The story of Christianity is written in the blood of martyrs.

It is always striking to me that on the day after the joyous feast of Christmas, the Church’s liturgy remembers the first martyr, the deacon St. Stephen. And nearly every week throughout the year, our liturgy remembers the witness of someone who has shed his blood or her blood for following Jesus.

The martyrs are a witness to our conscience. They remind us that Jesus calls us to follow him without compromise, and that we may face intolerance, discrimination and even violence for believing in his name.

Sadly, the Christian witness of blood continues without end in the world today.

Last week in Yemen, four sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, the community founded by Blessed Mother Teresa, were killed when suspected radical Muslims attacked their home for the poor elderly.

These sisters had been warned that an attack was coming, but refused to leave the poor they served. Based on eyewitness accounts, they were singled out for murder. A Salesian priest from India, who had been staying with the sisters since his church was burned down in September, was kidnapped in the attack.

Pope Francis on Sunday called the sisters “martyrs of today” who “gave their blood for the Church.”

He also said that they were victims — not only of their attackers, but victims also of the world’s “indifference” to the persecution of Christians.  

The pope has been saying these things for several years now. And he is right.

Violence and torture are the daily cost of discipleship for Christians all over the world today — but especially in the Middle East. And the world community — government leaders, international authorities, the media and sadly even local churches — do not seem all that concerned.

Recently I added my name to a petition calling on our government to declare the situation facing Christians in Iraq and Syria a “genocide.”

I did not do this lightly.

It is clear that what the so-called Islamic State is doing to Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria fits the United Nations’ definition — violence and killing with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops have already labeled the atrocities faced by Christians in the Middle East “a form of genocide.”

The Islamic State has driven more than 150,000 Christians out of Iraq alone.

The violence against Christians is as systematic as it is barbaric — Church leaders are assassinated, believers are murdered on a mass scale; there is torture, kidnapping for ransom and the systematic rape and sex slavery of Christian women and girls; there are forced conversions to Islam, the destruction of churches, monasteries and cemeteries; and the theft of ordinary families’ homes and businesses.

All of this has been documented by Church groups and independent international agencies.

We cannot imagine the reality, but it is true — the Christian presence may one day be extinguished in the lands where the light of faith first burned. And it is unimaginable and unconscionable that our government — along with most of the governments of the Western world — has remained silent while this martyrdom goes on.

The political designation of “genocide” has implications. First it is telling the truth. What is happening to Christians in the Middle East is a crime against humanity that cries out to God.

More than that, a genocide designation gives the international community a moral claim to stop the violence and punish those responsible. It also gives a special status to Christians fleeing the persecution — a right to be treated as refugees, and to reclaim their homes and properties once the violence is ended.

I urge you to join me in this petition, which has been spearheaded by the Knights of Columbus. The Knights have been a beautiful witness of compassion and mercy for the persecuted Church. They have provided more than $5 million in direct assistance to Christians in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

In these days of Lent, when we remember the way of the Cross that our Lord walked for our redemption, let us pray for the Christians of the Middle East, who are enduring their own slow crucifixion in the land where our Savior was born.

We cannot allow them to be forgotten — in our prayers or in our advocacy. As part of our Lenten sacrifice, let us offer prayers and fasting for the persecuted Church. And let us give alms to help through the Knights of Columbus #ChristiansAtRisk initiative.

Together let us urge  Congress to do more to stop the genocide of our brothers and sisters in the faith.

May our Blessed Mother Mary give hope to those who are suffering and courage for us to stand with them in solidarity and love.

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