Many times this blog has mourned the lack of decent coverage on the persecution religious minorities, which should be the No. 1 religion story in the world every year. The numbers of people dying for their faith -- or for stands mandated by their faith (and there is a difference) -- is at ever increasing levels according to the latest Pew research.
Which is why it was nice to see Crux’s package this past Sunday on Christianity’s new martyrs in Colombia. Assembled by veteran reporter John L. Allen (who was down that way for beatification ceremonies in El Salvador for Archbishop Oscar Romero), it concentrated on a part of the world that has gotten less attention than, say, the Middle East in terms of human suffering. Allen, of course, is the author of the book "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution."
Allen begins with:
BOGOTÁ, Colombia -- Anti-Christian persecution is unquestionably a premier human rights challenge in the early 21st century. It’s happening not just in the Middle East but around the world, including nations where Christians are a strong majority.
Compassionate concern over that stark reality should not short-circuit legitimate debate over the positions some Christians take on social and political issues. And there is no suggestion here that Christians have a monopoly on pain, because plenty of other groups are suffering, too.
Yet the numbers nevertheless are eye-popping. Estimates vary, but even the low-end guess for the number of Christians killed each year for motives related to the faith works out to one every day.
Given the scale of this global horror, it’s sometimes easy to forget that behind the statistics are flesh-and-blood people whose experience is no less intensely personal for being part of a broader pattern.
Two encounters in Colombia last week — where a civil war has dragged on for a half-century and left 220,000 people dead, including scores of new Christian martyrs — drive that point home.
Allen said the carnage is so bad in Colombia, it's become a "factory" for martyrs. His first interview was with Bishop Misael Vacca Ramirez, who discussed the violence that has caused 92,000 ordinary Colombians to ‘disappear,’ causing years of trauma for their survivors. He himself was briefly kidnapped by Marxist guerillas. Recounting all this, Ramirez broke down and could not continue the interview. The other interview was with the Rev. Gabriel Izquierdo, a Jesuit who lost two case workers to right-wing paramilitary groups. Allen recounts these histories because:
When you put a face, a name, and a life story on the statistics about persecution, it changes the emotional register — and, perhaps, creates a deeper sense of urgency to do something about it.
One of the pieces in this package is an interview with a bishop who was kidnapped by teenage Marxist guerrillas and how impossible it was to change their minds.
One thing Allen -- along with fellow Crux writer Ines San Martin -- bring up is the difficulties of what constitutes martyrdom. Those killed and tortured were not necessarily targeted because they were Christian, but because of the activities (land reform, human rights, environmental protection and other social causes) their faith motivated them to be involved in. Columbia’s top bishop, Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga, says it this way:
What we have in Colombia isn’t really ‘anti-Christian’ persecution. What we have is widespread violence that affects the Church, too, because the majority of victims are Christians. It’s not a religious war. …I think we have to reflect more about what martyrdom means, and not just in a religious context. I don’t like distinguishing between one type of martyr and another.
The package comes with a sidebar on whom Columbia’s patron saint for the martyred thousands should be. What complicates matters for journalists trying to explain all this is that Romero’s martyrdom was very clear cut; he was celebrating Mass and he had taken a very public stance against the government. There is no one figure in Columbia quite like him for the depressing reason, Allen writes, because “there are simply too many candidates.”
There sure are. Just a week ago, the Vancouver Sun ran a piece about Monica, a 24-year-old woman who was kidnapped and tortured to death in Argentina in 1976 just for being a human rights worker and how nearly 40 years later, her Vancouver-based brother cannot forget her passing. She was one of 20,000-30,000 young activists who disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War from 1976-1982.
Monica might not be a typical martyr but she happened to be working for the Catholic Church at the time; her father was a human rights lawyer and she was nabbed by her killers simply because she had been working in a slum. Argentina is similar to Colombia in that there were many players in this drama; the Catholic Church was sometimes on the side of the oppressors; the killers were both from left- and right-wing groups and the clergy and human rights workers got caught in the middle.
These tangled alliances are not easy for journalists to cover without extensive experience in the region plus some Spanish-speaking ability. Colombia's problems have been going on for a long time and they are not easily solved. In fact, Protestant missionaries have died there as well and their passing got very little coverage.
The bottom line, in terms of news right now: Having a new pope from Argentina and Romero's beatification occurring this month may make this region a lot more interesting for reporters to dig deeper.