(RNS) Christianity can be a deadly commitment. This past Sunday was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, an occasion that reminds Christians that many of their brethren are killed for their faith every year. But how many?

On Tuesday the BBC published an article exploring the controversy over the dramatically large numbers of Christian martyrs published by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. According to the center, more than 100,000 Christians are martyred every year.

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.”

The center, home to the world’s leading scholars of Christian demographics, defines Christian martyrs as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”

The definition seems straightforward enough, but the annual number of Christian martyrs will vary from hundreds to hundreds of thousands depending on how we interpret “situations of witness.” The center is clear about its use of “a broad definition.”

This definition goes far beyond deaths in the context of public proclamation of belief in Jesus. It is interested in the “entire lifestyle” of the murdered believer. Even if a killer is not targeting Christians on account of their faith, Christians are “counted as martyrs to the extent that their actions in such situations are a testimony to their faith.”

This understanding leads the center to ascribe the term “martyr” to millions of Christians who have died in civil conflicts in places like Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (As an aside, we should be shocked and compelled to action by any mass killings, Christian or otherwise.)

The center’s broad definition and large numbers force us to reconsider our standard definitions of martyrdom. A martyr is not just a solitary saint mauled by lions in a coliseum or a reformer burned at the stake. “Situations of witness” vary widely and may seem quite mundane. Many martyrs are ordinary folks with extraordinary courage and commitment.

The center is highly regarded for producing top-notch products that often challenge prevailing perceptions of contemporary world Christianity. I was delighted to host the center’s director, Todd Johnson, for a lecture at the State Department’s Forum on Religion & Global Affairs in 2011.

Like its other work, the center’s reporting on martyrdom is rigorous and interesting — and if nothing else, it shows that lots of Christians die in terrible circumstances. But I fear that its 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.

That’s not to say religion isn’t a major motivating and mobilizing factor in many conflicts. Nor is a narrower definition of martyrdom problem-free. No definition is perfect. Any attempt to define and quantify martyrs will invariably oversimplify a convoluted human tragedy.

I would argue for 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.

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2011 he served at the U.S. State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom and on Secretary Clinton's Policy Planning Staff. He was also founding chairman of the Forum on Religion & Global Affairs. Birdsall is an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal. Photo courtesy Judd Birdsall

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current doctoral candidate at Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2011 he served at the U.S. State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom and on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff. He was also founding chairman of the Forum on Religion & Global Affairs. Birdsall is an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal. Photo courtesy Judd Birdsall


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

However many Christian (or other) martyrs there may be each year is too many. In the battle against global religious persecution, careful, realistic reporting is an essential weapon.

(Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current doctoral candidate at Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2011 he served at the U.S. State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom and on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff. He was also founding chairman of the Forum on Religion & Global Affairs. Birdsall is an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal.)

 

YS/MG END BIRDSALL

 

 

 

 

 

17 Comments

  1. Uchenna D. Anyanwu

    I am bordered by your comment that “… most 9/11 victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I think you will need to expatiate your thoughts on this. Do you mean that those who went to their daily and normal tasks on that Sept. 11 were in the wrong place and at the wrong time? What is your definition of being in a wrong place and wrong time? Mr. Birdsall, how can you determine when you are in the right place and in the right time when you are going about your normal daily business?

    Is it not this your questionable understanding of being in a wrong/right place at a wrong/right time that makes you question the figures given by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity?

    • I think that “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” is an apt description of many of the people killed on 9/11. It doesn’t matter how or why they were there, had they been somewhere else at that time, they would not have been killed. That’s all that phrase means.

      • John, do mean to say that if you were in a church building, for example. Let us assume you were in Northern Nigeria, and while in worship, Islamists from Boko Haram stormed your place of worship and threw in bombs there. And there you died among many others. Then (from your definition) could we conclude you were at the wrong place at the wrong time?

        What of the tens of thousands of men, women and children in the Philippines recently killed by natural disaster (Typoon Haiyan)? Were they at the wrong place at the wrong time? If you go with that definition, could you please tell us how we can avoid being in the wrong place and how to know the wrong and the right time? Thank you.

  2. I’m gonna give a stab at this one. Assuming one would like to live a normal healthy life, and die of natural causes, then by definition:

    The wrong place would be anywhere you will face a violent, unintended, premature death.

    The wrong time would be to be in that place at precisely the time that cause of death will happen.

    That seems to be the backstory for the rather commonsensical observation that the victims of 9/11 were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is why we call them victims, after all.

  3. It seems to me that a commonsense definition of martyr references the death of an individual specifically because of that individual’s beliefs either as expressed or as acted out as in a religious/liturgical context. Sectarian conflict, thusly, produces martyrs.

    • In the Catholic Church, the definition of martyr means someone killed in odium fidei — “in hatred of the faith”. It restricts Christian martyrs to those killed specifically because they are Christians. I believe that this is a reasonable definition.

  4. Brian Pellot

    More or Less (BBC show on stats) did an episode on the 100,000/year figure recently. Worth listening to. That number apparently includes (among other apparent anomalies) Hutus and Tutsis (both Christian) who died in Rwanda.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01kdgsw

  5. Maybe the sanest thing to do is to drop the religiously and culturally loaded word “martyr” from such situations. The term gives the connotation of someone who actively defies government or the local situation to further their faith.

    Victims would be a more appropriate and accurate term.

  6. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Those who flew the planes into the Twin Towers were members of groups who had a murderous hatred of Christians and Jews and were targeting “infidels.” (although some Moslems also died in the carnage). Thus those in the Towers were victims of this religious hatred–in other words: martyrs.

    • To some Muslims, so were those who flew the planes into the Twin Towers. They died while performing war (Jihad) against their enemies.
      Religion poisons everything.

  7. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, most of those Christians (90%) were killed by Christians, in civil wars having nothing to do with sectarian issues. So following their logic, the greatest threat to Christians is Christianity. The sooner it is stamped out the safer it will be for Christians to live in peace.

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