CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Christian Martyrs, One Every Five Minutes: «A Reliable Estimate»

by Massimo Introvigne


In the panel discussion following my speech at the Conference on the Christian-Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Dialogue organized by the European Union Hungarian Presidency at the Royal Castle of Gödöllo on June 2-3, 2011, I mentioned that according to «a reliable estimate» a Christian is killed for his faith in the world every five minutes. This is the only part of the discussion which eventually made its way into the wire agencies, and in a few hours there were hundreds of Internet references. Quite expectedly, I have received many requests to quote the sources of the «reliable estimate». I did this in the panel discussion at Gödöllo, but newswire releases normally do not come with footnotes.

Statistics are just as good as their sources. My source is the well-known Center for Study of Global Christianity, David B. Barrett’s U.S. organization, publisher of the World Christian Encyclopedia and of the Atlas of Global Christianity, sources we all use when it comes to count members of different religions. It is difficult to find two statisticians who agree with each other on methodology, but Barrett’s credentials are both impressive and unimpeachable, as even a cursory Google search would easily confirm to the uninitiated.

In 2001, Barrett and his colleague Todd M. Johnson started collecting statistics on martyrs. In their seminal work  World Christian Trends AD 30 – AD 2200 (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2001), they assessed that up to the year 2000 there had been some 70 million Christian martyrs, of which 45 million were concentrated in the 20th century. The book explained the methodology used, and defined Christian martyrs as «believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situation of witnesses, as a result of human hostility». Being «in situation of witnesses», the authors explained, means that one can become a martyr «consciously or unconsciously». They counted as Christian martyrs those killed because of their status of «Christian believers» ascribed to them by those who killed them, irrespective of whether they were at the time of their killing «actively proclaiming» the faith. But the count did exclude those killed for national, ethnic or political reasons who just happened to be Christian but were not killed because of their being Christian.

Again, statistics is a very contentious field but the book, although not without critics, is still widely respected and quoted in the academia. After their book, Barrett and Johnson have constantly updated their statistics about martyrs. In their last update, “Christianity 2011: Martyrs and the Resurgence of Religion”, published in the issue for January 2011  (vol. 35, n. 1) of their International Bulletin of Missionary Research, they noted that the number of Christian martyrs per year peaked at around 160,000 in the year 2000 because of local situations, including in Sudan. Since conditions in Sudan and elsewhere became subsequently less dramatic, their «confident» estimate for the year 2010 is of 100,000 Christian martyrs. They also expect the figure of 100,000 to be substantially replicated in 2011.

An important book on religious persecutions is The Price of Freedom Denied by sociologists Brian J. Grim e Roger Finke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).  Without discussing the many methodological issued raised by this very important book, let me simply mention that they quote suggestions that the number of Christian martyrs per year may now be higher than the above estimate, between 130,000 and 160,000.

Assuming, conservatively, that the situation will deteriorate only slightly in 2011 with respect to the figure offered by Barrett and Johnson for 2010, we can estimate that the figure for 2011 will be 105,000, i.e. between 287 and 288 martyrs per day: twelve per hour, or one every five minutes. Perhaps we should downsize the figure to the Barrett and Johnson estimate, which would make one martyr every five and a half minutes. Or, if the figures quoted by Grim and Finke are accurate, go up to one every four minutes. At any rate, figures are horribly high. This is the situation I wanted to alert the audience to in Gödöllo. I apologize if the image of two of the Christian girls beheaded in Indonesia in 2005 is too graphic, but it serves the same purpose.