Counting martyrs

Religious persecution happens all over the world and in some places in the world proclaiming the Gospel out loud can result in death, but is it really true that over 100,000 Christians are martyred every year and that over a million people have been killed for their faith in the last decade?

The number comes from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts that publishes an annual report to Status of Global Mission. They define martyrs “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.” Which means they count all victims of wars and civil disturbances even combatants on both sides were Christian and where faith was a direct cause of the conflict.

Many Protestant churches repeated that statistic this last Sunday which some circles set aside as an “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church” and Vatican radio has also used it.

Ruth Alexander of the BBC looks at the reliability of these statistics.

Its researchers started by estimating the number of Christians who died as martyrs between 2000 and 2010 – about one million by their reckoning – and divided that number by 10 to get an annual number, 100,000.

But how do they reach that figure of one million?

When you dig down, you see that the majority died in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

More than four million are estimated to have been killed in that war between 2000 and 2010, and CSGC counts 900,000 of them – or 20% – as martyrs.

Over 10 years, that averages out at 90,000 per year.

So when you hear that 100,000 Christians are dying for their faith, you need to keep in mind that the vast majority – 90,000 – are people who were killed in DR Congo.

So what’s the big deal? Well for one thing, inflated statistics can be used to fan religious hatred. And some people use the broadest possible numbers to make political points. Alexander continues:

This means we can say right away that the internet rumours of Muslims being behind the killing of 100,000 Christian martyrs are nonsense. The DRC is a Christian country. In the civil war, Christians were killing Christians….

…But Vatican reporter and author of The Global War on Christians, John Allen, outlines an example of how someone caught up in the civil war in DR Congo could be martyred.

“A female catechist in Congo, who is having success persuading young people in her area not to sign up with the militias, and she is killed by one of those forces because they don’t want to see the sources of recruits dry up. Now is that anti-Christian violence, or isn’t it?” he asks.

Ian Linden also makes the point that there were Hutus in Rwanda who wouldn’t leave their Tutsi colleagues because of their Christian faith, and who were therefore killed and could be called martyrs.

Judd Birdsall, who served in the U.S. State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom from 2007 to 2011, says that while he sympathizes with the goals of the researchers they must be more careful in their reporting.

I worked in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom for several years, and I have always found this figure puzzling. My colleagues and I produced an annual report on persecution worldwide that contained accounts of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of martyrs. Some Christian human rights organizations place the number as high as 1,000. Why is there such discrepancy?

It all depends on how one defines “martyrdom…”

…expansive definition works better in theory than in practice. It doesn’t ring true to the religious freedom activists who carefully monitor persecution and martyrdom year after year. More importantly, an overly broad definition of martyrdom risks cheapening the term and diminishing the very real sacrifice of those who are killed for following Jesus.

Calling millions of Christian victims of bloody civil wars “martyrs” is a bit like calling all the victims of 9/11 “heroes.” To be sure, many exhibited remarkable heroism. But most 9/11 victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The same goes for most Christians who lose their lives prematurely as a result of human hostility. They are often caught up in conflicts sparked by a complex web of ethnic, economic, political, ideological and other factors. Singling out the religious factor — let alone identifying religious martyrs — is incredibly complicated.

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