Masked gunmen open fire on Coptic Christians leaving a wedding in Cairo. Unknown assailants murder two evangelical pastors in Kenya. Islamic militants bomb a church in Pakistan, killing 89 people.
There’s no question Christian martyrdom exists worldwide, yet the question remains: Exactly how many Christians are killed for their faith? A recent BBC article examined the oft-cited estimate of 100,000 Christian martyrdoms annually and suggested the number should be much lower.
The estimate comes from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. It includes Christians killed in civil conflict, not solely for their faith. BBC found that the CSGC derived their yearly average from figures of 1 million deaths in 10 years, and 900,000 of them were from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war.
Former U.S. diplomat Judd Birdsall praised the work of CSGC, yet argued against using such a broad definition of martyrdom. Birdsall, who formerly worked for the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, wrote that it is better to undercount martyrs than to overcount them.
“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,” he wrote in Religion News Service. “We can’t afford to give persecutors any grounds to claim the reality is actually much better.”
A conservative estimate for the number of Christians killed for their faith in 2012 is 1,200, according to Open Doors International. The group compiles the World Watch List, an annual list of the 50 most dangerous countries in which to be a Christian. It counts only verifiable deaths. Nearly 800 of the deaths are attributed to Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group in Nigeria. World Watch List director Frans Veerman told World Watch Monitor the estimate is a “very, very minimum count.”
Situations that are more difficult to measure include Christian deaths in conflict regions that have long discriminated against Christianity. Christians there often are more vulnerable to attack and make an easy target, according to Veerman. Others can die from long-term deprivation of basic necessities.
Taking some of these issues into consideration, the International Society for Human Rights estimated 7,000 to 8,000 Christian martyrdoms a year.
Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) defines a martyr as “one who chooses to suffer death rather than to deny Christ or His work, sacrifices something very important to further the kingdom of God, or endures great suffering for Christian witness,” according to Todd Nettleton, VOM’s director of media development.
Nettleton said VOM doesn’t try to come up with a number of people, but encourages people to stand with those who are being persecuted: “The reality is we’ll never know the full extent of the suffering.”