Religious persecution has existed through the ages. We must continue to fight it, and take it as a compliment

A painting by Mexican artist Martha Orozco featuring six priests canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2000

On Tuesday it was the Feast of the Mexican Martyrs, those 25 priests and laymen canonised by John Paul II in 2000, and whose heroic struggles are fictionalised in the great novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.

The terrible persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s, which was the fruit of longstanding anti-clericalism, deserves to be better known. Reading what Catholics, especially clergy, were subjected to – such as being denied trial by jury – ought to make everyone, religious or not, very annoyed. And it should serve to underline that religious freedom is important not just for religious people, but for everyone. Despite this, we hear few people ever protest about infringements of religious freedom.

One man more than any other was responsible for the deaths of the martyrs, and that was the then President of Mexico Plutarco Elias Calles, an atheist and a freemason, who was clearly animated by a deep seated hatred of the Church. One is left wondering, why? Why does the Catholic Church arouse such hatred?

Calles was not alone in his hatred for the Church, though it has to be said that no other anti-clerical (unless one counts Lenin) was responsible for so many deaths. The greatest, if that is the word, of the western European anti-clericals was Emile Combes, who is hardly a household name any more even in France, where he was Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905.

Combes was the one who nationalised all Church property and who expelled nearly all religious orders from France. There was in those days a lot of talk about separation of Church and State, but this should not blind us to the Combes agenda which was the persecution of the Church by the State, which is hardly the separation of the two. Combes had been a seminarian in his youth, and one suspects that his anti-Catholicism was born of some personal psychosis. It is not normal, surely, to hate the Church so much?

But to return to the feast of the Mexican martyrs: Calles thought he was erasing the Catholic Church from the face of the earth. He thought his anti-clerical laws signalled its final hours; but in fact thanks to Calles, the Catholic Church, in the glory of the martyrs, was entering one of its finest hours.

All anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism (the two are virtually interchangeable) rebounds on itself. Thanks to le petit pere Combes and his laws, nowadays all church buildings pre-dating 1903 belong to the State in France. That means one hell of a repair bill. As for our own home-grown versions of Calles and Combes, I happen to think they are doing us a huge favour. Hatred is a kind of compliment. It is not such a bad thing to be worthy of hatred; to be an object of indifference, however, is the kiss of death.