Where is the deadliest place in the world to work for the Church today? The obvious answer is the Middle East. Since 2003, the Christian population of Iraq has fallen from 1.5 million to fewer than 450,000. In neighbouring Syria, the number has dropped from 1.8 million to 500,000 since the civil war broke out. Yet the Middle East is not the deadliest continent for Church workers, according to new figures released by Agenzia Fides. That dishonour goes to the Americas.

According to Fides, 12 “pastoral care workers” – nine priests and three Sisters – were killed in the Americas in 2016. For the eighth year running, the continent ranks as the most dangerous on the planet for Church workers. But how can a continent with an overwhelmingly Christian population be more deadly than the Middle East, where black-clad Islamists crucify opponents and bulldoze churches?

It is natural to wonder if the statistics are reliable. Yet Agenzia Fides, the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies founded in 1927, is thoroughly trustworthy. It has compiled an annual list of pastoral workers killed in the line of duty since at least 2000. Note that this list is restricted to priests, Religious and lay people working directly for the Church. Note, also, that it is limited to Catholics and does not include, say, members of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, the largest Christian denomination in Syria.

One reason the Americas dominates the list is that parts of the continent are exceptionally violent. Nine of the 10 cities with the highest murder rates in the world are in Latin America. The Catholic Church has a strong presence in each of these places, and therefore pastoral workers are exposed daily to the general risk of violence. The motive for the killings is often not, as one might suspect, hatred of the faith. “Once again,” Fides explains in its commentary, “the majority of the pastoral care workers in 2016 were killed in attempted robbery, and in some cases violently attacked, a sign of the climate of moral decline, economic and cultural poverty, which generates violence and disregard for human life.”

This is not to imply that all last year’s deaths were senseless and random. Fides recounts the story of Fr José Luis Sánchez Ruiz, a cleric in eastern Mexico who denounced local crime and corruption with heroic fervour. The priest was kidnapped and his body later found with “obvious signs of torture” – in a gruesome echo of the death of Polish hero Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko.

According to Fides, 424 pastoral workers have been killed worldwide since 2000, an average of 25 a year. In 2016, 28 were killed; in 2015, 22. So the number of killings last year was above average and a sharp increase on the year before. The figures also underline that the risks are not limited to a single continent: eight workers were killed in Africa, seven in Asia and one (Fr Jacques Hamel) in Europe.

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