Clergy/Leaders’ Mail-list No. 465 (August 97)
More Martyrs Now than Then?
Examining the real situation of martyrdom
by Justin D. Long
Right now, interest in the Persecuted Church is reaching what seems to be a near-fever pitch in the Christian community, particularly those on the “fringes” of missions interest. Everyone wants to hear about persecution (even though I’ve never met anyone yet who really wanted to endure it). However, in the midst of this, we tend to get a little hyperactive in our declarations.
There is a quote that has been making the rounds, to the effect that more Christians have been martyred in this century than in any previous. There are some different variations of this quote, and I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight.
Have there been more martyrs in this century than in all others combined, as the current quote suggests? During this century, we have documented cases in excess of 26 million martyrs. From AD 33 to 1900, we have documented 14 million martyrs. So, yes, this quote is correct.
On the other hand, martyrdom has been on the decline for the past decade. The current rate is 159,000 martyrs per year — down from 330,000 per year at the height of the cold war. With the demise of the Soviet Union and its sponsored communism, religious freedoms have opened up. Although there are still numerous restrictions and some persecution, martyrdom–in the form of executions and assassinations–has been significantly curtailed.
The current rate of 159,000 martyrs is enormous. However, out of 1.9 billion is just 0.01% (one-one hundredth of a percent) of Christians worldwide being martyred on an annual basis–not a tremendous rate. In terms of the intensity of martyrdom, the existing rates of persecution are not nearly as large as those when Christianity was younger.
Under the Roman Empire, for example, the 10th wave of persecution (conducted by Diocletian) killed more than 300,000 Christians out of 18.5 million, making it much worse than today’s 159,000 out of 1.9 billion. Just a few years later, 700,000 Orthodox Christians were killed in Egypt (400,000 or so as martyrs). Less than a century after that, Attilla the Hun wiped out a huge block of Christianity, in the course of it making about 200,000 martyrs out of 20 million Christians.
Unfortunately, the number of martyrs yearly is on the rise again (projected to reach around 300,000 by 2025). The intensity, on the other hand, is not. The increase is not due to an increase in persecution, but rather due to a demographic increase in the size of the Christian church. To put it bluntly, as the Christian church grows, there are more Christians to kill, and more reason on the part of persecutors to do so, particularly as it is growing most in those areas where it is persecuted most. The percentages are staying the same, and even dropping, but the overall numbers are growing as the general population–and the total number of Christians–grows as well.
For the immediate future, it appears that martyrdom occurs more in isolated incidents by unauthorized robs, assassins, rogues, radicals, and extremists than it does by organized persecution. Few governments have definite policies of execution for Christians. Exceptions can be found in staunchly Islamic countries–Sudan, for example. For the most part, however, the trend now seems to be toward widespread persecution with small clumps of martyrs where a riot or a terror group went “over the line” in the heat of the moment; and few isolated incidents of rampant death and destruction associated with civil unrest, terrorism, rebellions, and government campaigns to eradicate Christianity.
On a final note, we in the West are constantly crying, “Stop the martyrdom!” I find it interesting to note that those enduring persecution do not share our prayer. Rather, they cry, “Purify us, Lord, and make us strong. Help us to spread your Gospel.” If we shared THEIR prayer, perhaps then the martyrdom would truly stop – because the nations would be changed from the inside out, an eternal change that would last without end.
This is from Monday Morning Reality Check, published by the Global Evangelization Movement, producers of the World Christian Encyclopedia. David B. Barrett, President. Justin D. Long, Managing Editor.
GEM’s mission is to document world Christianity and its progress in completing the Great Commission, communicate this information to the global body of Christ, and advocate the unevangelized as the leading priority of world mission.
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