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November 11 2008

Remembering modern Christian martyrs

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There is a church in the heart of Rome, in the centre of a little island that divides the river Tiber in two, that, in recent years has come to jealously guard a treasure. This patrimony is not only linked to the relics of Saint Bartholomew, which gives the church its name, but from something extremely precious and of value: the memory of the martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries. In little more than 100 years, there have been more martyrdoms for the Christian faith than in all the preceding nineteen hundred years of Christianity. It is a frightening statistic that sounds a dramatic alarm bell in the mind and the heart of Christians who live in the tranquility of the Western World. It is also a call to never forget the sacrifice.
It is significant, therefore, than just a short walk from St Peter's Basilica, Pope John Paul II consecrated, in the Year 2000, this ancient church to the memory of these Christians who have offered their own lives for love of the Gospel and to remember that Christians continue to make this sacrifice with impressive frequency.
The Community of Sant'Egidio, to whom the church has been entrusted, takes special care to keep alive the memory of their martyrs and to diffuse information about their lives. Above all, the church is open every day so that members of the faithful may come and meditate. (www.sanbartolo
The church is a testament to the courage and the love of famous men and women like Martin Luther King Jr, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonheffer, Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, but, also, ordinary, disowned, even anonymous Christians who, in situations of extreme danger, chose solidarity, charity, friendship and have paid with their lives.
But, the church is also an icon to ecumenism. From the martyrs of the Americas, such as Archbishop Romero, to the martyrs of the Nazi era such as Paul Schneider, a German pastor martyred during the Holocaust.
Here too is kept the memory of people not only robbed of their existence, but also of their geography like the million Armenians slaughtered by the Turks during World War I, or the countless members of the Orthodox Church who died as frightened, anonymous figures during the long winter of communism.
Likewise, the seven Anglican brothers of the Melanesian Brotherhood who were martyred in August 2003, in the Salomon Islands.
It is here, in this church, that, during a moving ceremony some weeks ago, the Missionary Sisters of Consolation carried the cross belonging to their colleague Sr Leonella Sgorbati, killed to Mogadishu, Somalia in 2006. Her cross was placed there at the altar beside the relics of other Christian martyrs killed during the last century. Sr Leonella, 66 years old, but with the face of a child, was a beautiful servant of Jesus and of the poor who are his friends. For this reason, since she was a young woman having studied nursing, she began to discover what her vocation would be: Africa. For 36 years she was based in Kenya before moving to Somalia in 2000. In that period, and unfortunately still to this day, these lands are in a situation of great strife. But, like so many other religious, she did not consider herself or her own safety, instead, remaining faithful to her small mission and the young people she served there.
Just after 12.30 on September 17, 2006, Sr Leonella had just concluded the lessons in the Mogadishu hospital when she was gunned down by an armed gang. She died there, whispering three simple words as her life slipped away, ''forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness''.

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