Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan gives the presidential address on worldwide Christian persecution Monday during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Waterfront Marriott Hotel in Baltimore. (Justin George / November 11, 2013)

At a time when the nation's top Roman Catholic leaders have been making headlines with their stands on religious liberty and immigration reform, Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened this year's convention of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by focusing his attention beyond American borders.

Catholics and other Christians are facing so much violent persecution around the world today that the 21st century could accurately be termed "a new age of martyrs," Dolan said Monday as he addressed church leaders gathered at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore.

More than a million people have been killed solely due to their faith in Jesus Christ since the year 2000, he said — and he cited a calculation that half of all Christian martyrs were killed in the 20th century alone.

Citing events in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and China, Dolan described "lethal persecution on a scale that almost defies belief."

Dolan laid out a five-point plan he said the nearly 300 bishops in attendance could carry out in order to help.

"If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then [the suffering of these martyrs] must be ours as well," said Dolan, whose three-year term as president of the organization comes to a close when the conference ends Thursday.

Members of the conference will choose Dolan's successor Tuesday from a field that includes Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore.

Few seemed to expect Dolan to use his final address as president the way he did — yet many said they appreciated the approach.

"I'm not sure why he chose the topic, but … that's the reality of what the servants of the church are facing all over the world," said Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles. His diocese — the nation's largest, with 5 million people — is 70 percent Hispanic, many of its members immigrants from other countries.

"Many of these people speak from direct experience about religious oppression, and they celebrate the freedoms they enjoy in this country," said Gomez, also a candidate among the 10 who could replace Dolan.

Dolan laced his remarks with anecdotes of violence directed at Catholic priests and other Christian believers around the world.

He described a massacre of Iraqi Christians at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad that left 58 believers dead last year. The "humanitarian catastrophe" flowing from this year's bloodshed in Syria has also bred religious persecution, he said. Dolan recounted the stories of two Orthodox bishops who were kidnapped and another who was killed by sniper fire while trying to help individuals wounded in the widespread violence.

In August, he said, Muslim extremists stormed a school run by Franciscan sisters in Upper Egypt, raping two and parading three others through a crowd as "prisoners of war," and he told of a 2008 massacre in Orissa, India, where "hundreds of Christians were murdered and thousands displaced."

Dolan was clear in pointing out that it isn't just Christians who face persecution — he cited the abuse of certain sects of Muslims at the hands of others, as well as Buddhists in Tibet who face government torture and oppression. But Dolan said he agreed with John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, a Rome-based journalist and author who has written that "Christians are singled out in far more places and far more often"

Allen wrote in his most recent book, "The Global War on Christians," that Christians today "indisputably form the most persecuted religious body on the planet."

The cause is one close to the heart of Pope Francis, said Dolan, who quoted from a speech the pontiff gave on the subject in September. "It's important to look beyond one's own fence, to feel oneself part of the Church, of one family of God," Pope Francis said.

Dolan encouraged the bishops to pray for those who are suffering, to use whatever means they can to publicize the problem and to raise funds for organizations that support the persecuted. He also urged his colleagues to "cajole political leaders to be more attentive to the voices of Christians on the ground."

For the past two years, the bishops' organization has been vocal in its support of religious liberty in the United States, especially in the aftermath of the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that some Catholic-related institutions pay for contraceptive care.

Dolan called that issue "legitimate," but to some in the audience, his address framed the four-day conference by putting the matter in a wider perspective.

"We in the United States have a level of comfort in expressing our faith," said Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee. "And we can be insular. Elsewhere in the world, people are offering their lives. ... He's calling us to be Catholic in a broader sense, for our brothers and sisters throughout the world."

A previous version of this story incorrectly summarized Dolan's comments about the number of Christians killed in the 20th century because of their faith.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com