They were immigrants from Iraq and India, the Congo and Colombia, some touched by violence and others distant from it.
The hundreds of men, women, and children gathered at a Mission Hill church Saturday belonged to dozens of denominations, but all came to pray for the rising number of Christians being killed, tortured, and threatened around the world. The ecumenical vigil for Christian martyrs, led by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, was the first cosponsored by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. It included Orthodox, Protestant, and historic black churches.
Before the service at Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Sermed Ashkouri, an Iraqi immigrant, said death threats, killings, and church bombings started in his country after the 2003 invasion by the United States and its allies. The violence has been in part fueled by rising Islamic extremism. He immigrated to the United States in 1991, but has family in Iraq who have been victimized.
“It’s tough to live there, but a lot of Christians refuse to leave because they feel they belong,’’ he said. Even so, the numbers of Christians in his country are dropping.
A friend, Bashar Saeed, 21, said he and his siblings in Iraq were sent an envelope in the mail containing a bullet and a note demanding thousands of dollars if they did not leave the country. They moved to the Boston area more than a year ago, and Saeed now works at a convenience store and is earning a high school degree.
The service “means a lot to us, it means we are all one,’’ Ashkouri said.
During the vigil, leaders read the names of Christian victims of violence from dozens of countries, describing briefly how many were killed as an a cappella choir hauntingly sang “Lord, have mercy’’ in Greek. On the altar of the towering historic church, candles were lit for each country mentioned.
The vigil took place during the century-old worldwide week of prayer for Christian unity and was cosponsored by The Community of Sant’Egidio, an international movement of laypeople that has held the vigil for martyrs since 2000.
O’Malley spoke to those crowded into the pews about the centuries of persecution against Christians and the importance of this history as a unifying element among denominations. He said the martyr he was closest to was Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was fatally shot in 1980 while he celebrated Mass in a small church in El Salvador, after calling on soldiers to respect human rights.
“I shall never forget the day of his funeral,’’ O’Malley told the congregation. During the service attended by an estimated 250,000 mourners, dozens were killed as shots rang out and smoke bombs exploded. Afterward “all you could see in the plaza were the shoes and sandals pulled off in the panic,’’ O’Malley said.
In a phone interview following the prayer vigil, O’Malley said he met Romero while he was working with Salvadoran refugees in Washington, D.C. “He was an extraordinary man and very courageous in defending the gospel and human rights, so his death caused quite an impact.’’
Asked why violence against Christians has been rising in the last century, vigil leaders said it is unclear, since the political and social forces in the countries involved are so varied.
“We live in very violent times,’’ O’Malley said. “The 20th century is probably the most violent in the history of humanity. In many ways the 21st century is continuing in that same vein. So people of faith and people of conscience are often singled out and persecuted.’’
Before the vigil began, Alpheen Menachery, a member of St. Julia Church in Weston, said she came to the service after learning recently about the large number of Christians killed in modern times. She was surprised.
“I had thought this happened long ago,’’ she said. “But it’s happening now.’’