Two new surveys have recorded a sharp increase in Catholics and Christians of all denominations killed for their faith over the past year.
Fides News Agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples registered 22 assassinations of Catholics in 2013, up from 13 in 2012.
It says most of the victims were killed during robbery attempts, and in some cases, the attacks were ferocious. Among the victims were 19 priests, one religious sister and two laymen.
Latin America was the most dangerous area, according to Fides: For the fifth year running, most assassinations of this type took place on the continent. These included seven priests in Colombia, four in Mexico, one in Brazil, one in Venezuela, one in Panama and one in Haiti.
In Africa, one priest was killed in the usually peaceful country of Tanzania, shot dead by an Islamist gunman on the predominantly Muslim island of Zanzibar. A French religious sister was killed in Madagascar, causing widespread anger in the country, while a laywoman was murdered in Nigeria.
In Asia, a priest who was rector of a seminary was killed in Bangalore, India; another priest was killed in Syria, and a layman was killed in the Philippines. In Europe, one priest was stabbed to death in the Italian town of Marano.
Fides stressed that the list does not only include missionaries in the strict sense, but all pastoral-care workers who died violent deaths.
Others who have been kidnapped or have disappeared also continue to cause concern, the agency added. Among those whose whereabouts remain unknown are three priests from the Augustinians of the Assumption, kidnapped in the Congo in October 2012.
Open Doors Report
Meanwhile, a nondenominational group has recorded that the total number of Christians killed for their faith around the world doubled in 2013 from the year before, with Syria accounting for more than the whole global total in 2012.
Open Doors, a Netherlands-based organization that supports persecuted Christians worldwide, disclosed Jan. 8 that it had documented 2,123 "martyr" killings, compared with 1,201 in 2012. In Syria alone, it reported 1,213 such deaths, according to Reuters.
The organization said this is a "very minimal count" and based on media reports and what they can confirm. Other Christian groups believe the total estimated figure could be as high as 8,000.
Open Doors reported that North Korea is the most dangerous place for Christians to live, a position it has held since its annual survey began 12 years ago. It is followed by Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The report said there is now "a strong drive to purge Christianity from Somalia."
The organization reported an increase in violence against Christians in Africa and said radical Muslims were the main source of persecution in 36 countries on its list. "Islamist extremism is the worst persecutor of the worldwide church," it said.
Christianity’s 2.2 Billion Adherents
According to a survey by the U.S.-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Christianity is the largest and most diffuse faith in the world, with 2.2 billion followers, or 32% of the world’s population. But it faces restrictions and hostility in 111 countries; Muslims face harassment and other limitations in 90 countries, it said.
A spokesman for Open Doors told journalists Jan. 8 that failing states with civil wars or persistent internal tensions were often the most dangerous for Christians. He spoke of a "war against the church" continuing in the "shadow" of the conflict in Syria. Although only about 10% of Syrians are Christians, many have become targets of Islamist rebels, who see them as supporters of President Bashar Assad.
After Syria, the next highest number of killings took place in Nigeria, with 612 cases last year, down slightly from 791 in 2012. Pakistan was third, with 88, sharply up from 15 in 2012. Egypt ranked fourth, with 83 deaths, after 19 the previous year.
Open Doors has no numbers of martyrs in North Korea, but it bases its assessment on the fact that 50,000 to 70,000 people live in political prison camps. "The godlike worship of the rulers leaves no room for any other religion," the report said.
It also pointed out that killings were only the most extreme examples of persecution and that Christians also face attacks on churches and schools, discrimination, threats, sexual assaults and expulsion from countries.
The organization estimates that, last year, about 100 million Christians around the world suffered persecution for their faith.
In its report, Fides said that several canonization causes were opened for candidates who died violently. It noted that the diocesan phase of the beatification process for Luisa Mistrali Guidotti was completed during this time. A member of the Women’s Medical Missionary Association, Guidotti was killed in 1979 in then Rhodesia, modern-day Zimbabwe, while taking a pregnant woman to a hospital.
The news agency said that 2013 also saw the opening of the cause for canonization of Father Mario Vergara, a missionary of the Pontifical Institute for the Foreign Missions, as well as that of lay catechist Isidoro Ngei Ko Lat, killed out of hatred for the faith in Myanmar in 1950.
On Dec. 26, the feast of the Church’s first martyr, St. Stephen, Pope Francis spoke of "a great many Christians who suffer in these ways — more even than in the time of the first Christians."
After pausing to lead the faithful in praying the Hail Mary on their behalf, he said in unscripted remarks: "In martyrdom, in fact, violence is overcome by love, death by life. The Church sees in the sacrifice of the martyrs their ‘birth’ into heaven. So [on this day] we celebrate the ‘birth’ of Stephen, which springs from the depths of the birth of Christ. Jesus turns the death of those who love him into the dawn of new life."