Their loved ones died on a Libyan beach, beheaded by Islamic State militants as cameras recorded their agony for a 2015 propaganda video.
Some of the Coptic Christians died repeating these words: “Lord, Jesus Christ.” An ISIS leader in a ski mask, in turn, offered this warning: “We will conquer Rome with Allah’s permission.”
During the recent World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, relatives of these modern martyrs stood to receive the applause of participants, who came from 136 nations -- including the ravaged lands of the Middle East and Africa.
“Today our Christian brothers and sisters across the world are facing persecution and martyrdom on an unprecedented scale,” said the Rev. Franklin Graham, who hosted the event for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “No part of the Christian family is exempt -- Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox -- nor is any part of the world exempt.”
There were other poignant moments, including an Iranian woman ringing a memorial bell for the dead, including her father, who was hanged for converting to Christianity. Summit speakers represented the global church, including remarks by Archbishop Christophe Louis Yves Georges Pierre, the U.S. ambassador for Pope Francis, and a major address by Metropolitan Hilarion, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church’s ecumenical office.
But this meeting was held in Washington, D.C., and led by the always outspoken Franklin Graham -- who called the persecution of Christians “genocide.” Also, an address by Vice President Mike Pence guaranteed some mainstream news coverage, as well as a hot spotlight on the U.S. political implications of his remarks.
Thus, a Huffington Post news report claimed: “Pence reiterated a common belief among conservative Christians in the U.S. that they are among the most persecuted people of faith in the world.”
While the vice president alluded to trends in the United States, he made it clear that his primary worries and prayers about persecution were global. He stressed that Americans will stand with all “those who are targeted and tormented for their belief, whether they’re Christian, Yazidi, Druzes, Shia, Sunni or any other creed.”
At the same time, Pence echoed concerns in the Vatican and elsewhere that, in ISIS, the ancient churches of the Middle East face a threat that is unique and historic.
“Christian communities where the message of our Lord was first uttered and embraced today, though, are often the targets of unspeakable atrocity,” he said. ”In Egypt, just recently, we saw bombs explode in churches in the very midst of the celebration of Palm Sunday. A day of hope was transformed into tragedy. ...
“In Iraq, at the hands of extremists, we’ve actually seen monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded, and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul virtually extinguished overnight. In Syria, we see ancient communities burned to the ground. We see believers tortured for confessing Christ, and women and children sold into the most terrible form of human slavery.”
It’s hard to pin down the precise number of modern Christians who are dying for their faith year after year. However, a wide range of organizations are concerned: from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to the anti-persecution organization Open Doors; from the U.S. State Department to Notre Dame’s “Under Caesar’s Sword” project.
Pence came close to echoing the language of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who once declared that Christianity is “the most persecuted religion in the world.” However, the vice president placed his heaviest emphasis on the wider persecution of religious minorities.
“Truth is,” he said, “for all the prosperity of the freedom of faith in America and other free societies, today, according to the Pew Center, nearly 80 percent of the human family lives in places where restrictions on religion are either ‘high’ or ‘very high.’ It’s a 5-percent increase in a single year.
“Too many nations let the mob trample on the rights of the minority. Still more prefer the coercion of the state to conviction of the soul. And the limitations placed on people of belief have become too numerous to count. They range from violence to vandalism -- forced conversion to crush free speech, blasphemy laws to building codes, to detainment, to death. Across the wider world, Christians face this and more.”
The bottom line, he concluded, is clear: “As history attests, persecution of one faith is ultimately the persecution of all faiths.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)