How Many Christians Are Martyred Each Year?

When I wrote a piece on religious persecution for All Saint’s Sunday, I pointed to some specific examples of Christians — and non-Christians — whose religious beliefs and practices put them at significant risk. I think it’s a serious problem, and plan to devote more attention than usual to religious freedom in my Human Rights in International History class this spring.

But I was also leery of overreaching, so I steered clear of a rather startling figure that originated in research by Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC): that 100,000 Christians are martyred each year.

Logo of the Center for Study of Global Christianity

That statistic has again been called into question the last two days, first in a report by the BBC. It found that the number swelled thanks to the CSGC counting 900,000 people killed between 2000 and 2010 in the civil war that ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo — 20% of that conflict’s estimated four million deaths.

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.

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.

Church in Ntarama, Rwanda
Church in Ntarama, Rwanda where some 5000 people were slaughtered in April 1994 – Creative Commons (Scott Chacon)

In earlier estimates of martyrs, CSGC included killings that occurred in the Rwandan genocide. Again this is puzzling. It was not a conflict about religion – it was a case of Hutus killing Tutsis, and both sides were Christian.

Noting that even one of the authors of the 100,000 figure (the CSGC’s Todd Johnson) is backing off from that claim, the BBC instead offers a number one-tenth as high, backed by Thomas Schirrmacher (human rights ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance).

To its credit, the BBC notes how hard it is to define martyrdom in such a context. It quotes Ian Linden, a specialist on religion in Rwanda who points out both that “it’s very difficult to describe any of that killing [in the DR Congo] as creating martyrdom” but also acknowledging that martyrdom undoubtedly took place in the Rwandan genocide, as Christian Hutus “wouldn’t leave their Tutsi colleagues because of their Christian faith, and who were therefore killed and could be called martyrs.”

And it gives the last word to Catholic reporter John Allen, author of a new book documenting what he alleges to be a Global War on Christians:

I think it would be good to have reliable figures on this issue, but I don’t think it ultimately matters in terms of the point of my book, which is to break through the narrative that tends to dominate discussion in the West – that Christians can’t be persecuted because they belong to the world’s most powerful church.

But to Judd Birdsall, who worked in the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom from 2007 to 2011 and is now pursuing a doctorate at Cambridge, making appropriate numerical claims about martyrdom is highly important, since “an overly broad definition of martyrdom risks cheapening the term and diminishing the very real sacrifice of those who are killed for following Jesus.” A Wheaton graduate who worked for the Lausanne Movement before the State Department, Birdsall argues

Judd Birdsallfor an understanding of martyrdom that is honest and modest. Honest about the messy complexity of human violence and modest about the ability to quantify with any precision the number of people violently killed for their faith. The number of clear-cut martyrdoms each year is actually quite low, and they often make international news.

It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s better to err on the side of undercounting martyrs than to risk overcounting them. What’s at stake is credible religious freedom advocacy. Abusive regimes fear public scrutiny and look for any opportunity to undermine an advocate’s credibility.

Conservative estimates of the severity of persecution allow us to say to the world: We know this much abuse happened, and the reality may be worse. We can’t afford to give persecutors any grounds to claim the reality is actually much better.

Read Birdsall’s full op-ed here.

One thought on “How Many Christians Are Martyred Each Year?

  1. Thank you for helping clarify the figures. It’s so important to have clear, reliable information about our brothers and sisters around the world if we are to join with them in spreading the Gospel, and sometimes it feels either like we are not getting information in our churches at all, or the statistics are inflated for rhetorical purposes. Very insightful!

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