Anti-Christian persecution is unquestionably a premier human rights challenge in the early 21st century. It’s happening not just in the Middle East but around the world, including nations where Christians are a strong majority.
Compassionate concern over that stark reality should not short-circuit legitimate debate over the positions some Christians take on social and political issues. And there is no suggestion here that Christians have a monopoly on pain, because plenty of other groups are suffering, too.
Yet the numbers nevertheless are eye-popping. Estimates vary, but even the low-end guess for the number of Christians killed each year for motives related to the faith works out to one every day.
Given the scale of this global horror, it’s sometimes easy to forget that behind the statistics are flesh-and-blood people whose experience is no less intensely personal for being part of a broader pattern.
Two encounters in Colombia last week — where a civil war has dragged on for a half-century and left 220,000 people dead, including scores of new Christian martyrs — drive that point home.
The first came on Wednesday with Bishop Misael Vacca Ramirez, who was kidnapped at gunpoint in 2004 and held for three days by a leftist guerrilla movement.
To be clear, Vacca is no stereotypical Church potentate.
Upon arriving at his modest family home in a working-class neighborhood of Bogotá, I first saw a man in a sleeveless jacket with simple street clothes. Thinking he was a doorman, I started to explain why we were there. A Colombian colleague cut me short by giving the man a hug — it turned out he was the bishop.
Vacca then invited us into his room, which was spartan enough to make a monastic cell seem like a Hilton junior suite.
With regard to the kidnapping, Vacca explained that in July 2004, he was making a pastoral visit to a small town in a zone where the fighting was intense. A car was supposed to pick him up at 2 p.m., but to reach it, he had to cross a local river, and his passage was blocked by four guerrillas — as it happens, two unmarried couples.
At first he was told to wait an hour, then another, and then overnight. The next morning he was told that he would be taken to a place that was a five-minute walk away, but ended up being forced to walk more than seven hours to an isolated house in the countryside.
Somehow word got out about his location, and a large crowd of local peasants showed up pleading for his release.
At that point in the narrative, Vacca lost it. He broke down in tears, briefly gathered himself, and then broke into sobs again, unable to continue the conversation.
Vacca explained that his emotion wasn’t related to his own ordeal, since he was released a couple of days later unharmed. He was weeping, he said, for all those Colombians who have faced similar circumstances, but weren’t so lucky.
Violence in Colombia is fueled alternately by the military, various leftist guerrilla movements, right-wing paramilitaries, and heavily armed drug cartels. Among its victims are 92,000 people who have simply “disappeared,” leaving their families with the agony of uncertainty.
“So many victims,” Vacca said. “So much pain.”
Granted, the motives for which the guerrillas detained Vacca may have had nothing to do with religion. Yet his choice to be in a war zone, despite the risk, was clearly rooted in his faith, making the kidnapping no less an example of anti-Christian persecution.
The other experience came Thursday with the Rev. Gabriel Izquierdo, a Jesuit priest who, during the 1990s, directed the Center for Investigation and Popular Education, which works on land reform, environmental protection, human rights abuses, and a series of other social causes.
On May 19, 1997, two activists working for the center, Mario Calderon and Elsa Alvarado, along with her father, Carlos Alvarado, were shot to death by a right-wing paramilitary group at their Bogotá home.
In a display of just how much rage a vigorous defense of the poor and human rights can generate, Calderon alone was shot 57 times.
Izquierdo, with tears streaming down his face, said, “They did it to punish us.”
To date, only one person has been convicted for involvement in the crime. Two were acquitted, and two more still face investigation. Izquierdo said he’s convinced that a notorious right-wing paramilitary leader named Carlos Castaño Gil ordered the killings.
Izquierdo said that he asked a prosecutor why the paramilitary didn’t target him, since he was the organization’s director. The answer was, “They didn’t kill you because they wanted to terrorize the people in the field working for human rights.”
Izquierdo had no hesitation in calling his lost colleagues and friends “martyrs.”
“Without the inspiration of the Church and of Jesus Christ, many of these things wouldn’t have happened,” he said, shaking with emotion.
Vacca’s kidnappers were Marxist guerrillas while the center workers died at the hands of a conservative paramilitary, demonstrating that anti-Christian persecution can come from the left and the right alike.
The reaction of Vacca and Izquierdo at summoning these memories also illustrates another truth.
When you put a face, a name, and a life story on the statistics about persecution, it changes the emotional register — and, perhaps, creates a deeper sense of urgency to do something about it.
An interview with Colombia’s top bishop
Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga clearly enjoys the respect of his fellow bishops in Colombia as well as a wide cross-section of society. That’s no mean feat in a country whose affairs have been defined for more than a century by violent clashes between left and right, as well as between elites and the lower classes.
Castro was first elected president of the Colombian bishops’ conference in 2005, and was elected again in 2014 for another three-year term.