Amidst Suffering, Martyrs Shine Like Sparks through Rubble
At 8:45am on Easter Sunday, about 1000 Catholics were gathered to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka. That’s when the suicide bomber detonated his bomb. The explosion ripped through the church, killing dozens and injuring countless more. Many of the victims were children. Photos of the destruction show walls splattered with blood and pockmarked by shrapnel. One evocative photo shows a statute of Christ stained with the blood of these newest Christian martyrs.
Within the space of a few hours, several more suicide bombers struck two other Christian churches, and three hotels in multiple cities. In total to date 253 people were killed, and over 400 more injured. Even into Monday morning, police continued to discover more bombs around the country, including a van with explosives in it parked outside St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade.
While details about the attacks are still somewhat sparse, with the investigation ongoing, it appears they were carried out by little-known local Islamist groups. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, although at the time of this writing their involvement has not been confirmed. However, it is not hard to believe that, at the very least, the attackers were inspired by ISIS.
This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted Christian churches on or around this holiest of Christian holy days. As Fox News reports, ISIS bombed two churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday in 2017, killing 45 people. In 2016, terrorists killed 75 Christians who were celebrating Easter in Lahore, Pakistan.
“These coordinated attacks against churches in Sri Lanka were planned on Easter to strike fear in the hearts of Christians,” said David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, an organization that tracks anti-Christian persecution globally. “But this sort of tactic will not prevail this Easter. I call on all Christians to unite in their suffering and in their testimony of how Jesus triumphs over death.”
A Church of Martyrs
The early Christian writer Tertullian famously wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of the Church.”
As Pope St. John Paul II observed in an apostolic letter at the end of the second millennium, “the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs.” “The persecutions of believers —priests, religious and laity—has caused a great sowing of martyrdom in different parts of the world,” said the Holy Father. “The witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants…”
In the 20th century, as atheistic regimes attempted to create godless utopias, Christians were often systematically targeted, hunted down, and imprisoned and martyred on a vast scale. Nowadays, we are witnessing the increasing resurgence of explicitly religious-inspired persecution, as Islamic extremists seek to terrorize, and even to entirely eradicate, Christian populations in numerous countries around the world.
In their annual World Watch report, Open Doors closely tracks incidences of Christian persecution around the globe. Their latest report found that in the past year 4136 Christians were killed for their faith. Another 2625 Christians were “detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned.” And 1266 Christian churches were attacked.
However, in some respects these numbers are merely the tip of the iceberg. According to the report, hundreds of millions of Christians live in countries where their beliefs are illegal, or where they are otherwise subject to systematic and serious persecution. Many of these Christians live under a shroud of fear of violence and face routine social and economic discrimination.
Unsurprisingly, at the top of the list of countries that persecute Christians is North Korea, which has topped the list for nearly 20 years. However, as Open Doors notes, in seven of the top 10 countries on the World Watch list the leading cause of Christian persecution is Islamist ideology.
Sadly, despite the fact that anti-Christian persecution is so widespread, it rarely receives much in the way of media coverage in the Western press. Few, for instance, know anything about the ongoing reign of terror by Boko Haram in Nigeria, where hundreds of Christian churches have reportedly been destroyed. Such ongoing, daily campaigns of terror targeting Christians are often treated as mere footnotes in our daily news coverage.
As Ross Douthat pointed out in an insightful column last week, the notion that Christians are suffering directly violates the secularist liberal dogma that Christians are by definition the privileged oppressors. The absurdity of elite Western attitudes towards Christian persecution was on full display last week, as several leading Democrat politicians refused to refer to the victims of the Sri Lanka attacks as “Christians,” instead referring to them obliquely – and bizarrely – as “Easter worshippers.” Meanwhile, Mark Steyn highlights the absurd lengths that some media went to in order to disguise the clear fact that these attacks were instances of Islamic terror targeting Christians, often making vague – and completely irrelevant – connections between the attacks and Sri Lanka’s civil war. This conspiracy of silence and obfuscation ensures that the injustices being committed against Christians on an enormous scale throughout the world remain unknown and unaddressed, and the heroic sacrifices of our modern-day martyrs go uncelebrated.
We Must Prepare for Martyrdom
The suffering of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world reminds us here in the developed West both: a) that we are incredibly blessed to enjoy such comparative freedom to worship Christ, and, b) that we must always prepare our hearts to be ready to suffer for Christ. Indeed, though any form of persecution that Christians in America and other Western countries suffer pales in comparison to what Christians in places like North Korea, Somalia, and Afghanistan daily undergo, it is indisputable that we are also witnessing a growing trend of intolerance. Many Christians are learning that the price of faithfulness is social and professional penalties.
In the face of the growing pressure to compromise our beliefs in the name of comfort, we must reacquaint ourselves with the truth that the cross has a central place in the Christian faith. After all, it was Christ Himself who unambiguously stated the cost of discipleship. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” He said. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
The Church has long distinguished between red martyrdom and white martyrdom. In the West, we are not likely to be called on to sacrifice our lives for Christ in the short term. However, martyrdom is a basic fact of Christian living, and every Christian must embrace to one extent or another the daily “white martyrdom” of asceticism, self-denial, and the willingness to put everything on the line for the sake of the truth.
In his recent letter addressing the sex abuse scandal, Pope Benedict identified theological attempts to excise the call to martyrdom from the Christian faith as a root cause of the moral chaos in the Church. “Martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence,” wrote the Pope Emeritus. The fact that some prominent theologians have suggested that “martyrdom is no longer morally necessary” shows that “the very essence of Christianity is at stake here,” he wrote. The point, he said, is that there are some truths that are so foundational, so non-negotiable, that they must “never be abandoned for a greater value and even surpass the preservation of physical life.” In other words, “There is martyrdom.”
Pope Benedict, too, agreed with his predecessor that the contemporary Church is “more than ever a ‘Church of the Martyrs’”. It is in this fact, he suggested, that we find the greatest sign of hope for the fate of the Church. “If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering. It is an inertia of the heart that leads us to not wish to recognize them.”
Pope St. John Paul II, like Pope Benedict, also urged Christians to pay attention to, and to preserve in memory the witness of the modern-day martyrs. The witness of the martyrs “must not be forgotten,” wrote the saintly pope, urging local churches to collect documentation about their martyrs.
In this Easter Season, let us pray to the new martyrs of Sri Lanka, asking their intercession for the strength to live authentic, heroic discipleship, and that Christ will remove all fear, so that we too will willingly embrace our cross, offering up our minor daily martyrdoms for the Church and the salvation of the whole world.