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The Martyrs of Otranto
As Pope Francis gave the church 800 new saints, Christians were being persecuted around the world.

Blood stains a portrait of Jesus Christ at a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria after a deadly bombing in 2011.

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Nina Shea

Abduction of Christians has become rampant in Syria. Among the many who have disappeared are Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji, both of Aleppo, a Catholic priest, Father Michael Kayal, and innumerable lay persons. Some of these are known to have been killed; others, including the two bishops, are presumed alive, but nothing is known about where or in what conditions they are being held — a powerful sign that no Christian is now protected by any force in Syria. On May 9, the adviser on Christian affairs to the governor of Nineveh, in Iraq, was wounded in an assassination attempt by Islamist suicide bombers, and his three bodyguards were killed. This incident adds to the toll that has driven out some two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians, mostly Catholics, over the past decade.

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Pakistan has a long and growing record of Christian martyrdom as well, with one of the most prominent examples being Shahbaz Bhatti, the former minister of minority affairs, who was murdered two years ago after he defended the Christian Asia Bibi, who herself is still imprisoned on death row for blasphemy against Islam. (Bhatti’s murderer remains at large.) The latest anti-Christian violence was a pogrom, triggered by yet another blasphemy accusation, against the St. Joseph neighborhood of Lahore on March 9; church sources report that over 300 houses, 18 shops, and two churches were destroyed or damaged by fires set by the large mob, while the police stood by and watched the rampage.

In Iran, Pastor Saeed Abedini, who holds dual American and Iranian citizenship and who converted to Christianity, is currently serving time for “threatening the national security.” In April, Morocco’s Higher Council of Religious Scholars published a fatwa calling for the death penalty for apostates from Islam, signaling a new turn for this reputedly moderate Muslim country. In Libya earlier this year, an Egyptian Christian was tortured to death by security forces for evangelizing, and a number of his co-religionists were deported. There are many other examples.

The religious violence against Christians is intensifying in Muslim-majority countries as Islamism — a political ideology based on the primacy of Islam — is empowered by those countries’ governments and through the spread of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. By recognizing the Otranto martyrs as saints and hence models for the faithful, the Vatican is preparing for this. At Sunday’s canonization ceremony, the pope explained: “As we venerate the martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain those many Christians who, at this time in many parts of the world, continue to endure violence, and give them the courage of fidelity to respond to evil with goodness.”

— Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, published  earlier this year by Thomas Nelson.



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