Martyrdom, dying for a cause or for one's religious belief, has for millennia played a central role in the world's religions and has captured the imagination of humankind.

Perhaps it is the stark nature of the conflict, oppressor against believer, good against evil, that is so intriguing. Perhaps it is the knowledge that a belief is important enough to die for, that faith can be so strong and absolute that it merits an absolute sacrifice. And perhaps it is the assurance implicit in knowing that whatever sacrifices ordinary humans make for their faiths, others have surrendered that much more for theirs, suddenly rendering lesser sacrifices easier to bear.

Whatever the reason, religions always have lionized and sanctified their martyrs, holding them up as the paradigm of faith, whose deaths bear witness to the Truth for which that faith stands.

Of course, martyrdom often is a matter of interpretation. Jews may consider as martyrs the Israeli soldiers who have died establishing and defending the modern Jewish State, while Palestinians and other Arabs may see as martyrs their own fallen soldiers from those same conflicts.

Few religions have an official, objective category of martyr. The Catholic Church is one of those; today, the Vatican is considering designating Martin Luther King Jr. as one of its martyrs, acknowledging the sacrifice made by King in pursuit of his goals of justice and equality.

The 20th century, sadly, was a boom time for martyrs. The Holocaust and numerous other genocides were occasions for the sacrifice of millions, while liberation struggles and the fight for human rights claimed their own scores of victims, including King. Modern warfare has, unfortunately, made possible martyrdom on a scale unknown previously. Modern communication has, though, allowed the sacrifices of martyrs to be known worldwide. Today, American Christian groups are using those technologies to publicize the plight of their latest martyrs, persecuted Christians across the globe.

Latter-day martyrdom has been, for Christians at least, an ecumenical affair. This ironic fact was acknowledged through a series of statues unveiled at Westminster Abbey in the 1990s depicting 20th century martyrs, including the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Catholic Oscar Romero and the Baptist Martin Luther King.

Pope John Paul II likewise acknowledged this phenomenon in a 1994 apostolic letter: "The witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants."

The Vatican's consideration of King as a martyr is further testament to the fact that martyrdom knows no boundaries of denomination, and the admiration of those martyrs is not bound by religious identity.

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