ROME – Liturgically and spiritually, Easter is the supreme Christian celebration of the victory of life over death. In the core rites of the Triduum, the horror and loss of Good Friday give way to the empty tomb, the angelic announcement and, finally, the glory of the risen Christ.
Yet in some parts of the world, the real-life experience of Christians at Easter, as opposed to the liturgical symbolism, savors more of death than life. That’s because in the early 21st century, Easter has become a peak moment for bursts of anti-Christian violence and persecution.
Consider the following examples … and, to be clear, this is only a partial list.
- In 2004, three masked gunmen wearing all-black gear and riding motorcycles opened fire on hundreds of Christians celebrating Easter Sunday in the Tentena region of Indonesia, by population the world’s largest Muslim nation. Seven people were injured, including a four-year-old child shot in the right leg.
- A 2011 bomb attack on Sacred Heart Catholic Church in central Baghdad left four people injured, including two civilians and two policemen. Fortunately, the explosion came after Easter Sunday celebrations when the church was mostly empty.
- In 2012, a car bomb detonated by Boko Haram outside an All Nations Christian Assembly Church service in Kaduna, Nigeria, on the dividing line between the predominantly Muslim north and the Christian south, killed 38 people.
- One year later, violence in central Nigeria over the Easter holiday left an estimated 80 people, including 19 Christians killed in an assault by Muslim Fulani gunmen in a rural area of Kaduna state. The violence also displaced at least 4,500 people.
- Kenyan Christians in 2015 marked Easter as a day of mourning after a Holy Thursday assault on Garissa University in the eastern part of the country that left 148 people dead, mostly students. Four gunmen linked to the radical Islamist group al-Shabab stormed the campus, demanding to know who was Muslim and who was Christian, killing the Christians on the spot.
- In 2016, a radical Muslim group known as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar bombed a popular children’s park in a Christian-dominated neighborhood of Lahore on Easter Sunday, killing 76 people and leaving more than 300 injured, many of them children.
- Coptic Christians in Egypt were compelled to curb or abandon Easter celebrations in 2017 after bombings on Palm Sunday at St. George's Church in the northern Egyptian city of Tanta on the Nile delta, and Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the principal church in Alexandria, seat of the Coptic papacy, left 45 people dead and 126 injured.
- One year later, a Christian family was assaulted on Easter Monday in Quetta, a provincial capital of Pakistan, killing four people.
- Also in 2018, a series of Holy Week attacks on Christians in India carried out by radical Hindu nationalists culminated in an Easter Sunday assault on a church in Coimbatore, in southern India, which left the pastor badly beaten and members of the congregation dispersed.
- In 2019, 31 Nigerian Christians died in a series of Easter assaults on churches in the states of Benue, Adamawa and Gombe.
- Also on Easter Sunday 2019, nine bombers inspired by the ideology of the Islamic State attacked churches and luxury hotels in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, leaving 269 people dead and more than 500 injured.
- In 2022, a mob of more than 100 rioters in India’s Odisha state assaulted Christian families and churches on Easter Sunday, driving the villagers from their homes and leaving several with injuries severe enough to require hospitalization.
In 2021, the anti-Christian violence watchdog group “Open Doors” estimated that during the prior seven years, meaning 2013-2020, at least 526 Christians had been killed around the world while celebrating Easter Sunday, with hundreds more injured.
Though no one knows where the contagion of anti-Christian violence will strike this year, it’s worth noting that Christian leaders in the Holy Land recently appealed to the Israeli government to provide additional security for Easter services in light of a mounting pattern of acts of desecration and violence directed at Christian targets over the past year.
“As we have all seen in recent months, escalating violence has engulfed the Holy Land,” reads the message. “For over the past year, some of our churches, funeral processions, and places of public gathering have become targets of attack; some of our holy sites and cemeteries have been desecrated; and some of our ancient liturgies, such as the Palm Sunday procession and the Holy Fire ceremony, have been closed off to thousands of worshipers.”
In part, terrorists launch assaults on Easter for the shock value of striking Christians on the holiest day of their year, and on a day that is supposed to express the victory of life. Media coverage of Christian celebrations on Easter Sunday also ensures greater publicity when such assaults occur.
In addition, there’s a macabre practicality involved: Easter and Christmas tend to be the two days every year when Christian churches all around the world attract the largest crowds, ensuring the greatest possible carnage – more bang for the buck, so to speak.
After the Kenya massacre in 2015, Pope Francis used his traditional Urbi et Orbi Easter message to acknowledge the realities of Christian suffering around the world.
“We ask Jesus, the victor over death, to lighten the sufferings of our many brothers and sisters who are persecuted for his name, and of all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence - and there are many,” he said.
These are the realities of our time, when more than two-thirds of the 2.6 billion Christians in the world live outside the West, often in fairly dangerous neighborhoods.
As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.” The courage shown by untold legions of believers, who will show up for Easter celebrations on Sunday regardless of the risks, confirms that point in just about the most dramatic fashion one can imagine.