The word “martyr” is often used loosely to describe a person who puts up with the pain and abuse of a thankless job or a toxic relationship.
But a martyr, in the true sense of the word, is much more than that. A martyr is defined as a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion, or a person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause.
Throughout history, great martyrs include Joan of Arc (who was burned at the stake for heresy) and Jesus Christ (who was crucified for claiming to be King of the Jews). Today’s modern-day martyrs are just as passionate about their causes, and like those before them, they are willing to die for what they believe in.
To mark the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, an annual event the United Nations General Assembly designated every August 22, we recall the brave men and women who put their lives on the line for democracy, religion, education, and human rights. (Read: 3 Reasons Why People Admire Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)
Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. (1932-1983)
Despite warnings that his return home was akin to a death sentence, President Ferdinand Marcos’ most vocal critic firmly asserted that “[the Filipino] is worth dying for.” And so, on August 21, 1983, the senator left the US for the Philippines in an attempt to restore democracy in his homeland.
Upon landing, however, Ninoy was escorted out by eight soldiers. Then, shots were fired and suddenly, the lifeless, bloodied bodies of the senator and his alleged assassin, Rolando Galman, lay on the airport tarmac.
But Ninoy’s death was not in vain. Three years later, his widow, Corazon Aquino, toppled Marcos in a snap election and helped restore democracy as the Philippines’ first female president. (Read: The controversial deaths of three Filipino heroes)
Annalena Tolleni (1943-2003)
The Italian lawyer and health activist was known for her tireless humanitarian efforts in Kenya and Somalia. She pioneered the treatment of tuberculosis in the country, advocated for the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS, and pushed for the abolition of female genital mutilation.
But her sending HIV/AIDS patients for treatment to a 250-bed TB hospital she founded in Borama, Somalia, was met with violent protests from those who feared the disease. Crowds opposing Annalena’s compassion for such patients stoned the windows of her hospital. Sadly, it was also in this hospital where she was shot in the head on October 2, 2003.
UNICEF Somalia representative Jesper Morch described her as “truly a visionary, a remarkable individual whose whole life represented service to others, healing the sick, and helping the vulnerable.” (Read: 3 Ways to Participate in the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples)
Sr. Leonella Sgorbati (1940-2006)
In addition to being part of the Consolata Missionaries, which had missions in Kenya and Somalia, the Italian Roman Catholic nun was also a nurse. After completing her education in England, Sr. Leonella worked as a midwife in a number of hospitals in Kenya. Further studies saw her share her knowledge with others. When she wasn’t training students to become nurses, she was training them to teach nursing in the school she set up.
Despite her pure intentions, Somalian extremists worried she would try to convert their largely Muslim population into Catholics. It was a sentiment the nun knew all too well.
“I know there is a bullet with my name on it. I don’t know when it will arrive, but as long as it does not arrive, I will stay [in Somalia],” she declared during a TV interview in March 2006. Six months later on September 17, she and her bodyguard were shot dead as they were leaving the nursing school she headed within a children’s hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Read: Filipinos Reported Dead, Injured After Beirut Explosion in Lebanon)
In November 2017, Pope Francis recognized her as a martyr, a decree that leads her closer to sainthood.
Medgar Evers (1925-1963)
Long before the Black Lives Matter campaign, this civil rights activist was the first state field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in his home state of Mississippi. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, he organized voter registrations and staged economic boycotts against companies that discriminated against Blacks. He also investigated crimes against Black people.
Naturally, such efforts made him and his family the target of numerous death threats, including a firebombing in his home in May 1963. A month later, Medgar was shot in the back on the driveway outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
President Barack Obama called the civil rights leader “a warrior of justice” when he met with Medgar’s widow Myrlie Evers-Williams and members of his family in 2013. In 2017, Obama declared the Evers’ home a national historic landmark.