The image remains indelible: 21 men in bright orange jumpsuits kneeling on a lonely Mediterranean beach before a line of black-clad and masked Islamic State militants. Seconds later, the militants would draw their long knives and ritually behead each of the men—all of them Egyptian Christians. The 21 had been kidnapped by the extremist group while working in Libya, and the beheadings were captured on a video that was subsequently released on a pro-Islamic State website.
During a Mass offered for the Coptic Christian victims on Feb. 17, shortly after the beheadings, Pope Francis declared that the 21 had been murdered “for the sole reason of being Christians” and prayed “that the Lord welcome them as martyrs.”
As shocking as the killings were, the motivation for them was not atypical. Throughout the world, in the early years of the 21st century, Christians have suffered persecution and martyrdom at a rate and intensity that recalls the worst periods of the ancient Roman Empire.
Though the numbers rarely show up on popular radar in the West, the International Society for Human Rights reported that Christians are the targets of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today. “Statistically speaking, that makes Christians by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet,” writes John J. Allen in The Spectator.
“According to the Pew Forum,” writes Allen, author of the book “The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution,” between 2006 and 2010 “Christians faced some form of discrimination, either de jure or de facto, in a staggering total of 139 nations, which is almost three-quarters of all the countries on earth. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed in what the center calls a ‘situation of witness’ each year for the past decade. That works out to 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week and 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith.
“In effect, the world is witnessing the rise of an entire new generation of Christian martyrs. The carnage is occurring on such a vast scale that it represents not only the most dramatic Christian story of our time, but arguably the premier human rights challenge of this era as well.”
The modern-era anti-Christian bloodletting actually began in the 20th century, though incidents were, then as now, seldom generally acknowledged.
“The secular West has been looking the other way for a very long time,” writes Susan Brinkman in The Catholic Standard and Times. “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.”
The persecutions in the 20th century “were largely the result of political ideologies—alternative religions really—that could not tolerate any competition from competing faiths,” says Royal. “Communism, Nazism and Fascism all piled up huge numbers of Christian dead. Because they think of religion as a political and not a spiritual force, of course they hate it when they see it.
“Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, the situation has changed. We’re developing our own anti-Christian ideologies in the West—persecution, but so far no real martyrs. Militant Islam seems to be doing the most, but tyrannical regimes in Africa exist that don’t like Christians who resist injustices… China does a fair job repressing Christians, who grow in numbers nonetheless, maybe because of the persecution. There are other fundamentalisms that have arisen in response to the bleak nature of the modern world: Hindu fundamentalism, for instance, has killed and tried to drive Christians away. It’s a nasty world.”
Not nasty enough, apparently, to generate any kind of consistent coverage in the West.
“Why are the dimensions of this global war so often overlooked?” Allen asks. “Aside from the root fact that the victims are largely non-white and poor, and thus not considered ‘newsmakers’ in the classic sense, and that they tend to live and die well off the radar screen of western attention, the global war also runs up against the outdated stereotype of Christianity as the oppressor rather than the oppressed.
“Say ‘religious persecution’ to most makers of cultured secular opinion, and they will think of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Bruno and Galileo, the Wars of Religion and the Salem witch trials. Today, however, we do not live on the pages of a Dan Brown potboiler, in which Christians are dispatching mad assassins to settle historical scores. Instead, they’re the ones fleeing assassins others have dispatched.”
Still, like the martyrs of old, modern Christians have largely remained steadfast in the face of threats.
“Most Christians don’t go out of their way to conflict with authorities and with other faiths,” says Royal. “But to be a Christian in the troubled parts of the world often means to have made a deliberate choice to remain faithful to something beyond your immediate surroundings. It’s amazing how many people are willing to risk everything, including their lives, to remain faithful. Those Coptic Christians who were beheaded by ISIS in Libya were amazing to the very end, but aren’t as rare in the world as most people think.”
Pope Francis drew particular attention to the issue in a recent Easter season address in St. Peter’s Square. “These are our martyrs of today, and they are many,” he said. “We can say that there are more of them now than there were in the early centuries. I hope the international community does not look on, mute and inert, at such an unacceptable crime.” He called for “concrete participation and tangible help to defend and protect our brothers and sisters who are persecuted, exiled, killed, beheaded, solely because they are Christians.”
Such pleas for the world—the West in particular—to open its eyes to the problem are growing.
“The persecution of the First Christian, Jesus, is a telling example for all of us,” says Royal. “The one thing we absolutely can’t do in the West is to be silent. I’ll never forget when I was writing my book on the 20th century martyrs, the cry of a Romanian bishop, perhaps the most heartfelt claim in all the literature I read. He said, ‘it’s not we in the Communist East who are the Church of Silence. We speak up and bear witness with our lives. It’s you in the West who have freedom of speech and action who do nothing, who are the Silent Church.’”
His cry finds a plaintive echo in the words of the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal: “Does anybody hear our cry? How many atrocities must we endure before somebody, somewhere, comes to our aid?”