Rome — Pope Francis has made what appears to be his strongest statement yet regarding global persecution of Christians, calling on the international community not to remain "mute and inert" on the issue and saying numbers of those killed may exceed that of the first centuries of the faith.
Speaking during an Easter prayer with crowds in St. Peter's Square Monday, the pontiff also called on Christians to make "tangible help" to those being killed.
Praising an Italian group that is trying to sensitize public opinion to the issue, Francis said such work "has to continue on the part of all."
Giving definition to the work, the pope said it is "the spiritual path of prayer --intense prayer -- of concrete participation and of tangible help in defense and protection of our brothers and sisters [who are] persecuted, exiled, killed, decapitated just for being Christian."
"They are martyrs of today and they are many," the pontiff continued, adding to his prepared text. "We can say that they might be more numerous than the first centuries."
"I hope that the international community does not wait mute and inert in front of such unacceptable crime, which constitutes a worrying deviation from the most elementary human rights," Francis exhorted.
"I truly hope that the international community does not point its gaze elsewhere," he added to his text.
The pope was speaking Monday during remarks after the recitation of the traditional Regina Coeli prayer, which replaces the noontime recitation of the Angelus prayer during the Easter season.
Francis addressed the persecution of Christians after mentioning the work of Movimento Shalom, an Italian Catholic group that in recent days had hosted a some 200 mile walk from the northern Italian city of San Miniato to Rome to raise money for persecuted Christians.
Members of the group were in St. Peter's Square, holding a sign aloft for the pope to see as he was speaking.
Francis' words come just days after an assault by militants targeting Christians in Kenya killed at least 147 people on a university campus.
The pope has also spoken repeatedly about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of thousands are estimated to have left their homes for fear of violence from the so-called Islamic State.
The pontiff also mentioned those Christians in his Easter message Sunday, asking the risen Jesus to "lighten the sufferings of our many brothers and sisters who are persecuted for his name, and of all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence."
In that message, the pope also prayed for the success of the recent U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement framework, and called on Christians to look at Christ's resurrection story to remember that they are called to be "seeds of another humanity" that is not arrogant or violent.
"The world proposes that we put ourselves forward at all costs, that we compete, that we prevail," the pope said then, speaking in his twice-yearly Urbi et Orbi blessing.
"But Christians, by the grace of Christ, dead and risen, are the seeds of another humanity, in which we seek to live in service to the other, not to be arrogant, but rather respectful and available," he continued
"This is not weakness, but true strength!" the pope exhorted. "Who bears within him or herself God’s power, his love and his justice, does not have need to use violence; he or she speaks and acts with the power of truth, beauty and love."
"From the risen Lord we ask the grace not to succumb to the pride which fuels violence and war, but to have the humble courage of pardon and peace," said Francis.