Pope Francis has urged Catholics to remember their fellow believers who suffer daily persecution because of their faith. Speaking on St Stephen’s Day – the feastday of the first Christian martyr – the Pope said: “when we read the history of the early centuries, here in Rome, we read about so much cruelty to Christians. It’s happening today too, in even greater numbers.
“I’ll tell you something,” the Pope told pilgrims gathered in St Peter’s Square, “the number of martyrs today is greater than in the early centuries”.
“The world hates Christians for the same reason for which it hated Christ,” Francis said, “because he brought the light of God, and the world prefers shadows in order to hide its wicked works.”
“Even today the Church, to render witness to the light and the truth, is beset in various places by hard persecutions, up to the supreme test of martyrdom,” he said.
Today, the conventional estimate is that of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians, some 200 million of them are exposed to the risk of physical assault, arrest, imprisonment, torture and even death for reasons related to their faith.
The high-end estimate for the number of new Christian martyrs every year, from the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States, is around 100,000. Most observers put the total considerably lower, perhaps in the range of 7,000 to 8,000.
In any event, that works out to one new Christian casualty somewhere in the world either every five minutes, or every hour, throughout the entire year.
The Pope urged believers to keep praying for persecuted Christians “to think of them and be close to them with our affection, our prayer and also our tears”.
“In these days, in Iraq, the Christians celebrated Christmas in a cathedral that had been destroyed. That’s an example of fidelity,” he said.