Catholic priests arrested, abducted, killed reach record high in 2023: report

Two men look at St Joseph's Church, also known as Wangfujing Catholic Church, in Beijing on October 22, 2020, the day a secretive 2018 agreement between Beijing and the Vatican was renewed for another two years.
Two men look at St Joseph's Church, also known as Wangfujing Catholic Church, in Beijing on October 22, 2020, the day a secretive 2018 agreement between Beijing and the Vatican was renewed for another two years. | GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

The global Catholic community faced an alarming increase in the persecution of its clergy in 2023 as a total of 132 priests and religious figures were arrested, abducted or killed, according to a new report. 

This distressing trend was particularly pronounced in Belarus, China, Nicaragua and Nigeria, where clergy were most under threat.

The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need disclosed these figures in its most recent study, noting that the actual count is likely higher due to difficulties obtaining data from certain countries. The total, up by eight from 2022, represents only confirmed cases, it said.

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"Authoritarian regimes have resorted to detaining priests and religious in order to punish the Church for speaking out against injustices and human rights violations, or merely for trying to operate freely," the report remarked.

In Nicaragua, the situation was particularly dire. The authorities arrested at least 19 clerics, including Bishop Isidoro de Carmen Mora Ortega of Siuna, in the final weeks of December. Among those arrested were two bishops and four seminarians. While two priests were later released, 17 others, along with Bishop Rolando Alvarez, arrested in 2022 and sentenced to 26 years in prison, were expelled from Nicaragua on Jan. 14.

China also witnessed the arrest of 20 clergy members throughout the year. However, obtaining accurate data from China remains challenging, the charity said. Similarly, in Belarus, at least 10 priests were detained, with three still incarcerated at the year's end.

The situation in Ukraine is also concerning, with two priests arrested by Russian forces over a year ago remaining in custody.

India's use of anti-conversion laws led to the detention of a religious sister and at least five other priests and religious figures. Despite their release, some still face charges that could result in imprisonment.

Nigeria emerged as the most affected country in terms of abductions, with 28 cases, including three religious sisters. Other countries experiencing kidnappings of clergy included Haiti, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. Most abductees were released, but three priests in Nigeria and one in Burkina Faso remain missing.

"We are deeply concerned about the rise in threats faced by priests, in countries such as Nigeria and Nicaragua, who are at risk often for simply for carrying out their pastoral ministry," Regina Lynch, ACN International executive president, said in a statement. 

Of the 132 cases reported by ACN, 86 involved clergy arrested or detained in 2023, while the rest were either already in custody or missing at the year's start. The charity's statistics include all kidnappings and murders of Catholic priests and religious worldwide, focusing on arrests related to religious persecution.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Religious Liberty expressed grave concerns in its annual report, "The State of Religious Liberty in the United States." The USCCB identified attacks on houses of worship as the "largest threat to religious liberty in 2024."

The report emphasized the rising tensions and potential for violence against religious sites, particularly in the context of the Israel-Hamas conflict and the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the 2024 election.

The targeting of Catholic churches in the U.S. has escalated, particularly following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2022 that the Constitution doesn't confer a right to abortion. Churches across various states, including Texas, Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia, have experienced vandalism and violence. This trend, coupled with the broader context of over 400 church attacks between 2018 and 2022, underscores the growing concern for the safety of religious communities.

The committee's report also mentions other significant threats to religious liberty, including potential federal mandates affecting Catholic hospitals and nonprofits.

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