Tomorrow, on April 29th, Rome’s white marble Trevi Fountain—its swirling waters and the charging baroque statues of Oceanus, his sea shell chariot and attendant tritons and horses—will all be turned blood red in a campaign to raise awareness about modern day Christian martyrs.
The popular fountain is decidedly not Christian-themed and historically seems to have inspired only frivolity. The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need and a coalition of other Catholic Italian non-governmental organizations that are co-sponsoring this performance art are counting on this unlikely juxtaposition. They hope that the coin tossing, selfie-taking throngs of tourists, as the frivolous Western public at large, will be given pause, if only briefly, to contemplate the surging pattern of mass murder of Christians purely for reasons of faith, largely by Islamists.
This threat has become existential for various Christian communities in Asia and Africa. In northern Nigeria, worshippers are slaughtered in their churches and in their living rooms. In Kenya, Christians have been hunted out and killed for their religion in their university dorm rooms, at shopping malls, and on public buses. In Libya, it was the Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Christian migrants who were singled out and beheaded. In Pakistan, Christian families were blown up while celebrating Easter in a park. In Yemen last month, the nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were tied up, shot to death and mutilated; their staff was murdered and their priest, the last surviving Christian in the port city of Aden, was kidnapped. For the past three days, at the outset of the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the Armenian Christian quarter in Aleppo has come under jihadi siege though there are no military installations there—only defenseless civilians.
And then there is the religious genocide facing Christians throughout ISIS controlled territory in Iraq and Syria, where, for the first time in two millennia, no functioning church, cleric, or intact Christian community—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—can be found. While all faith groups are suffering in these conflicts, the Christian communities are being wiped out in targeted attacks.
Another coalition of American Christians overcame opposition from some prominent secular human rights voices to persuade a reluctant US government to include Christians in its ISIS genocide designation, along with the Yazidis and Shi’a. This landmark decision resulted from a level of ecumenical engagement not seen in foreign policy since the Sudan peace agreement over a decade ago.
This campaign now needs to progress to the next level of sustained prayer and action on behalf of the persecuted Church abroad. America’s churches, at the local level, which have been largely silent, must actively engage for this to succeed.
Pope Francis frequently invokes the modern martyrs in his public prayers. This coming weekend, the Holy See will hold a conference at the United Nations in New York with Christian survivors. Among them will be Iraq’s Father Douglas Bazi, a Catholic priest who was kidnapped, tortured, and shot before being released for ransom and who now cares for 500 ISIS survivors, and the daughters of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian mother on death row since 2010, for blasphemy against Islam. Still others will speak about Syria’s many martyred laity and clergy, including two Orthodox bishops—Boulos Yazigi and Mar Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim—who disappeared in April 2013, and a twelve-year-old evangelical boy and his father who were crucified for their Christian conversion last summer.
These are examples of the persecuted that we should be praying for in our churches. No doubt spurred by the massacre of the Missionaries of Charity in Yemen that was reported that day, a priest at my own Catholic parish church in Washington, D.C. led a prayer for the “softening of the hearts” of the terrorists, without mentioning any of their victims. At another church, a prayer of the faithful called for strength for Christian victims to hold up under persecution, without any details. The success of peace talks in Syria has also been a focus of communal prayers I’ve heard. These are all welcome, but they seem too generic, too abstract. Where are the prayers to honor specific martyrs, and the martyr-confessors that George Weigel recently wrote about here—prayers that put a human face on the crisis and can inspire the congregation to deeper contemplation about Christian faithfulness? When one part of the Body of Christ suffers, we all suffer, Scripture tells us. But, to our local churches, Asia’s and Africa’s suffering Christians just don’t seem to be all that relevant.
In the Catholic liturgy, we remember “Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, etc.” The first two of these were third century women, who, after refusing to renounce their Christian conversions, endured being sent into an arena to be trampled by wild bulls and then having their throats slit by the Romans, as recounted in Bill Bennett’s well researched new book Trial by Fire. Why is it so difficult for our congregations to remember our contemporary martyrs?
On recent visits to Rome’s two famous Jesuit churches Gesu and Sant’Ignazio, I searched in vain for any sign of recognition of two beloved European Jesuits. Before being recently attacked by jihadists in Syria, they had devoted some forty years each to serving Syria’s poor and oppressed. Editor and media personality Father Jim Martin, S.J., told me that they were “great men of peace.” Indeed: Fr. Frans van der Lugt, who cared for disabled children of all faiths and refused to leave them when the war started, was dragged from his monastery in Homs, and beaten, shot, and left to die in the street. Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio had gone to negotiate a hostage release and a truce between Islamist rebels and local Kurds at ISIS headquarters in Raqqa when he disappeared. I’ve never heard these great men mentioned at Georgetown University’s Sunday Masses that I frequently attend, either.
“Why is the world silent while Christians are being slaughtered?” asked World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder. In breaking this silence, American churches can help the persecuted—both to stay safely and thrive in their home countries and, if impossible, to give them refuge here. And, as Sudanese Catholic Bishop Macram Gassis once instructed me, these Christians are not “mendicants.” Their powerful witness can revitalize our own faith. America’s churches should turn on red spotlights too—if only to remind themselves to pause and reflect on this terrible era of Christian martyrdom.
Nina Shea is the Director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, DC.