On the feast of St. Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, Pope Francis recalled “many martyrs today who are suffering persecution” and stressed how St. Stephen’s capacity to forgive showed him to be a “true witness.”
The Pope’s words came just days after Islamist militants attacked a bus in northern Kenya. Two people were killed and three were injured, but the Christian passengers, whom the Islamists had started singling out to be killed, were largely shielded from their attackers by local Muslims.
According to reports, the Muslims refused to be separated from the Christians, telling the militants “to kill them together or leave them alone.”
Members of the Somali-based al-Shabab Islamist group, loosely connected with al-Qaida, carried out the Dec. 21 ambush near the northeastern village of El Wak on the Somali border. The bus was traveling from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to the town of Mandera.
The attack follows the Garissa University College massacre in April, also in the same diocese. Al-Shabab militants also reportedly singled out Christians during that atrocity and shot dead 148 people, while freeing many Muslims.
That attack followed another similar bus attack a year ago, near Mandera, also by members of the same militant group, when 28 non-Muslims were killed as they traveled to Nairobi for the Christmas holidays. A few days later, al-Shabab militants attacked workers at a stone quarry in the area, again singling out Christian workers from Muslim ones, before killing 36 of them.
In a Dec. 23 statement sent to the Register, Bishop Joseph Alessandro of Garissa said the diocese was “saddened” by the latest “news of loss of innocent lives” in a region “still bleeding” from the recent terrorist attacks.
But he said the Church also “appreciates the heroism” shown by the Muslims, which “confirms what the Church has always said: ‘Terrorism has nothing to do with any religion.’”
“We embrace with joy the heroic acts of those Muslims passengers,” he said. “This reminds all of us that, despite our differences, Kenya is one, and we all have a common destiny. We should be in solidarity to go beyond ethnicity, county boundaries, political affiliations and religious convictions.”
Mandera Gov. Ali Roba told Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper the local Muslims “showed a sense of patriotism and belonging to each other” and that the militants decided to leave after the passengers’ show of unity. “The militants left in a hurry, fearing retaliation by residents from nearby villages,” he said.
Bishop Alessandro said the terrorists are “criminals who want to wage war between Muslims and Christians,” adding that “all must unite to defeat terrorism, because it is an insult to humanity and rationality.”
While showing his respect for Islam, he said the Church “firmly believes that terrorists’ violence and senseless destruction of life is not approved by God, whatsoever.”
He paid tribute to those political and religious leaders who promote peace and unity in the country and called on members of all religions to “follow the example of the passengers in the Mandera-bound bus, in all our deeds, engagements and utterances.”
“The act of the passengers reminds us of what Pope Francis, in his recent visit to Kenya, asked of all of us Kenyans: to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and to stand firm in our faith, so that we can win over the evil.”
Kenya’s bishops have been increasingly alarmed by the rise of militant Islam in the country. Al-Shabab describes itself as waging jihad against “enemies of Islam” and is fighting both the Somali government and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM).
It says it is avenging the Kenyan government’s decision to send troops to join AMISOM in fighting Islamist militants in Somalia, where the militants have lost the key positions of Mogadishu and Kismayo and, with them, important sources of income.
Kenya’s bishops believe the militant group serves the interests of those wishing to expand Islam, using violence to cause the region to be abandoned and just left for Muslims.
During his Angelus address on Saturday , Pope Francis reminded the faithful how St. Stephen imitated Christ through his martyrdom by calling on his persecutors not to “hold this sin against them.”
“Stephen is, therefore, a martyr, which means witness, because he does as Jesus does,” the Pope said. As well as praying, loving others and giving, St. Stephen’s greatest attribute is to forgive, “because forgiveness, as the word implies, is the highest expression of giving,” Francis said.
The Holy See recently expanded its appeals on behalf of persecuted Christians, issuing a statement Dec. 27 on the killing of 10 Christians by Muslim guerillas in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on Christmas Day.
In the message of condolence, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the Holy Father “was deeply saddened to learn of the senseless killing of innocent people in Mindanao.”
He said the Pope was praying that “security and safety” will be established for all people in the region, “so that dialogue, tolerance and peace may enable each person to live free from fear.” The Pope also asked “all believers to reject violence in the name of God who is love.”
Mindanao has been suffering from Islamist violence for the past 40 years as minority Muslim groups have battled for self-determination on the island in the Catholic-majority nation. Christians and others have expressed fears about a proposal to create an Islamic sub-state on the island, which they believe could exacerbate religious tensions.
Edward Pentin is the Register's Rome correspondent.