No, 100,000 Christians will not be martyred this year

Rebel soldiers in the Congo's civil war. (Photo: Getty)
Rebel soldiers in the Congo’s civil war. (Photo: Getty)

A chilling blog post by my colleague Alan Johnson this morning documents the horror of religious violence against Christians: there have been brutal stories, recently, about attacks on ancient Christian populations, in Iraq, in Syria, in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Alan’s piece starts with a frequently repeated statistic which is, in fact, not true: “One hundred thousand Christians will be massacred this year because of their beliefs,” as Jim Shannon, the Democratic Unionist Party MP, told the House of Commons. It’s a figure which has been bandied around a lot in the last few years. But it is straightforwardly inaccurate.

As the BBC’s Ruth Alexander explains both in print and on the ever-splendid More or Less programme, which looks at numbers in the news and whether they’re accurate or not, that 100,000 figure comes from the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Massachusetts. They estimated that around 1 million Christians “died as martyrs” between 2000 and 2010, divided that figure by 10, and gave that as the annual number of “Christians who die for their beliefs”.

Alexander points out, though, that about 900,000 of those deaths were in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The CSGC believes that about one in five of the 4 million deaths in that country were martyrdoms, that is, dying for their beliefs.

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I can’t say whether that 20 per cent figure is accurate or not – and indeed the CSGC themselves have said that it’s essentially impossible to define what is a martyrdom and what isn’t – but it seems unlikely; it would mean that essentially all of the Christians who died in the Congo violence died because of their Christian beliefs, which is implausible. (It’s also worth pointing out, as Alexander does, that the commonly held stereotype of the modern “Christian martyrdoms” are of Christians being killed by Muslims. Since the Congo civil war, which accounted for the vast majority of these deaths, was between two groups of Christians, that stereotype is simply wrong.)

But more importantly, the DRC – while still a troubled and violent place – is no longer gripped in civil war. Even if the “90,000 martyrs a year” figure was accurate, which is highly questionable, it is no longer – and so the 100,000 a year quoted by Alan and by Jim Shannon MP is also wildly wrong. The real number is more likely to be about an order of magnitude lower. And, indeed, Prof Thomas Schirrmacher from the International Society for Human Rights, again quoted by Alexander, says that while there is no good research on it at all, their best guess at the moment is about 7,000 to 8,000 Christians killed for their beliefs worldwide.

That’s still a terrible thing, of course. And still there are hundreds of millions of Christians living in poor, dangerous, difficult circumstances, around the world. But the “100,000 Christian martyrs a year” figure is a zombie statistic: it’s not true but it just won’t die.

More by Tom Chivers

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