As violence escalates around the world, Pope Francis soberly revealed that there are more persecuted Christians in the world today than there were in the first centuries of Christianity.
The pope's comments were made at a celebration of Mass at the Casa Santa Marta, a day the Catholic Church sets aside in remembrance of the first Roman martyrs who were tortured and killed during Nero's persecution in 64.
"Today, we look upon the Church of Rome that grows, fed by the blood of martyrs," Pope Francis told a large audience. "So it is right that our thoughts turn to the many martyrs of today, the many martyrs who give their lives for faith. It is true that during the times of Nero many Christians were persecuted, and today there are just as many."
Recalling the "blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church," Pope Francis urged Christians to pray for those facing persecution around the world.
"There are many martyrs today, in the Church, many persecuted Christians," he said. "Think of the Middle East where Christians must flee persecution, where Christians are killed. Even those Christians who are forced away in an 'elegant' way, with 'white gloves': that too is persecution. There are more witnesses, more martyrs in the Church today than there were in the first centuries. So during this Mass, remembering our glorious ancestors, let us think also to our brothers who are persecuted, who suffer and who, with their blood are nurturing the seed of so many little Churches that are born. Let us pray for them and for us."
Sadly, the pope's assertions are not without substance, according to the 2014 World Watch List released earlier this year by Open Doors USA, a nondenominational group supporting persecuted Christians worldwide. The study, which ranks anti-Christian persecution in a list of the 50 worst countries for the past year, reported increasing violence against Christians in Africa in particular, and said radical Muslims were the main source of persecution in 36 countries on its list - both in Islamic countries and in non-Muslim countries such as Kenya (ranked 40th), Ethiopia (17th) and Tanzania (49th).
For the 12th consecutive year, communist North Korea topped the list of where Christians suffer, followed closely by the Islamic countries of Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Pakistan, Iran and Yemen.
Earlier this month, Open Doors revealed that it had documented 2,123 "martyr" killings over the year, compared with 1,201 in 2012. There were 1,213 such deaths in Syria alone last year, it said.
Despite persecution, Pope Francis urged Christians around the world to stand firm and "without condition" for the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
"In the Gospel reading of the day one of Jesus's disciples said that he would follow Him, but only after having buried his father... and the Lord replied: 'No! Follow me without conditions'. Your witness must be firm; you must use the same strong language that Jesus used: 'Your words must be yes, yes, or no, no'. This is the language of testimony," the Pope concluded.