Heritage: Westminster Abbey prepares modern martyrs' corner

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Westminster Abbey is to have a section devoted to religious martyrs of the 20th century. As Michael Streeter discovers, the Abbey has a long tradition of celebrating the great and good.

Inevitably it will be known as Martyrs' Corner. Visitors who flock to Westminster Abbey are to have a new attraction.

With the kings, long-gone poets and lofty statesmen, the Abbey is to commemorate a selection of contemporary Christian martyrs.

Yesterday it said it had commissioned 10 statues of these figures, some household names, some not, to be displayed in a hitherto unused part of the building. The best-known include Martin Luther King, assassinated in 1968, and the Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed in 1980.

Less well-known are such martyrs as Lucian Tapiedi, from New Guinea, an Anglican who was one of 12 killed by Japanese invaders in 1942, and the Chinese evangelist Wang Zhiming, killed during the Cultural Revolution. There are also martyrs from Russia and the Nazi concentration camps.

Andrew Chandler, a historian at Queen's College Birmingham, and member of the committee which selected the group, said: "They are a representation of the Christian experience in the world of the 20th century and the costs of that experience."

Dr Chandler, who has edited a book to be published to coincide with the unveiling ceremony, said the statues would "convey the breadth and intensity of Christian sacrifice. The Christian experience in this century has been complex and often tragic but full of hope.

"In a very real sense that hope is alive because of the people these statues commemorate. We owe them a debt of gratitude." The statues will be unveiled in July at a ceremony attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury and church leaders from all parts of the globe.

The figures, which will share space with more traditional saints, will be set in niches above the great west door, which have remained empty since the 14th century.

The organising committee was set up in 1992 after restoration of the Abbey's West Front. Its selection of 10 modern martyrs keeps up a tradition of the building commemorating the brave, famous and talented, though normally they have been British. Indeed, this new selection of martyrs will inevitably attract some criticism from traditionalists for having no Britons in their number.

Since the days of William the Conqueror, all but two monarchs have been crowned in the Abbey. Among politicians, both the Pitts, Disraeli, Gladstone and Palmerston are honoured there. The first poet to be buried in the South Transept - Poets' Corner - was Chaucer in 1400. In fact, not many of the poets commemorated at the site are buried there, though those who were interred include Tennyson. Recognition has not always been swift - Shakespeare had to wait until 1740 for his memorial, while William Blake was not commemorated there until 1957 - 200 years after his birth.

There is also a strong military link with the Abbey, the best example being the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from France and buried in November 1920 as a representative of those slaughtered in the First World War. Scientists also have their place, among them Newton, who has a large monument, and the physicists Rutherford and Kelvin.

roll-call of the

saintly dead

Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, died 1918: Orthodox saint, killed by the Bolsheviks.

Manche Masmeola, South Africa, died 1928: Anglican catechist, killed by her mother aged 16.

Lucian Tapiedi, New Guinea, died 1942: Anglican, one of 12 killed by Japanese invaders.

Maximilian Kolbe, Poland, died 1943: Roman Catholic saint, Franciscan, killed by the Nazis.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Germany, died 1945: Lutheran theologian, killed by the Nazis.

Esther John, Pakistan, died 1960: Presbyterian evangelist, killed by her Muslim brother.

Martin Luther King, USA, died 1968: Baptist civil-rights leader, assassinated.

Wang Zhiming, China, died 1972: Pastor and evangelist, killed in the Cultural Revolution.

Janani Luwum, Uganda, died 1977: Anglican archbishop, assassinated during rule of Idi Amin.

Oscar Romero, El Salvador, died 1980: Roman Catholic archbishop, assassinated.