By Elise Harris
Illuminated by the red light that spilled across Rome’s Trevi fountain, voices from persecuted Christian communities across the world shared the stories of friends and loved ones killed for the faith, and urged the world to take greater action in putting the violence to an end.
“Let us remember, tonight, the blood of the Christian martyrs, spilled by the violence of men and the sin of the world,” Cardinal Mauro Piacenza said April 29.
Quoting Pope Francis, he stressed that when confronted with the situation, “silence and secrecy are also sins.”
He expressed his belief that the Christian martyrs of today are exercising “a real and vicarious atonement, through Christ, with Christ and in Christ, in favor of all men.”
“This is why, while we shake around them, crying with their families for their violent death, we raise to God a hymn of praise for these brothers who have entered into the glory of Paradise, with the palm of martyrdom in their hands and girded with a crown of glory.”
Cardinal Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary and international president of Aid the Church in Need, spoke against the backdrop of Rome’s famous Trevi fountain – which was colored red in recognition of all the Christians around the world who daily continue to give their lives for the faith.
Organized by Aid to the Church in need, the event drew an international presence of Church leaders including Bishop Antonie Audo, Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Syria, and Syriac-Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, from Baghdad.
Iraq and Syria are among the countries where Christians are severely persecuted, with the Islamic State killing, enslaving and driving people out of their homes. Christians in Nigeria are also at risk from attacks by the militant group Boko Haram, while Christianity is illegal in countries including North Korea and Somalia.
Family and friends of Christians recently killed for their faith also gathered to share testimonies and the stories of their loved ones.
Among the speakers at the event were Professor Shahid Mobeen from Pakistan, founder of the Association for Pakistani Christians in Italy and a friend of Shahbaz Bhatti, who served as the federal minister for the minorities in Pakistan and was assassinated in 2011. The Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi has begun collecting testimonies about Bhatti to inquire into his martyrdom and sanctity.
Other speakers present were Maddalena Santoro, the sister of Italian Fr. Andrea Santoro, who was killed in Turkey in 2006 as he was praying inside his church, and Luka Loteng, 25, from Kenya, who had several friends killed in the Garissa University massacre of Christian students in 2015.
A Missionaries of Charity sister who had been in formation with one of the sisters recently killed in Yemen was also present.
In comments to CNA, the sister, who preferred to remain anonymous, recalled meeting fellow Missionary of Charity Sr. Judith in formation in Rome.
Sr. Judith was one of four Missionaries of Charity killed in a brutal attack on their convent in Yemen March 4.
She and three other sisters – Sr. Anslem, Sr. Marguerite and Sr. Reginette – were murdered along with 16 other victims, including volunteers from Ethiopia and Yemen, when gunmen stormed their convent claiming to have relatives living there. Each victim was found handcuffed and shot in the head.
The sister who spoke with CNA recalled how she had spent one year with Sr. Judith at the formation house in Rome, and that she was “very joyous, like all from Africa, and always willing to help.”
“She was very kind and full of life. We also organized apostolates together. She was a very beautiful sister, very joyful,” she said.
Although she was nervous to give her testimony since she is not used to public speaking, the sister said the event at the Trevi fountain is “a beautiful testimony” of Pope Francis’ constant references to “the martyrs of today.”
“The world is not so much in contact with the recent news, and maybe they don’t want to be, so he’s putting it into the light.”
Bishop Audo also voiced his hope that the event would help draw attention to the growing persecution of Christians worldwide.
In an interview with CNA, he said that lighting up such a well-known monument in Rome is “something very new and very courageous. It gives us strength in a context of difficulty and departure.”
“To have such meetings and such declarations in one of the most important places in Rome is a local and international message. It really moves me.”
The bishop expressed his admiration for those who both organized and spoke at the event, and said that “small things” such as this that will “help to change the world.”
Bishop Audo’s diocese of Aleppo has been the site of increased hostility amid Syria’s ongoing civil war, already in its fifth year.
Violence in the city reached a fever-pitch on Thursday when an airstrike on a pediatric hospital killed 50 people, including several children and doctors.
According to CNN, the Al Quds field hospital, run by Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross, was hit by a missile from a fighter jet Wednesday night, claiming the lives of at least three children and three doctors, one of whom was the last pediatrician in the city.
Bishop Audo called the attack “a drama,” and questioned the reasoning behind it, asking “why a hospital? Why children? I don’t understand this.”
However, he stressed that just because it made international news doesn’t mean it’s an isolated event. These type of attacks happen “every day, every hour, everywhere in Syria.”
The world has to become aware of this, he said, instead of using the media “to make some propaganda for a serious event. This issue is bigger than a hospital.”
In his personal opinion, the bishop said a political solution to the conflict is both possible and important, but voiced his belief that “there are those who don’t want a political solution.”
Certain powers “want the destruction of Syria to divide the country and each one takes a piece for themselves. This is the problem, this is the deeper motive,” he said, but stressed that this is just his personal opinion.
What Christians there really want is peace, “so that there won’t be any more bombs, when there will no longer be people leaving their homes, their countries, to go across the sea and across the border,” he said, explaining that “small events” like the coloring of the Trevi fountain “help to have and to give consciousness, to inspire action.”
“Christian persecution is a risk of persecution of everyone. We defend the Christians to defend the dignity of every man, everywhere,” the bishop said, and urged prayers for peace.
“We must pray, and also an international level perhaps to put their efforts to understand the stability of Syria and the stability of the Middle East for the entire world,” he said, adding that these problems are solved “with dialogue and not with weapons.”