By Jennifer Neville Of The Catholic Virginian

Calling Christian persecution “the most dramatic and urgent human rights challenge of our time,” CNN’s Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen, Jr., used stories, statistics and insight to expose the prevalence of Christian martyrdom in today’s world and to call for its redefinition when he spoke at the Bishop Keane Institute lecture series at Immaculate Conception Parish in Hampton April 22.

The Bishop Keane Institute Lecture Series, a ministry of Immaculate Conception Church, strives to bring the leading voices in Catholic thought, ministry and education to Hampton Roads.

Mr. Allen is the editor of Crux, an independent Catholic news site in partnership with the Knights of Columbus, and he previously served as a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and later as associate editor of the Boston Globe. Mr. Allen, who gives presentations internationally, is the author of ten books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs, the most recent being The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church.

He said studies have shown that Christians are “by far” harassed or persecuted in more places on the face of the earth than any other religious group – in 137 of the 193 countries — and an estimated 80 percent of all the violations of religious freedom in the world are directed against Christians.

He said estimates on the annual “body count” of Christian martyrs differ among studies. For example, he reported that the World Council of Churches estimates that each year an average of 8,000 Christians die due to reasons related to faith, but the Center for the Study of Global Christianity puts that number at 100,000. He said that means either one Christian is killed for reasons regarding their faith every five minutes or one is killed every hour of everyday. He called that a “human rights scourge” regardless of whether one accepts the low-end or high-end statistics.

Noting that a “chronic myth” of martyrdom is that it is political, he said he has talked to hundreds of people across the world who have had family members who suffered or were killed for their religious beliefs, and all said their loved ones did not go to their death for a political cause but rather for “fidelity to the gospel.” “To style it as an ideological or political statement is to cheapen and tarnish the sacrifice they made,” he said.

To illustrate his point, he shared the story of a young woman who was sobbing on her knees at a papal Mass in the Ukraine in 2001. He asked her what had moved her so much, and she explained that in the 1960s the Soviets had crucified her grandfather, a Greek Catholic priest, for refusing to renounce his loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. She was crying because she was imagining what must be in her grandfather’s heart as he looked down from Heaven and saw the pope standing on Ukrainian soil.

Mr. Allen said the Catholic Church has a “very demanding test of martyrdom” that is defined by the motives of the killer and not by the motives of the Christian who died. He said that in order for someone to be considered a martyr their death must have occurred because of religious persecution.

In challenging that definition, he described the plight of a Croatian sister and an Italian missionary serving the poor in an area of Burundi which the United Nations has declared is the most impoverished and underdeveloped zone in the world. He described them both as educated, successful people—she had a graduate degree in health science, and he was a successful dental technician—but they chose to live in Burundi in response to a call from God. One day when the missionary was at the convent getting a generator going at the request of the sisters, a “band of robbers” decided to loot the convent. They shot the nun at the door and took the missionary hostage; later he was shot in a police shoot out with the robbers.

Mr. Allen explained that under the current definition of martyrdom, the deaths of the two Christians would be tragic but would not be defined as martyrdom because they were the victims of a crime unrelated to religious beliefs. However, Mr. Allen pointed out that the reason the sister and missionary risked their lives to live there was religious. He believes the test of martyrdom in the 21st century must look past what was in the mind of the killer and consider what was in the heart of the person being killed.

He also stressed that it’s important to tell the stories of “the new martyrs” because they remind people “that there is something so precious about this faith that ordinary people who have no aspirations to heroism, ordinary people when push comes to shove, they will pay in blood rather than letting it go.”

“I will tell you right now there is nothing that will recharge your spiritual batteries in a more dramatic fashion than sitting in the company of people who have risked paying the ultimate price and who have come through on the other side with their faith not diminished but strengthened. There is nothing like it,” he declared.