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A New Century of Martyrs: Anti-Christian Intolerance

  • Chuck Colson Chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries
  • Updated Aug 17, 2017
A New Century of Martyrs: Anti-Christian Intolerance

On June 6, Martin Burnham, an American missionary, died in a battle between his Islamic kidnappers and Filipino troops sent to rescue him. Burnham, thus, becomes the newest member of what the Te Deum, an ancient hymn, calls "the white-robe army of the martyrs" -- an army that, according to a recent estimate, is a staggering 70 million strong.

But what's even more staggering is that, according to the same estimate, 45 million, or two-thirds of all Christian martyrs, died in the twentieth century. These estimates are contained in a new book, The New Persecuted: Inquiries into Anti-Christian Intolerance in the New Century of Martyrs. It's written by an Italian journalist, Antonio Socci. The estimates are derived from sources such as Oxford's World Christian Encyclopedia.

Many of the martyrs died in places like the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. But there are others, lesser known places where Christians were killed for their faith, like Turkey, where 1.5 million Armenian Christians were murdered.

And the killing continues. Socci estimates that an average of 160,000 Christians have been killed every year since 1990 in places like Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan, and Pakistan.

Socci writes that the "global persecution of Christianity is still in progress but in most cases is ignored by the mass media and Christians in the west."

What's not being ignored is his book, which has many critics up in arms. For writing about persecution and identifying Islamic extremism as the "main danger" to Christians worldwide, Socci has been accused of promoting anti-Islamic prejudice and other transgressions. Other critics question Socci's figures, saying that many of those he's calling martyrs died in "conflicts that had little to do with religion."

Even if Socci were off by two-thirds -- and I don't think he is -- that still leaves 15 million martyrs this past century, more than enough to warrant the label "persecution." How many Christians have to die before the world takes notice?

Others argue that by portraying the twentieth century as a century of massacres, Socci diminishes the significance of the Holocaust. But as Ted Olsen of Christianity Today noted, talking about the millions of Christians killed for their faith doesn't diminish the evil of the Holocaust anymore than noting "the millions who died during Stalin's purges."

What's really bothering many of Socci's critics is the idea of Christians as victims instead of victimizers. Like commentator Tommaso Debenedetti, they see the book as part of a "right wing plot" to "deflect accusations of intolerance" away from Christians.

For some of these critics, even if there is persecution, Christians had it coming. That's why Olsen is right when he asks, "How long until people start arguing that the murder of millions of Christians worldwide isn't that big a deal because of the Crusades and Inquisitions?"

Well, Martin Burnham's death is definitely a big deal, as are those of other Christians who have died for their faith. For the sake of our suffering brethren, we must arouse public opinion and the power of civilized governments against all Christian persecution: the kind that prompts the killing and the kind that prompts the willingness to turn a blind eye.

For further reading:

  • Rory Carroll, "New book says Christians suffered most," The Guardian (London), 4 June 2002.
  • Ted Olsen, "Weblog: Anti-Persecution Book Said to Denigrate Holocaust, Muslims, and Immigrants," Christianity Today, 4 June 2002.
  • Ted Olsen, "Martin Burnham Went Out Serving with Gladness," Christianity Today, 10 June 2002.
  • Visit the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom's website. You can read its annual report on religious persecution. (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
  • Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial (Encounter Books, 2001).

Copyright 2002 Prison Fellowship Ministries. All Rights Reserved.

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For more information about Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship Ministries, visit http://www.prisonfellowship.