Fr. Frans van der Lugt, killed in Syria in 2014 (Photo:

New martyrs: Ecumenism of blood and the way of Francis

The Pope establishes a commission to give a name, a face and a story to the many unknown Christians who have lost their lives in recent years to witness to the Gospel. Here are some of their stories.
Maria Acqua Simi

Who are the new martyrs? Who are those who are still being persecuted and killed today for their faith in Christ? It is not a question of numbers, it never has been, as Pope Francis recalled a few days ago when he announced that he had established the Commission of the New Martyrs at the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints: witnesses of the faith, in view of the Jubilee of 2025” are more numerous in our time than in the first centuries: they are bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, lay people and families, who in different countries of the world, with the gift of their lives, have offered the supreme proof of charity." Hence the Pope’s idea to try to collect all their stories, following the path already suggested by Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. The latter, in fact, in his letter Tertio millennio adveniente had forcefully reminded that everything possible must be done so that the legacy of the "unknown soldiers of God's great cause" is not lost. It is what Francis has repeatedly called "ecumenism of the blood."

Some of their lives are well known, others less so. Many will recall the killing of Jesuit Frans van der Lugt in Syria's Homs in April 2014. Fr. Frans, of Dutch origin, had lived in the Middle Eastern country since 1966 and had refused to leave the people of his community when war broke out. He was the last priest left in Homs, and in a letter to his superiors a few months before he was killed, he wrote, "Here there are only 66 left out of tens of thousands of Christians. How can I leave them alone? The Syrian people have given me so much, everything they had. And if people are suffering now I want to share their pain."

And how can we forget the image of the 21 kneeling Coptic Orthodox Christians, wearing the orange jumpsuits used by Isis for prisoners, executed on the Libyan coast on February 15, 2015 by terrorists? Just this year their sacrifice was also recognized by the Catholic Church, which included them in the Roman Martyrology as a sign of spiritual communion with the Coptic Orthodox Church led by His Holiness Tawadros II, the Pope of Alexandria.

There are names that bring to mind other similar stories, such as that of Sister Maria De Coppi, a Combonian nun killed in a terrorist attack in Mozambique in 2020, or that of Fr. Jacques Hamel, a parish priest in the French town of Rouen whose throat was slit on the altar of his church as he celebrated Mass. The same thing happened to Fr. Olivier Maire, killed in 2021 by a Rwandan who months earlier set fire to the cathedral in Nantes. And what about the many religious men and women killed in Mexico, Nigeria, and Haiti for opposing drug traffickers, militiamen, or armed gangs? Among them was Sister Luisa Dell'Orto, murdered June 25, 2022 in Port-au-Prince, the capital of the Caribbean island. She had worked in Haiti for 20 years at the Kay Chal center (St. Charles House) where she took in the city's poorest and orphaned children.

The list is endless, reaching all continents and not only involving consecrated people. There are in fact thousands of Christians, and among them many young people, killed in hatred of their faith. Many of them are unknown. One of the latest occurrences was in late June. In Uganda, a commando of armed men entered the dormitories of a school in Mpwonde at night and, after asking those present of Muslim faith to leave, slaughtered Christian boys and girls aged 12 to 17 with machetes. A very cruel account. After the violence, they barred the doors of the dormitories by setting everything on fire. 37 young people died and four adults, including the institution's director, who had rushed to the students' aid. Their bodies could not be identified because they were completely burned. Who were those kids, what families and what lives did they have, what did it mean to them to be Christians and sing praises together every night (as one of the survivors testified), sharing their study days with other Muslim students? What were they thinking as they were being killed?

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It is a question that also applies to Maryam, who saw her husband and children die in Mosul in 2015 for opposing Islamic State militiamen, and it applies to Basharat Masih, a Pakistani Christian widower and father who was murdered last March in revenge. He had fought to bring home his 12-year-old daughter, Hoorab, who had been kidnapped in December by a trader who had forcibly converted her to Islam so he could marry her. We would also like to be able to count and put a face to the thousands of Christians killed in recent years in Kenya, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Colombia, Mexico, India, Sri Lanka... The list is long and painful.

The martyrdom of Christians is not only the work of fanatical terrorists, however; it is often the governments of countries where the Christian community is a small minority that persecute them. Just think of North Korea, where the dictatorship considers religions a betrayal of the system: anyone discovered in possession of a Bible or religious symbols risks the death penalty or being interned in prison camps (according to the latest data from Open Doors there are at least 70,000 Christians detained without trial in the country), where rape, forced labor and summary executions are the norm. It is no better in Afghanistan, where the Christian community lives in hiding for fear of the Taliban regime, or in China where religious freedom is a mirage.

These states often persecute not only Christians but also other religious minorities, as in the case of the Uighurs confined to illegal Chinese labor camps in Xinjiang or Myanmar, which kill and force into exile the Rohingya Muslims, victims of a true ethnic cleansing. In recent years Pope Francis has wanted to be close to all of them with his nearly sixty trips – from Iraq to Africa, via Turkey, Armenia, Bangladesh, Cuba, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Myanmar, among others ¬– and now with his decision to establish a Commission. Because ecumenism, as he recalled several times in his travels, is not mere diplomacy, strategy, but a path of conversion asked of everyone. It is a path that also involves rediscovering unity among the different churches also by looking at the martyrs of yesterday and today, as Francis recalled in 2014: "in some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they kill them they do not ask them if they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. We are united in blood."