By Hilary White

ROME, January 4, 2010 ( – Since his election in 2005, Pope Benedict has called for religious leaders to combat the growth of the “dictatorship of relativism” and aggressive anti-Christian secularism, and over the Christmas holidays he and several prominent churchmen again took up the theme.

On December 26, the day Catholics celebrate the feast of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, Pope Benedict called on believers to stand up for their beliefs even to the point of suffering for the faith and to pray for those who are already suffering persecution.

The martyrdom of Stephen, the pope said, “also reminds of us the many believers who, in various parts of the world, undergo trials and suffering for their faith.” The Christ child, the Pope said, “is the Son of God made man, Who asks us to bear courageous witness to His Gospel, like St. Stephen who, filled with the Holy Spirit, did not hesitate to give his life for love of his Lord.”

Speaking to a crowd of pilgrims at St. Peter’s Piazza on Saturday December 26, the Pope said Stephen’s witness, “helps us understand how the entry of the Son of God into the world gave rise to a new civilisation, the civilisation of love which does not cave in before evil and violence but breaks down barriers between men, making them brothers in the great family of the children of God.”

At the same time, Anglican Archbishop John Hepworth, the Australian head of the international Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), wrote in a message to followers on the feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28, that the “echoes” of the martyrdom of the children of Bethlehem “are all around us, in the destruction of innocent life, in the failure of episcopal teaching, in the denial of the Christ Child’s godliness, in the transformation of love into hate, even within the company of those who bear His Name.”

Hepworth noted that the liturgical feasts immediately following Christmas – Holy Innocents, St. Stephen, the first martyr, and St. Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered in the 12th century by King Henry II – are commemorations of “martyrdom and mass murder” that “remind us of the cost of following the Child of Bethlehem.”

“These are important days for us,” Archbishop Hepworth wrote, “and days that demand that most difficult of prayers.  ‘That we be transformed, so that the Church may transform the world’.”

TAC, estimated to have 400,000 members, is currently involved in negotiations with the Vatican to be received en masse into the Catholic Church.

Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, in a BBC Radio 4 program this Sunday, also defended the right of religious believers to have a say in the public sphere.

“Public life is not a neutral place,” Archbishop Nichols said, “Everybody comes with their set of values and religion has just as much right to be there as anybody else.”

Nichols added, “A secularist is just as dogmatic as the worst religious believer and sometime they are more stridently so.”