This Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, who was crucified for preaching a message of love. For 2,000 years, this message has endured and countless Christians have died witnessing to it.
We call them martyrs for the faith, and according to Catholic tradition, St. Stephen the deacon, stoned to death by a mob led by Saul about one year after Christ’s death, is considered the first martyr.
Today, men and women witnessing their faith continue to be persecuted. With the rise of the Islamic State, Boko Haram and other Muslim extremist groups, religious persecution is rampant.
Earlier this month, four Missionaries of Charity and 12 of their associates were murdered by gunmen at the home for elderly they operated in Aden, Yemen. Reports say the gunmen were members of ISIS and that they had targeted the home, seeking to kill the sisters, members of the religious community founded by Blessed Mother Teresa. A Salesian priest, Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, who lived at the compound, was kidnapped and he is still missing.
According to Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news agency, 22 “pastoral care workers” were killed worldwide in 2015. Fides defines pastoral care workers as ordained and consecrated religious, as well lay missionaries. The list included 13 priests, four sisters and five lay people. From 2000 to 2015, 396 pastoral care workers, including five bishops, were killed worldwide, according to Fides.
In addition to religious leaders, an unknown number of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East have been killed by Islamic extremists. Open Doors, an organization serving persecuted Christians, estimates that 100 million Christians around the world face arrest, interrogation, torture and death.
The persecution of Christians in the Middle East led U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to issue a declaration of genocide. It was the first time the United States has declared a genocide since 2004, when the Second Sudanese Civil War left 2 million Sudanese dead and 4 million displaced.
The United Nations defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group as such: killing; causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Preaching the Gospel and living the Gospel life continue to put people in harm’s way, just as it did in the early days of Christianity. We as Catholics have an obligation to remember the martyrs of our faith. This includes opening our arms to refugees who flee violence inflicted on them because of their beliefs.
As we observe Jesus’ death and resurrection this weekend, let us also pay tribute to the many men and women who have given their lives in service to God as well as those persecuted for merely practicing their faith. May we pray that the injustices that exist around the world today, and which lead to a climate of violence against missionaries, be resolved through peaceful means.
Finally, let us imitate the passion for Christ that exists in modern-day missionaries who boldly live by a credo ascribed to Mother Teresa: “Do not be afraid of loving to the point of sacrifice, until it hurts. Jesus’ love for us led him to his death.”