From the Bible of a murdered Pakistani government minister to the prayer book of a slain San Salvador archbishop, a Rome church has created a unique memorial to modern-day Christian martyrs.
At a time of outrage over anti-Christian violence in Africa, the exhibits at the Basilica of Saint Bartholomew are a poignant testament to thousands of Christians killed for their faith around the world over the past century.
The initiative was begun by late pope John Paul II in 1993 and the ancient church now draws a steady stream of pilgrims to pay tribute to victims from all Christian denominations including Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants.
On a recent visit, a group of 30 Iraqis came to pray in front of the stole of a Chaldean Christian priest, Raghi Ghani, assassinated in Mosul in 2007.
Angelo Romano, the friendly parish priest and a member of the Rome-based Catholic international charity group Sant’Egidio, greeted the pilgrims.
“You are living through a difficult period. We are praying for you. The blood of the martyrs will not have been spilt in vain,” Father Romano said.
On another day some Polish pilgrims came to pray at a shrine to the victims of Communism housed in one of the alcoves. Other alcoves are dedicated to victims of the Mexican and Spanish civil wars and of Nazism.
“This church is important because it contains hundreds of relics of martyrs,” said Father Andrzej of the Society of Christ for Polish Immigrants.
“These martyrs are for us, for all of us as Christians, a sign that we also in this world, nowadays, we have to be witnesses, witnesses of Jesus Christ.”
After lighting candles in the church, US tourist Sean O’Connor said it was important “to remember those who have sacrificed so dearly before us”.
A recent acquisition is a rock used to weigh down the body of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the chaplain of the Solidarity movement in Poland who was murdered by the secret police in 1984 and thrown into a river.
Among the most poignant exhibits is a cross belonging to Sister Leonella Sgorbati, an Italian nun killed in Mogadishu in 2006, whose Muslim driver Mohammed Mahamud was also shot trying to protect her.
Her last words reportedly were: “Forgiveness, forgiveness.”
Sgorbati’s story is “an icon to the love between Christians and Muslims,” said Romano, a bearded priest whose aid work often takes him to Africa.
One of the most high profile victims honoured is Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated while celebrating mass in 1980 after condemning the persecution of Christians and left-wingers in his country.
The most recent addition is the Bible of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani minister for minorities, a Christian killed by his bodyguard last year.
The memorial also includes a letter by Brother Christian de Cherge, a French monk killed by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria in 1996 together with six of his religious brothers — a tragedy depicted in a 2010 French film “Of Gods and Men”.
Martyrs are “a treasure” in the history of the Church and allow the faithful “to rediscover the ecumenical dimension” of their heritage, Romano said.
“These people did not want to die but followed Christ to the end,” he said.
The memorial is supplied with exhibits by friends and relatives of the victims or members of their communities or local bishops who bring an icon, a crucifix, a rosary, a chalice, a sandal, a final letter to remember them by.
A website — www.sanbartolomeo.org — documents the collection which has now become so large that the crypt is being refurbished to house some of it.
In 1998, John Paul II set up a “committee for new martyrs” which meets in this church and received 12,500 submissions in just its first two years.
“The veil was lifted on an immense reality. The 20th century had more martyrs than any other with communism and Nazism,” Romano said.
And the violence is ongoing as many old conflicts are still “open wounds”.