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Persecution complexity

Symon Hill

Is it true that 100,000 Christians are martyred for their faith every year? And if so, does it help the cause of global justice to single out one religion's suffering? Symon Hill scrutinises an oft-repeated statistic and finds the issue more complicated.

How many Christians are killed each year for their faith? One hundred? A thousand? The claim of 100,000 new Christian martyrs every year appears frequently. It is cited in newspaper columns, sermons and arguments in pubs. Last year, it was even used by a spokesperson for the Vatican.

It is appalling that any Christians are killed for their faith - indeed, that anyone is killed for their religion. But the figure of 100,000 is not only inaccurate but absurd, and serves the agenda of those who want to claim that Christianity is under global attack. It distracts us from addressing the real and varied causes of persecution and violence. At times, and often online, it is twisted into an even greater untruth: that 100,000 Christians are killed every year by Muslims.

So where did this story begin?



The figure of 100,000 was first cited by the Centre for the Global Study of Christianity (CGSC), who estimated that a million Christians were martyred between 2000 and 2010. They then simply divided the number by ten to gain the annual average.

Yet their figure of a million includes 900,000 people killed in civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They were not killed by the Muslim fanatics of western imagination, but by people who were at least nominally Christian. Even this figure is reached by arbitrarily counting 20 per cent of the four million people killed in the DRC as Christian martyrs.1

If we discount these bizarre calculations from the DRC, we are left with 10,000 Christian martyrs a year. Several academics put the figure between 7,000 and 9,000. The lowest estimate is 400. One consequence of the exaggerated claims is that they make these dreadful numbers sound low by comparison.



Christians are killed for their faith in various parts of the world, from those recently attacked in Iraq to the Christians murdered by the authorities in North Korea. Sometimes, Christians are killed because their faith has motivated them to resist injustice, as with Colombian pastors murdered by paramilitary groups when they speak out against them.

Does this count as dying for Christianity? Values of humanity and compassion, as well as faith in a loving God, motivate many others to take a similar stand. Surely they are martyrs too?

Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) told me she thinks some in the west are cautious about speaking out against the persecution of Christians due to colonial guilt feelings. They don't want to impose western values. She criticises 'this idea that Christianity is a western concept. It isn't. It's a Middle Eastern one.'2



It is indeed wrong to ignore the persecution of Christians. But if we are to reject colonial guilt feelings we need to stop acting in colonial ways. CSW emphasise that they believe in religious liberty for all and recognise that persecution has diverse causes. Not everyone is so nuanced. Some have barely moved on from the nineteenth century, when the persecution of Christians was used as an excuse for imperial expansion. In 1914, Tsarist Russian forces invading the Ottoman Empire claimed they were 'liberating' its Christian subjects.

This summer, as the vicious 'Islamic State' group rampaged its way across parts of Iraq and Syria, Obama's government began re-bombing Iraq. Commentators who urged UK involvement said they wanted to protect Iraqi Christians. Among the loudest cheerleaders was Tory MP Liam Fox who spoke of the need for 'religious tolerance'3.

In his former role as Defence Secretary, Fox promoted the sale of British weapons to Saudi Arabia - which is consistently rated as one of the world's worst regimes for persecution of Christians. There are many who discover an interest in Christian freedom when it suits their agenda to do so.



Sadly, some who campaign for Christian freedom are keen to deny freedom to others. Harry's Place, a supposedly 'anti-extremism' blog, publishes articles every so often about anti-Christian persecution, but this is a site whose reputation is built on attacking Muslims.

When the Morsi government in Egypt was removed in a military coup in 2012, there was a disturbing tendency in parts of the British Christian media to welcome the news. Supporting Egyptians demonstrating against Morsi is one thing; backing a military dictatorship is another.

Egyptian Christian writer Timothy Kaldas criticised 'the cynical exploitation of Christian suffering by the military junta and its supporters'. He pointed out that the regime 'never fails to inform foreign journalists they're not paying enough attention to the crimes being perpetrated against Christians'.4

No doubt some Christians were influenced by the positive response to the new regime displayed by Coptic leaders in Egypt. But let's not make the mistake of thinking that church leaderships speak for all their members, especially when they collude in human rights abuses.



Vladimir Nikiforov, a Roman Catholic priest imprisoned in the USSR, criticises those bishops who accepted state regulations on religion and 'lived opulent lives rubbing shoulders with the party officials'.

Father Vladimir is a reminder that we may be surprised when we listen to the voices of persecuted Christians. He was pleased to be released as greater religious freedom developed under Gorbachev, but he takes a different line from those western Christians who celebrated the fall of the USSR as an answer to prayer. 'How could spreading of capitalism be good?' he asks5.

Listening to persecuted Christians is essential to acting in solidarity. It is solidarity that they need, not the assumption that we know what's best for them. Listening is not always easy even on a practical level, although the internet can sometimes (but not always) help us to find marginalised voices. In listening, we may not like or agree with everything we hear. Persecuted Christians are as diverse as other Christians.



So how can we offer solidarity effectively? Let's begin by asking why we want to support persecuted Christians. Vladimir Nikiforov insists that 'any violation of human rights is an offence against God regardless whose rights are violated'. He dislikes 'the tribal approach when we defend only our own kind'.

Are we loving our neighbours as ourselves or just sticking up for members of our own tribe?

A number of church leaders have rightly called on British government and society to take in Christian refugees fleeing IS in Iraq and Syria. But why stop there? The majority of IS victims are Muslims. Why take Christian refugees but not Muslim ones?

If we are serious about challenging persecution, we need to tackle its causes. The abuse of Christians in Saudi Arabia is part of a viciously unjust system that denies free speech and religious liberty and discriminates heavily against migrant workers (who include most of the country's Christians). Khataza Gondwe, on behalf of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, accuses the UK government of giving the Saudi regime special treatment due to 'strategic interest'. She says the British government 'can't speak up [about anti-Christian persecution] in other countries with any integrity,' because of their attitude to Saudi Arabia6.



For Christians in the UK, the most effective way to support the rights of Christians - and others - in Saudi Arabia may be to lobby for a change of policy in Britain. In particular, we can campaign for an end to arms sales to the Saudi regime, which provide it with tools to crush protest and carry an implicit message of approval.

Another example concerns Christians in the West Bank. Open Doors, who say they are 'serving persecuted Christians worldwide' attribute the persecution of Christians in Palestine to 'Islamic extremism'7. While I am not denying the existence of anti-Christian prejudice in Palestine, the majority of statements produced by Palestinian Christians attribute their problems overwhelmingly to Israeli occupation.

When I visited Bethlehem, for example, I met Arlette, a Christian who said 'there is some tension between Christian and Muslim' but that most people got on fine with each other. She was far more upset about the Israeli separation barrier, which surrounds her gift shop on three sides and has severely reduced her income8. If we want to support Palestinian Christians, we need to campaign for an end to occupation.



In many British churches, persecuted Christians are mentioned in the prayers of intercession. Do we pray for an end to the underlying causes of persecution and ask what we can do to challenge them? Do we also pray for non-Christians persecuted because of their faith - our neighbours who we are called to love as ourselves?

Taking a stand for universal human rights means we can defend Christians' freedom with integrity and compassion. It may at times means standing up against church leaders who collude with oppression. It means condemning persecution carried out by Christians as well as against them.

We need to support persecuted Christians not because they are Christians but because they are persecuted.


Symon Hill is an associate of the Ekklesia thinktank and a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association. His recent writing includes a chapter of the new Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns, published by War Resisters International.



1 Ruth Alexander, 'Are there really 100,000 new Christian martyrs every year?', BBC News website, 12 November 2013 (http://www., accessed 8 September 2014)

2 Interviewed 8 September 2014

3 Liam Fox, 'ISIS are Britain's enemy and have to be defeated', Daily Mail, 12 August 2014

4 Timothy E Kaldas, 'Egypt's military and its Christian citizens', The Morning Digest, 25 August 2013

5 Interviewed 8 September 2014

6 Interviewed 8 September 2014

7 'World Watch List: Palestinian Territories', Open Doors website ( palestinian_territories.php, accessed 8 September 2014)

8 Interviewed 5 September 2012.