“There are millions of people in the world who are suffering for their faith, and we pretend as though it were nothing,” the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, denounced to Zenit on Saturday, February 24, in front of the Colosseum illuminated in red.
Even if historians cannot definitively say whether the most famous monument had Christians martyred there, the effect of those mighty walls all dyed red, the color of the blood of the martyrs, yesterday and today, was evocative.
“A very touching event, because it moved us with situations of great pain, great suffering and also great faith, with the intent to shake us out of indifference,” was how Cardinal Parolin described it to Zenit.
Among the hundreds of millions of people who still suffer discrimination or, worse, persecution because of their religious faith, the most numerous are undoubtedly Christians. To them, the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need has dedicated the gesture of illuminating with red light simultaneously, three symbolic places of ancient and modern Christian martyrdom, connected to each other via Skype: the Colosseum in Rome; the Maronite cathedral of St. Elias, in Aleppo, Syria, whose roof was destroyed by bombings; the Chaldean church of St. Paul in Mosul, Iraq, where on December 24, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldean Catholics, Louis Raphael I Sako, celebrated the first Mass after liberation from the Isis.
But the catalog of countries hostile to religious freedom and in particular to Christians, drafted each year by “Aid to the Church in Need”, goes far beyond Syria and Iraq. There is Pakistan, from where Ashiq and Eisham, arrived in Rome. They are respectively the husband and fifth and last daughter of Asia Bibi, sentenced to death in 2009 for alleged offenses to the prophet Muhammad. Asia’s only ‘crime’ was that she drank water from the same glass as some Muslim women.
Now she is in prison, in isolation. Only a 15-minute meeting is allowed each month for Ashiq and his five children. The last time her children saw her outside the prison she had tied to her neck a belt, ‘like a dog,’ stripped and bleeding, Eisham said, bursting into tears.
Another of the testimonies offered to the public while the Colosseum lit up red is that of Rebecca Bitros, 28, a Nigerian, kidnapped by the Islamic terrorists of Boko Haram, who raped and tortured her only because she is Christian, before she managed to free herself, two years later. Then she gave birth to the son of one of her jailers.
When the militia of Boko Haram assaulted her village, she preferred to surrender herself to them along with her two children, allowing her husband to escape, otherwise he certainly would have been killed. From the years passed in prison, she remembers the rosary she had with her that she recited, the constant threats of the terrorists, the continuous beatings, the killing of one of her two sons thrown into a river, trying to force her to deny her faith and embrace Islam.
Both Rebecca and the relatives of Asia Bibi had been received on Saturday morning by Pope Francis at the Vatican.
“I think of your mother very often and I pray for her,” the Pope told Eisham. For Pope Francis, Asia Bibi and Rebecca are two “martyrs,” he said during the meeting which lasted 40 minutes, compared to the 15 initially planned in the dense agenda of the Pope, as reported by the director of Aid to the Church in Need, Alessandro Monteduro.
Today’s Christian martyrs are “victims of the propagation of a mentality that does not make room for others, which prefers to suppress rather than integrate them, in order to not put in question their own convictions,” said Cardinal Parolin in his speech: “Only by returning to God, the source of the dignity of every human being, can we become peacemakers and reunite societies broken up by hatred and violence.”
At the event under the Colosseum was also the president of the European Parliament, Italian Antonio Tajani, to affirm that “Europe must continue to make its voice heard. We must not lower our guard because the less we talk, the more the freedom of Christians in the world is trampled. It is a question of freedom, of defending the values of our identity as Europeans. We must neither be resigned in the face of these acts, but neither must we renounce acting against them.”
For the general secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, “The blood of the new martyrs is a condemnation of the superficiality with which we live the faith, too often reduced to appearance, to ceremonies that are not binding, containing pious but irrelevant words. It is sad to see the intermittent compassion of some humanitarian agencies, according to whom, there is violence to condemn, while others can be ignored.”
Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary and international president of “Aid to the Church in Need, gave the last address, in which he urged for an overthrowing of “the walls of death, starting with that of our indifference; we cannot fail to hear the cry of all the ‘Abels’ of the world ascending to God.”
“Aid to the Church in Need” has already promoted other similar events by illuminating in red, famous monuments such as the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the Parliament and the Cathedral of Westminster in London, Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre in Paris and finally the Cathedral of Manila.
According to a report by this Pontifical Foundation on “persecuted and forgotten” Christians between 2015 and 2017, the persecution of Christians today is more serious than in any other historical period. The report speaks of persecution in Egypt, Iran and India and of the extreme degree of persecution in Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Sudan.