Michael Kelly: 'Persecution of Christians is worse than at any time in history - and Ireland's silence on it is shameful'
I worked in Rome for five years, and during my time in the eternal city my walk to the office every morning brought me past the Flavian Amphitheatre. Better known simply as the Colosseum, it is one of Rome's most iconic structures and could hold up to 80,000 people when it was completed in the first century.
More often than not, as I was passing an earnest tour guide was explaining to wide-eyed visitors how Christians were fed to the lions in the Colosseum during periods of persecution in imperial Rome.
Scholars dispute whether the majority of martyrs in the early Church in Rome met their end at the site or the nearby Circus Maximus. But what's not in dispute is that the Roman Empire had little tolerance for anything that would risk the famed Pax Romana and many Christians paid the ultimate price for their refusal to abandon the Carpenter from Nazareth.
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Movies such as 'The Sign of the Cross', 'Quo Vadis' and 'Gladiator' have etched the Colosseum in the imagination as a place of immense suffering and cruelty for early Christians. But it might surprise you to know that more Christians are being persecuted and murdered for their faith now than ever before.
The 20th century saw more Christians martyred than every previous century combined. In the 21st century, things are getting worse rather than better, and most political leaders in Ireland look the other way.
The case of Asia Bibi - a Pakistani woman held on death row for eight years on trumped-up blasphemy charges - caught the media's attention briefly when she was cleared of all charges in October.
The Pakistani Supreme Court ordered that she be released immediately, but mobs of Islamists immediately took to the streets demanding that the death sentence be carried out.
Due to fears for her safety, two months have passed and Ms Bibi has still not been released. She spent Christmas Day in prison away from her husband and daughter, who are also in hiding. Her fate remains uncertain since Islamists have vowed to kill her and Prime Minister Imram Khan bowed to extremists and placed her under a travel ban, preventing her from leaving the country for safety overseas.
Labour leader Brendan Howlin has been the most prominent Irish politician to put his head above the parapet and raise the case of Ms Bibi and the wider issue of persecution of Christians - particularly in Muslim majority countries.
His brave campaign has gained little traction amongst other politicians and Mr Howlin was the sole Oireachtas member at a small protest outside the Pakistani Embassy in Dublin before Christmas. I say brave, because Brendan Howlin knows it is not an issue that will win him any votes.
Persecution of Christian minorities around the world is fast emerging as the human rights issue of this generation. But, at least in Ireland, most politicians seem content to ignore it and the issue doesn't feature on the priority list of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Not so in Britain. The Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt this week ordered a review into the plight of persecuted Christians around the world and how much help they get from Britain.
The UK Foreign Office estimates that some 215 million Christians faced discrimination and violence this year because of their faith.
According to Mr Hunt, the international community must do more because "so often, the persecution of Christians is a telling early warning sign of the persecution of every minority".
Violence against Christians is rising dramatically, with an average of 250 killed every month - a doubling of last year's figure.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney has been touring the world campaigning for Ireland to get a rotating seat on the prestigious United Nations Security Council. His appeal has emphasised how Ireland will be an independent voice on the body, raising the concerns of the voiceless.
Notably absent from his pitch has been a commitment to put the persecution of Christians on the global agenda.
How can anyone take seriously a country talking about human rights which has such a blind spot on a crisis that is seeing hundreds of people killed every month and countless others subject to violence, intimidation and discrimination?
Unless the world starts to take a strong line on religious freedom, Christians will disappear from large parts of the world including the very birthplace of the faith - the Middle East. Already, Christians have been fleeing in large numbers and those who remain keep their heads down for fear of provoking ire.
Started by the missionaries, Ireland has a long and proud tradition of punching above its weight on the international stage when it comes to development and overseas aid.
That tradition is continued now by Irish Aid and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Mr Coveney should ally himself with Britain's new initiative on Christian persecution and announce a similar initiative run from Dublin that will highlight the issue and make the protection of religious minorities a defining principle of Irish foreign policy. Until he does, talk about human rights and being a voice for the voiceless will ring hollow.
All across the Muslim world, Christians face persecution and discrimination because of their faith. Ireland's silence on the issue is shameful and shouldn't continue.
While the plight of desperate Christians might not be as trendy as worthy causes like LGBT rights or the empowerment of women and girls, it's hard to think of a right more core than the right to worship as one sees fit.
A failure to speak up is a damning indictment and when historians come to write the history of the persecuted Christians of this generation, it will be the silence from countries such as Ireland that speaks the loudest.