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Martyrs and tomorrow’s Church

Catholics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Getty Images)

It is, perversely, a mark of Catholicism’s success that it is being targeted in Africa

The African Church is in the midst of a great persecution – though you probably wouldn’t know it from the evening news. From the beaches of Libya to the dusty towns of the Central African Republic, Christians are being martyred for their faith.

Next month the Church will honour a group of them. On December 8, 19 late 20th-century martyrs will be beatified in the Algerian city of Oran. They include Bishop Pierre Claverie, who was killed in 1996, and seven monks of Tibhirine, who also died that year and were later portrayed in the compelling film Of Gods and Men.

Although they ultimately fell victim to Islamist militants, the bishop and the monks opened up new paths of understanding, by living humbly alongside their Muslim neighbours. We should call upon their intercession as we consider the struggles facing Catholics across Africa.

Just last week at least 42 people were killed when Islamists stormed the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Alindao in the Central African Republic (CAR). At least one priest – the local vicar general – was among those murdered. The massacre would probably have been headline news if it had taken place anywhere other than the impoverished and strife-torn CAR, where at least seven priests have lost their lives this year, alongside countless civilians.

In neighbouring South Sudan, meanwhile, Fr Victor-Luke Odhiambo was shot dead last week when gunmen stormed his residence. He is the first Jesuit to die in the service of the South Sudanese people, who only gained independence in 2011.

The situation in Nigeria is, if anything, more even more dramatic. In recent years anti-Christian persecution has intensified as a combination of Boko Haram fighters and nomadic Fulani herdsmen prey on Christian communities in the northern and central areas of the country.

The death toll is so high it seems scarcely believable. According to a 2017 report by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, in one diocese alone, Kafanchan, over a period of just five years, 988 people had been killed and 71 Christian-majority villages had been destroyed, as well as 2,712 homes and 20 churches.

But despite this bewildering violence, the Church’s prospects in Africa are actually far from bleak. By 2050, a quarter of the world’s Catholics are projected to live in Africa. Three African nations – Nigeria, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – are expected to be among the top 10 countries with the largest Catholic populations.

The Church’s growth has been nothing short of astonishing. As the historian Philip Jenkins puts it, “In 1900, the whole of Africa had just a couple of million Catholics, but that number grew to 130 million by the end of the century, and today it approaches 200 million. If current trends continue, as they show every sign of doing, then by the 2040s there will be some 460 million African Catholics. Incredibly, that number would be greater than the total world population of Catholics as it stood in 1950.”

It is, perversely, a mark of Catholicism’s success that it is being targeted in Africa. Catholics are now present in significant numbers where once they were a tiny minority. This attracts the unwelcome attentions of militant groups.

It is impossible to deny that the majority of the Church’s persecutors are Islamists. While they are by no means a unified or ideologically consistent group, they consider Christians an obstacle to Islamisation and seek to drive them out of disputed areas. The violence, it is sad to report, is not always one way.

Pope Francis has a chance to address this phenomenon when he travels to Morocco in March. A widely respected figure across the Islamic world, Francis could offer a rallying cry to Christians and Muslims to work together to rid Africa of violence. Such an appeal might sound idealistic, but that doesn’t make it any less important.