During the month of March, Pope Francis has asked believers to pray for Christians around the world who may face death for making the sign of the cross, reading the Bible, going to Mass on Sunday, or generally expressing their faith in public.

“It might be hard for us to believe, but there are more martyrs today than in the first centuries,” Francis says in this month’s edition of “The Pope Video.”

Christians are being killed he says, because “they speak the truth and proclaim Jesus Christ,” risking oppression and physical harm even “in countries where, in theory and on paper, they protect freedom and human rights.”

According to the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need, the fundamental human right of religious freedom is gravely threatened in 38 countries.

“In many places around the world, religious freedom isn’t an idea; it’s a question of survival,” said Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN. “It’s not about whether you feel more or less comfortable with the ideological foundations underlying religious freedom; it’s about how to avoid a bloodbath!”

A statement released by The Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network accompanying the video, released on Tuesday, details some of the most recent attacks against Christians, including a bombing during Mass at the Cathedral of Jolo in the Philippines, where 23 people were killed. It also notes that 40 missionaries were murdered in 2018, 35 of whom were priests.

“Some cases have gotten more media coverage, such as that of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani mother accused of blasphemy, condemned to death and then freed after 9 years of prison,” the statement reads. “There’s also the case of the 21 Egyptians who were decapitated in 2015, and the massacre at Pershawar in December of 2014, when more than 130 students were massacred.”

Yet most cases go unnoticed, the group said, as they’re too many to track down. Hence Francis’s decision to make the papal prayer intention for the month of March the Christian communities, “especially those who are persecuted,” so they “feel that they are close to Christ and have their rights respected.”

According to a 2018 report by Open Doors USA, there are more than 215 million Christians persecuted worldwide, and one in 12 live in countries where Christianity is “illegal, forbidden, or punished.”

The countries where Christians face constant danger are found on every continent: from North Korea and China in Asia, to Nigeria and Somalia in Africa, with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Syria in the Middle East and also countries such as Colombia and Mexico in the Americas.

The Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, founded in 1844 as the Apostleship of Prayer, is a Jesuit-run initiative to encourage prayer on a specific papal intention each month.

By Inés San Martín