Pope Francis has set up a new commission to identify Christians of all denominations who have been murdered for following Jesus this century. But is it really more dangerous to be a Christian today than in the days of the early Church?


Source: Reuters

Like many, I somehow assumed martyrdom belonged to the first century AD.

St Paul, for example, was an old man when he wrote the book of Romans. He’d been imprisoned for years and knew his end would be gruesome. According to the Roman historian, Eusebius, he was eventually beheaded in 68 AD, during a period of intense persecution by Emperor Nero. Simon Peter and his wife apparently followed swiftly after. Peter watched his wife go to die before him, calling out to her as she passed his cell. The other apostles fared no better. Bartholomew was flayed alive. Thomas speared by four soldiers. James was stoned and clubbed to death. The list goes on.

We often relegate persecution to history. We assume that courage like this belongs to a different age, cut off from us by time. Now, Pope Francis has turned that notion on its head. “As I have said so many times,” he declared, “martyrs are more numerous in our time now than in the first centuries.”

The Pope is right. Christians are being killed at an unprecedented pace. It’s worse than the early Church. 

A new normal

Violent Islamists in Nigeria murder so fast that the loss of whole villages – such as the people of Umogidi, who were gunned down as they gathered for a funeral in April – barely even makes the news.

In one three-week period this year, over 800 Nigerian Christians were killed in just one state. 89 per cent of all Christians murdered for their faith around the world die in Nigeria.

The martyrs of the Church are witnesses to the hope that derives from faith in Christ

Persecution is certainly different from the first century however. Nero’s cruelty was directed at just five underground house churches. Today, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or China’s President Xi Jinping have a digital bureaucracy, watching and persecuting tens of millions of believers.

Modern Christians may no longer be thrown to the lions, but different extremes of suffering abound. The 21 Coptic Christian engineers killed in Libya in 2015 were filmed and put online, presumably to terrorise their families and governments. The Pontiff has now declared these Coptics martyrs, to be celebrated with a feast day alongside Catholic saints. 

Modern day martyrs

“The martyrs of the Church are witnesses to the hope that derives from faith in Christ, and inspire true charity,” said the Pope. His ten investigators, from all over the world, will examine attacks on Christians of all denominations. When I heard this, I instantly thought of a friend who knew two modern day martyrs in Nigeria.

When I rang Steven Kefas, a journalist in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, I didn’t quite know what response I’d get.

A long pause. Then: “You know, it makes me want to cry,” he says.

Kefas lost two friends – both Catholic priests – within days of each other. Both were killed by murder gangs in one of many waves of violence from Fulani militia.

“Father Vitus, he was just this wonderful talker,” says Kefas. “Strong man. Father Mark, he was my dear friend, my sparring partner. He wrote my scholarship reference for me.

“They were fearless,” he continues. “The first to comfort others, the first to risk their safety.”

Father Vitus Borogo was gunned down on the road to his family farm. Father Mark Cheitnum was abducted from his Presbytery, his body found dumped a week later.

“They would be so thankful,” Kefas tells me. “You know, this means someone has noticed what we are going through here.”

Suffering together

“People may be surprised at the Pope saying martyrs are so numerous, but he’s right,” notes Andrew Boyd of Release International, a writer and author on the persecuted Church. But what hasn’t changed, he suggests, is the historic role of the wider Church, and the need to support Christians under pressure.

As 1 Corinthians 12:26 says: “‘If one part suffers, all the parts suffer, and if one member is honoured, all the believers are glad.”

Whether Christian or not, we often relegate persecution to history. We assume that courage like this belongs to a different age

“Prayer is the battleground,” Boyd says. But outside the hostile theatre, what’s the plan? Depending on the political setting, effective criticism and a political voice can both have an impact. As attacks upon Christians reach historic levels, political opinion in the West is a goal to pursue. Along with activism goes the need for counselling, trauma therapy, education and escape routes.

“Most of all, an effort to connect,” says Boyd. “An effort to show love, to show concern, to show our brothers and sisters they do not face their trial alone. That’s what I think Pope Francis is doing.”