Dutch Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt, killed in Syria last week just shy of his 76th birthday, personified the best of the missionary spirit in Catholicism. He spent 50 years in his adopted country, humbly serving poor and disabled persons regardless of their race or religion.
At the time of his death, van der Lugt was the last Westerner in the bitterly contested city of Homs. On Monday morning, a still-unidentified assailant dragged him into the street outside his Jesuit residence, beat him, and then shot him twice in the head.
Most observers believe the killer was an Islamic radical, though a few suspect the Assad regime may have orchestrated the murder in order to blame the rebels.
Because van der Lugt was a Westerner and part of a high-profile international religious order, his death made headlines. Many similar tragedies, however, never do.
Earlier this month, a 25-year-old Coptic Christian woman in Egypt named Mary Sameh George was hauled from her car near a church in Cairo, mauled to such an extent that portions of her scalp were torn off, and then killed when her throat was slit.
The assailants reportedly were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Vietnam, a Catholic convert and human rights activist named Dinh Dang Dinh died April 4 of untreated stomach cancer in prison, having been jailed in 2012 for “antistate propaganda.”
In that context, van der Lugt’s death has to be seen as part of a dramatic, and often untold, religion story of the early 21st century — the global war on Christians.
To be sure, Christians are not the only group experiencing hardship, nor do they always have clean hands themselves. Christians can be oppressors just as easily as they can suffer oppression. In many circumstances, the motives for anti-Christian violence are mixed, having as much to do with politics, ethnicity, and struggles for material resources as religion.
Also, alarmist rhetoric about a “war on religion” in places such as the United States is sometimes stretched past the breaking point, applied not to actual violence and oppression but to policy debates about which reasonable people draw differing conclusions.
That said, the scope and scale of real anti-Christian violence around the world is nonetheless staggering.
Why isn’t this global war on Christians more of a cause célèbre?
Fundamentally, the silence is the result of a bogus narrative about religion in the West. Most Americans and Europeans are in the habit of thinking about Christianity as a rich, powerful, socially dominant institution, which makes it hard to grasp that Christians can actually be victims of persecution.
Frans van der Lugt’s death undercuts that lazy assumption, as do scores of other Christian victims whose stories are never told.
Pope Francis on Tuesday expressed “profound pain” upon hearing of the death of his fellow Jesuit, and Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht in the Netherlands has referred to van der Lugt as a “martyr.”
Perhaps van der Lugt can become a new patron saint for all Christians at risk, because God knows they could use one.
That John Allen piece is a sign of hope, a light, piercing this present darkness.
We need more light.