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Leave ‘martyrdom’ to the jihadists

opinion2Santo subito.” The Italian words mean “make him a saint now.” This was the cry of the crowds at the funeral of Pope John Paul II — a demand swiftly acted upon by the church authorities in Rome. The words are echoing around the world again now. This time, the call comes from Catholics shocked at the death of Fr Jacques Hamel, the priest whose throat was cut as he presided at the morning Mass on Tuesday, 26 July 2016, in a small French town near Rouen.

The demand to put the slain French priest on the fast track for sainthood was made by a prominent Italian politician, Roberto Maroni, the president of the Lombardy region. It spread swiftly across the globe on social media as Catholics, and others, expressed their shock at the slaying of the priest. Maroni’s sentiment that the pope should “immediately proclaim him St Jacques”  was echoed by a senior official in the Vatican press office who hailed the 85-year-old priest as a “modern-day martyr.”

Such calls to canonise the murdered priest are ill advised. They will only play into the hands of the extremists.

The altar, for Catholics, is where the priest daily commemorates the self-sacrifice of Christ’s surrender to a brutal death on the cross. It is, as Pope Francis said, “the sacred place in which the love of God is announced.” Not since pagan times have altars been associated with the spilling of human blood. The altar also stands in the part of the church known as the sanctuary, a word that has since early medieval times denoted a place of sacred safety.

The demand for Pope Francis to declare Fr Hamel an official martyr of the Catholic Church is understandable, and he fulfills the traditional criteria. He was killed, according to the church’s Latin definition, “in odium fidei,” meaning “in hatred of the faith.”

Fr Hamel may be a martyr in the eyes of the church, but his attackers are also martyrs in the eyes of jihadists. There is, of course, an egregious false equivalence between the two cases: One man is a pure victim, while the others were killers who contrived to die at the hands of French law enforcers.

We must strengthen our defenses against terrorism but we must resist the notion that a fundamental clash of civilisations is the issue. The real problem is the pathology of a perverse minority of extremists with distorted notions of holy war and martyrdom. Pope Francis was right to speak of the “absurd violence” of Fr Hamel’s death and to describe the “senseless hatred” of the massacre in Nice.

Reciprocal talk of martyrdom is unhelpful. The impulse to canonise Fr Hamel, however sincere and well intentioned, feeds the idea of retaliation — our martyr for yours — that gives the jihadists the war of religions they seek. As to sainthood, let history judge rather than us making it a proxy for a political response. – nytimes


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