • Raising consciousness by telling the stories of the new martyrs of our time, breaking through the indifference of the secular media and the insularity of much Catholic conversation in the West.

Beyond that, things get complicated in a hurry.

Two final points

Two other points are worth making about the “Seed of the Church” conference.

First, the event brought home that martyrdom has a unique spiritual power in Christian life, and that the stories of the martyrs are among the most effective evangelizing tools in the Christian toolbox.

(Tongue in cheek, Johnson told a story about a colleague who once spoke to a group of wealthy Christian industrialists who asked him what the church’s most effective evangelical strategy is. The colleague replied that empirical research shows it’s martyrdom. After a long pause, one of the industrialists finally asked: “Can you tell us what the second most effective strategy might be?”)

There’s nothing like the stories of the martyrs to fire the Christian imagination. Fr. Angelo Romano of the Community of Sant’Egidio, for instance, described the community’s efforts to build a memorial to the new martyrs at the Church of San Bartolomeo on Rome’s Tiber Island.

Second, many people at the conference stressed the ecumenical dimension of martyrdom, arguing that their witness can bring Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and Anglicans together, since it’s something all branches of the Christian family share.

I suggested there’s also an intra-Catholic version of this “ecumenism of the martyrs.”

It’s no secret that the Catholic church is often a house divided against itself, perhaps especially in the United States — a point clearly confirmed by the divisive 2012 election. These tribal divisions are a source of pain for many Catholics, not to mention a constant impediment to bringing a unified Catholic witness to bear on anything.

If ever there were a transcendent cause that could bring the various Catholic tribes together, surely it’s the defense of innocent Christians in places such as Congo, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, India and so many points beyond, where Christians literally take their lives in the hands every time they go to church, open their business or just walk down the street.

In other words, if so-called “progressives” and “conservatives” in the American church can’t set aside their differences to engage this issue, what hope is there that they could ever do so on anything else?


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