Vatican recalls fallen Christian martyrs

The Vatican recalled the violent deaths of Catholic priests, religious, and lay volunteers. Asia saw the greatest toll, including Archbishop Rahho of Iraq.

As 2008 comes to an end, the Vatican has released a list of the names of pastoral workers, priests and prelates, religious men and women killed during the past 12 months. As far as we know, the following persons have died this year: Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul for Chaldeans (Iraq), 16 priests, 1 religious, and 2 lay volunteers.

In recent years the list has included not only the names of missionaries in the strict sense, but also pastoral workers who died a violent death. The Vatican has chosen not to refer to all of these as “martyrs”, since it is up to the Church to judge their merits, and also because of the scarcity of available information in most of cases, with regard to their life and even the circumstances of their death. In March 2008, Pope Benedict XVI asked for prayers for them, saying “To remember and pray for these brothers and sisters of ours – Bishops, priests, religious and lay people – who died while carrying out their missionary service is a duty of gratitude for the whole Church and an incentive for each one of us to witness ever more courageously to our faith and hope in the One who on the Cross triumphed over the power of violence and hatred for ever with his almighty love.”

In 2008-2009, the Catholic Church commemorates the work of St. Paul, who once persecuted Christians but after a dramatic conversion became the prototype for missionaries the world over. Said the pope in June 2008, “For us Paul is not a figure of the past whom we remember with veneration. He is also our teacher, an Apostle and herald of Jesus Christ for us too. Thus we are not gathered to reflect on past history, irrevocably behind us. Paul wants to speak to us – today.”

In a communique from the Vatican, a panorama of the various continents was offered in which those faithful who met violent death – perhaps out of hatred of their faith – are recalled.

The world’s largest continent registered the largest number of deaths: with 1 Archbishop, 6 priests, and 1 lay volunteers killed in Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal.

Perhaps most notable was the kidnapping and murder of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul, Iraq, as he left a church. This was the same church where, in 2007, a parish priest and three deacons were murdered. Said the pope of Archbishop Rahho, “Archbishop Rahho took up his cross and followed the Lord Jesus, thus he contributed to bringing justice to his martyred country and to the whole world, bearing witness to the truth. He was a man of peace and dialogue

Among the priests killed in India, are recalled Rev. Bernard Digal, of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar: the first Catholic priest to be killed from the campaign of anti-Christian violence in Orissa that has provoked, according to statistics from the Indian Bishops’ Conference, 81 deaths; 22,236 refugees in government-run camps, and over 40,000 people who have fled the district of Kandhamal; 450 villages were affected by the violence; 4,677 houses, 236 churches, and 36 convents, institutes, and religious structures were destroyed; 5 Catholic priests and 15 pastors were violently beaten, and a religious sister was raped and publicly humiliated. Rev. Bernard was attacked on August 25, 2008, at the beginning of the pogrom and died two months later.

Other priests who died violently in India in 2008 were: Fr. Thomas Pandippallyil, Fr. Samuel Francis, and human rights activist Fr. Mariampillai Xavier Karunaratnam. In addition, lay volunteers and other lay people fell victim to Hindu extremists who destroyed schools and burnt churches in Orissa and elsewhere in India.

Also in Asia, Fr. Jesus Reynaldo Roda was killed by gunfire in the Philippines, where he ran a small missionary post and led a community of about 30 Catholics involved in programs of basic instruction and inter-religious dialogue. He had earlier received death threats from the Muslim terrorist groups associated with Abu Sayyaf. The first priest to be killed in of Nepal was Fr. Johnson Moyalan. In the middle of the night, a group of armed men broke into the Salesian mission of Sirsia, 15 km from the Indian border, in an attack possibly by Hindu extremists.


In North and South America, 5 priests were killed in 2008: 2 in Mexico, 1 in Venezuela, 1 in Colombia, and 1 in Brazil. They were in Mexico: Fr. Julio Cesar Mendoza Acuma and Fr. Gerardo Manuel Miranda Avalos. In Venezuela, Fr. Pedro Daniel Orellana Hidalgo, who was apparently strangled to death and tortured. A missionary priest, Fr. Jaime Ossa Toro, was stabbed to death in Medellin, Colombia. Fr. Nilson José Brasiliano, was stabbed to death in the Brazilian state of Parana.


In Africa, 3 priests, 1 religious, and 1 lay volunteer suffered violent deaths in Kenya, Guinea Conakry, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008.
In Kenya, the following were killed: Fr. Michael Kamau Ithondeka, and Fr. Brian Thorp. Brother Joseph Douet, 62 years of age, of the Christian Brothers of Saint Gabriel, was killed in Katako, in Guinea Conakry, while at prayer in the school he founded. Fr. John Mark Ikpiki was killed in Nigeria. Amongst the tragic deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a lay volunteer Boduin Ntamenya, a native of Goma who was killed while he was carrying out his humanitarian work in a war zone.


In Europe, two Jesuit priests were killed in Russia. Father Otto Messmer and Father Victor Betancourt were murdered in their rooms in Moscow.

In the decade 1980-1989, 115 Catholic missionaries died a violent death. However the number is certainly higher since it refers only to cases reported and confirmed. According to Vatican sources, the list is never complete.