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Christian Martyrdom: Who? Why? How?

DR. TODD M. JOHNSON

Professor of Global Christianity and Mission


Christian persecution has captured the imagination of the media, mostly because of the tragedy occurring in the Middle East. Stories of struggling Christians have been highlighted in The Economist, the Boston Globe, The Republic, and the BBC. We estimate that more than 70 million Christians have been martyred over the last two millennia, more than half of which died in the 20thcentury under fascist and communist regimes. We also estimate that 1 million Christians were killed between 2001 and 2010 and about 900,000 were killed from 2011 to 2020.

This document details six reasons why we think the number of Christian martyrs is so large, but here they are in short:

  1. We use a broad definition, not a narrow one: “Believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”
  2. We focus more on the perspective of the Christians being killed than on the motives of the persecutors.
  3. We focus on groups of martyrs, not just individual martyrs.
  4. Other religions also use broad definitions, such as Jews and Muslims.
  5. Mass killing and genocide are closely related to Christian martyrdom.
  6. We enlist the concept of “martyrdom situations” to identify mass killings.

One important situation that is not getting talked about in the media is the plight of Christians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Violence began in the late 1990s and has continued to the present. According to the International Rescue Committee, from 1998 to 2007 approximately 5.4 million excess deaths occurred in the DRC. While some deaths are directly related to violence, most victims died from indirect causes, such as disease or starvation. The vast majority of those killed in the DRC are Christians, and are mainly in five insecure eastern provinces. Rebels, for example, often single out Christians because they do not cooperate with malicious plans to expand rebel territory. Such Christians, when they are killed as a result of actions springing from their faith, fit our definition of “martyr,” whether or not those actions were accompanied by explicit proclamations of their faith.

The problem is that religious freedom is not valued everywhere in the world and innocent lives are taken because of it. We think it’s the duty of Christians all over the world to know where their brothers and sisters are being persecuted or killed so they can unite with them in prayer and action.