THE BASILICA OF St. Bartholomew on the Island in Rome holds the bones of the apostle St. Bartholomew, who delivered the gospel of Matthew to India, southern Arabia, and Syria. Spreading the seditious good news eventually got him killed—crucified upside down in Baku, capital of modern Azerbaijan. Bartholomew proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus until the soldiers cut off his head.
In 1999, this church nestled on an island in the Tiber River was dedicated to modern Christian martyrs. Entering its cool interior, one can walk a global Via Dolorosa—each side altar is dedicated to parts of the world where Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox have been killed for their faith.
The relics include a letter from Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer beheaded for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army, and the missal of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero left on the altar when he was assassinated during Mass in 1980.
Christians today fall out over Christian martyrs and persecution in a right/left divide. We fight about numbers. In 2015, Christian Freedom International released an often repeated statistic suggesting that Christians are “martyred for their faith every five minutes.” This has been widely debunked. But it raises questions about definitions, methodologies, and theological perspectives.
Thomas Schirrmacher directs the International Institute for Religious Freedom, which runs a research project with several universities to measure Christian persecution. He estimates that there are 7,000 to 8,000 Christian martyrs each year, a number that roughly matches the Open Doors World Watch List, which reported 7,106 Christians killed in 2015, an increase over previous years and far less than one Christian every five minutes.
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Pope Francis’ impassioned praise of China this week is the strongest sign of the pontiff’s ambitious agenda to use his personal and political clout to transform the historically fraught relations between Beijing and the Holy See. “For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom,” the pope said at the start of his interview with Asia Times, which was published Feb. 2.
A church and mosque in France’s “jungle” camp for migrants and refugees have been destroyed, despite authorities’ reportedly promising not to demolish the places of worship. Bulldozers moved into the camp in Calais, the departure point for ferries to Great Britain, on Feb. 1 and tore down the mosque, which reportedly drew up to 300 worshippers each day, and St. Michael’s Church, a makeshift chapel serving mainly Orthodox Ethiopian Christians.
On Jan. 16, our nation will observe National Religious Freedom Day. This day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom back in 1786. As Jefferson’s statute proclaimed, religious freedom is among the “natural rights of mankind.” Yet to this day, billions of people abroad routinely are denied this liberty.
Paul Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, worked as a surgeon in his home country of Pakistan and in Europe, while his brother, Shahbaz, went into politics and became Pakistan’s only Christian Cabinet member as the country’s first minister of minority affairs. Then, on March 2, 2011, Shahbaz was cut down in a hail of bullets in an attack by a militant group that called him “a blasphemer.”
A government plan to regulate religious groups is shaping into a bitter fight, with Christian and Muslim leaders protesting that it tramples over religious freedom. The government published a set of rules this month that require religious leaders to have theological degrees and religious groups to submit a statement of faith.
Right now, a contentious debate over religious freedom is tearing at the social fabric of a nation, and partisans seeking to take advantage of the uproar are fueling the fires of mistrust and division.
But I’m not talking about the U.S. and arguments over contraceptive mandates and same-sex marriage. (And I’m certainly not talking about red coffee cups!) This struggle for religious freedom is taking place in Bangladesh, and the “debate” is being waged not with words and laws, but with machetes and terror.
In the past eight months, five people have been hacked to death by Islamic extremists associated with terror groups such as Ansar Bangla and al-Qaida. Each victim was targeted for writing or publishing works that advocate for secular democracy and criticize religion and fundamentalism. Many other writers have been injured in these attacks.
Hand-wringing among religious folks has never been in short supply, but the doomdayers really had their day a couple of weeks ago, when the Pew Research Center confirmed what conventional wisdom has known now for decades.
We are in an age of post-Christendom — or, American adherents of Christianity continue to decline at a massive rate.
This is a case of statistics catching up with reality. For decades churches have been closing, Sunday Schools have been shrinking, and confirmation classes have been getting smaller. Especially among Catholics and mainline Protestants, the sky has been falling for many years. The right blames gay rights and liberal theology; the left blames hate speech and an overly doctrinal attitude.