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BBC Statistics Programme Disputes “100,000 Christian Martyrs Each Year” Claim

BBC radio’s statistics programme More or Less has broadcast an interesting piece on whether it is accurate to say that 100,000 Christians are killed each year because of their faith – the figure and was cited by Vatican spokesman Silvano Maria Tomasi in a radio address to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June, and has prompted internet rumours that the culprits are Muslims.

The programme’s presenters (Ruth Alexander and Wesley Stephenson) explain that the figure is derived from Todd Johnson at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, who estimated that there were 1 million Christian martyrs during 2000-2010, and divided this number by 10 to get a yearly average .

However, the unexpected context here is that most of this purported 1 million actually died in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Apparently, Johnson referred to the 1982 edition of David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopediawhich suggested that 20 percent of the populations in African countries were “usually” practising Christians, and from this concluded that this proportion of the victims of the conflict were therefore Christians and therefore martyrs. However, he told the BBC that this statistic has “been abandoned” in other work.

John Allen, author of The Global War on Christians, explained that martyrdom referred to “a situation of witness”. A martyr is not just someone who is killed for holding Christian beliefs; it can be someone who is killed because their beliefs prompt them to acts of moral courage that put them in danger. Allen gives the example of a woman killed in Congo for persuading young people not to join to militias, which is fair enough – put it’s difficult to see how this can be extrapolated to all Christian victims of the war.

And how can the figure of 100,000 remain appropriate for today, given that the civil war is largely over? According to Johnson:

…we took this approach because even in the DRC, things are not as intense as they were ten years ago, that every year now it probably should go down. But then I’ve got to keep my eyes open for other situations around the world. So it’s probably decreasing year by year right now, but the method is not exact enough to be doing that. So I’ve just kept it at 100,000 the last couple of years. But I’m likely going to have to lower it unless something comes to our attention.

The BBC adds another remarkable detail: that “the Center publishes enormous numbers for the martyrs it says will be made around the year 2050. Why’s that? Well, for the sake of their martyr estimates, that’s the year they’ve taken to be the end of the world.”

Thomas Schirrmacher of the International Society for Human Rights suggests that a more accurate annual figure would probably be 10,000 martyrs, although he concedes that experts are “very hesitant to give a figure” and and there’s no scientific number. The ISHR is starting a new project with universities, with a starting guess of 7 to 8,000 martyrs.