I watched one of my favorite movies the other night, “Quo Vadis.”
Despite the cheesy costumes and over-the-top acting, it has important historical value, in that it describes a critical but faded episode of inhumanity: the persecution of Christians. We know about it, we have some vague memories of the people who had to dance around the lions in the Colosseum, but the events are generally filed under “news too old to care about.”
Except, the “news too old to care about” is today’s headline. No lions, no Colosseum, just the massacre of Nigerian Catholics in a church on Pentecost Sunday, 2022.
Nigeria is a country whose Christians have been under assault for over a decade. According to the website Genocide Watch, over 45,000 Christians have been assassinated in the last 13 years, making that country the most dangerous in Africa for members of the faith. Catholics are in particular danger, because we represent a large percentage of Christians in the country and attract most of the attention.
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This time, they waited until the worshippers entered St. Francis Church in Owo, Ondo State, and then started shooting at them from both inside and outside of the building. Reports state that some of the attackers were disguised as parishioners. Some have attributed the assault to random violence.
But don’t be misled. The history of anti-Christian violence in Nigeria is a part of the fabric of the nation, something that mirrors a similar wave of persecution that has engulfed much of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Central America. A lot of it is fueled by a particularly extreme and virulent form of Islam, such as that practiced by the Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in the Middle East. Some of it is rooted in hostility toward the social justice mission of many Christian churches, such as those who evangelize against gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
In my 25 years practicing immigration law, I’ve handled a lot of asylum cases. But the ones that cause me the largest number of sleepless nights are the ones that involve religious persecution. Just this past week we were successful in obtaining asylum for a Catholic youth leader from El Salvador who had a gun held to his head as he was counseling young boys in church. He was told that if he didn’t stop trying to keep the boys from joining Mara Salvatrucha, the most violent gang in that country, he would “end up like Romero.” That was a clear reference to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated at the altar while celebrating Mass in San Salvador over 40 years ago.
I’ve also represented Protestant preachers who’ve been kidnapped, threatened and in one case orphaned (mother and father murdered) because of their ministries in Honduras and China.
The most heart-wrenching case was that of a young Salvadoran woman who was raped by her boyfriend, a police officer, and became pregnant. When he demanded that she abort the child, she refused because of her Catholic beliefs, at which point he beat her so severely that she miscarried. And when she tried to report him to his fellow police officers, she was told that she should have gotten an abortion (this, in a country that sacrificed martyrs for the church).
Somehow, these stories rarely make it up through the media magma, the dense layers of preferences that the people who run the newspapers and cable networks impose on the rest of us. The fact that someone thinks she was assaulted by Bill Cosby in 1975 is more interesting, they think, than the stories of missionaries being kidnapped in Haiti. People Magazine will give its cover over to the juicy details of Meghan Markle’s latest grievance, while the massacred bodies of churchgoers will make it to page 5 of the Washington Post.
The truth is uncomfortable, but it’s still the truth. The vast majority of Christians persecuted for religious reasons are killed by non-Christians, including Muslims, Hindus and Chinese atheists. The statistics are quite clear on this, even though Amnesty International (which thinks that abortion is a human right) will try and avoid naming names.
And I’ll go even further. The last acceptable prejudice in America is anti-Catholicism. It’s not persecution, but the level to which it infects our current society is insidious.
Instead of cracking jokes about how misogynistic, bigoted and backwards Christians are, it might be a better idea to notice the bleeding bodies.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.