The New Martyrs Print
By Robert Royal   
Thursday, 13 January 2011

A car bomb just killed seven Coptic Orthodox in Egypt. There are almost daily attacks against Christians from the Philippines across the Muslim world to Nigeria. And in India, with a population almost equal to China’s, Hindu Fundamentalists have harassed Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity and native villagers have assaulted Catholic missionaries. These religious conflicts are regrettable and Benedict XVI eloquently regretted them and several others earlier in the week (Egypt promptly recalled its ambassador to the Holy See). But there’s a whole other category of violence against religious people that is far worse and largely overlooked.

As someone who knew well the large forces of the modern world, John Paul II made a point of organizing an act of remembrance at the start of the new millennium for those he termed the “new martyrs.”“New” in this context does not mean simply “recent.” John Paul intended to call attention to a whole class of victims of various nefarious forces in the twentieth century and beyond – victims whose absence from our consciousness gives a false picture even of the secular history of modern times.

Many people, especially in the developed world, find it hard to take seriously that there has been systematic Christian persecution in modern times, especially of the Catholic Church as the largest and most cohesive Christian body. When my book The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century appeared in 2000, the Washington Post assigned the review to a young woman who instructed me that I didn’t understand that “Catholics just happened to be living in the wrong countries” in the past century.

        Coptic Christians mourn loved ones killed in the January 1, 2011 bombing in Egypt

Forget that Hitler threatened in his table talk that he would “crush the Church like a toad” or that the Soviets brutally suppressed the Ukrainian Catholic Church, making it the largest underground religious body in the world. During the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans slaughtered whole monasteries, seminaries, and convents of religious, and all but a couple of bishops – who happened to be out of the country. For the first time in Europe since ancient Rome, defenseless Christians (in this case, priests) were once again killed by wild animals, in Spanish bull rings and, after they died, in a perversion of the customs of the corrida, the Christians’ ears were cut off and passed around as souvenirs. Anti-Christian brainwashing experiments on seminarians occurred in Communist Romania.The governments of Vietnam, North Korea, and China abused and continue to abuse independent believers well into the twenty-first century.In China, a Communist government, determined to avoid what happened to the old Soviet Union, makes sure there are no religiously inspired solidarity movements or outspoken bishops that it does not control.  

Secular journalists, the large majority of whom have little interest in religion themselves, usually chalk up violence against religious people to the kind of thing that they assume always happens between different faiths. But almost everything mentioned above – save a few religious fundamentalists – involved secular forces attacking religious believers. When journalists notice this fact, they tend to slip into interpreting such conflicts as a confirmation that the “real” conflicts are over tangible things like economics or politics. The idea that a murderous anti-religious ideology per se is abroad in the world, even perhaps in a lesser form in our bourgeois democracies, just doesn’t seem possible. Secular, rational states are what free us from religious and other irrational passions, aren’t they?

The whole question of what counts as “rational” in the public square needs to be re-visited, and soon. Nazism was rooted in mad biology, Communism in something more difficult to specify. Marx thought he was developing “scientific socialism,” a kind of social science that drew on philosophy and economic data (though Marx flubbed the latter and missed the great rise in workers’ wages that got started as he was fulminating against capitalism). Are we as wary about the ways that biology and social science can be misused as we are about misuses of religion?

For a certain kind of naif, religion – even in the modern West – is always on the verge of crusades, inquisitions, sectarian warfare. Religion, specifically Christianity, always seems to be living in the twelfth – or is it the seventeenth? – centuries, and in the worst possible neighborhoods. Meanwhile, churches today – the Catholic Church prominently because of its size and scope – care for more AIDS patients worldwide than any other institution does; educate poor children in many places where otherwise virtually no schools would exist; and work for the material and spiritual welfare of people in sad places like Haiti before, during, and after big charismatic events like the earthquake, without much fanfare.

There’s always an asymmetry between the churches and the critics because the good people in the churches don’t do PR campaigns, don’t arrogate credit to themselves, don’t do what they do to make a partisan point. Christopher Hitchens is getting a lot of sympathy these days from Christians as he battles throat cancer. Few remember that he wrote a nasty book, The Missionary Position, attacking Mother Theresa for her supposed authoritarian streak (personally, I’ve decided not to read it until Hitchens picks up at least a few dying beggars from the gutters of Calcutta in exemplary non-authoritarian fashion). Richard Dawkins has castigated the mere fact of a religious upbringing as child abuse. But other than teaching Cambridge students to be even more supercilious towards the benighted believing classes, what has Dawkins done for children?   

Since the Tucson shootings, there has been a lot of discussion, most of it inflated for political purposes, about inflammatory rhetoric. The New Martyrs are there to remind us that it’s not only those “clinging to guns and religion” and shunning “science and facts” who threaten violence. Indeed, we have ample, painful experience in the modern world that the truth can often be exactly the opposite.

Editors Note: Thanks to all of you who were able to contribute to our end-of-year fund drive. We made our goal, in the very last days, thanks to one large and many smaller donations. I doubted we would, but shouldn’t have. This is a joint effort of writers and readers that I often feel enjoys special graces. We all enter 2011 now with renewed enthusiasm and hope. Thanks again, to you all. – Robert Royal  

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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