Pope Francis argued on Monday that the 21st century has seen more Christians under siege for their faith than during the time of the early church.
"There are many martyrs today, in the Church, many persecuted Christians," said the pope during a mass in honor of Christian martyrs who were killed under Roman Emperor Nero. "Think of the Middle East where Christians must flee persecution, where Christians are killed. Even those Christians who are forced away in an 'elegant' way, with 'white gloves:' that too is persecution. There are more witnesses, more martyrs in the Church today than there were in the first centuries."
Pope Francis' words come at a time when Iraq's small population of Christians, which trace their roots back to the earliest days of Christianity, have had to flee their homes as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have taken over the city of Mosul. On Sunday, Nigerian Christians were once again targeted by the Boko Haram, which killed scores of worshippers and burned down four churches in a major attack in Kwada and Kautikari villages.
The pope asked Christians to remember "our glorious ancestors" and "let us think also to our brothers who are persecuted, who suffer and who, with their blood are nurturing the seed of so many little churches that are born. Let us pray for them and for us," reported Vatican Radio.
Pope Francis also noted that the church's witness in the face of persecution and hard times could lead to church growth.
"When historical situations require a strong witness, there are martyrs, the greatest witnesses. And the Church grows thanks to the blood of the martyrs. This is the beauty of martyrdom. It begins with witness, day after day, and it can end like Jesus, the first martyr, the first witness, the faithful witness: with blood," he said.
The Christian Post reported last week that Christian History magazine, in partnership with Voice of the Martyrs-USA members, focused on persecution in its latest issue, citing church statisticians who say an estimated 70 million Christians have been killed due to their faith since the time of Jesus and that other believers were partly to blame.
The publication references information gleaned by the late church statistician David Barrett and Todd M. Johnson of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary's Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
Barrett and Johnson estimate that "throughout Christian history, across all traditions of Christianity, and in every part of the world, some 70 million Christians have been murdered for their faith." They also estimate that 5.5 million Christians have lost their lives due to persecution from other Christians, which include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox adherents and other Christians.
"Note that most Christians killed as alleged 'heretics' or 'schismatics' down the ages should correctly be included in demographic enumerations of martyrs. Joseph Smith and many other Mormons are Christian martyrs," writes Johnson in his 2012 global demographic assessment on the subject.
The Christian History Institute adds in a press release on its persecution issue, "Christians themselves have tortured and killed countless of their own brethren during the 12th-14th century Inquisitions, during and after the 16th-17th century Reformation in Europe and, continuing today in Ireland, Eastern Europe and Africa."