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Numbered victims

Experts try to get an accurate yearly count of Christian martyrs

MODERN MARTYRS: Mourners and priests gather in the back lot of a Catholic church now turned into a mass grave in Madalla, Nigeria, for dozens killed in a Christmas Day bombing by a radical Islamist sect. Associated Press/Photo by Sunday Aghaeze

Numbered victims
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Faye Pama Mysa, a Pentecostal pastor in northeastern Nigeria, was in his home in mid-May when militants thought to be affiliated with the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram fatally shot him. Mysa became the latest among thousands of casualties of Muslim-Christian violence in that African nation.

Religious freedom is under attack across the world today, and much of the globe’s religious persecution and violence targets Christians. A 2012 Pew Forum report contends that three-quarters of the world’s 7 billion people live under significant political or social restrictions on religious liberty.

In May, a Vatican official even told the United Nations that some 100,000 Christians—people like Pastor Mysa—lose their lives for the faith every year. However, that number is controversial. The Vatican’s assertion matches a report published in 2011 by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The critical question, to those who dispute the high number, is who counts as a martyr?

According to the Gordon-Conwell study, martyrs are “believers in Christ who have lost their lives, prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.” This may sound like a fairly focused definition, but it allows the Gordon-Conwell experts to include episodes such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which approximately 800,000 people died. Rwanda is overwhelmingly Christian: Both perpetrators and victims of the genocide were of the same faith. Similarly, the Gordon-Conwell estimate includes those who died in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which claimed approximately 5.4 million lives from 1998 to 2007. The Gordon-Conwell study notes that many of the Congolese victims perished from causes indirectly related to the conflict, such as disease and malnutrition.

Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, an expert on global religious persecution, contends that, as awful as the situations in Rwanda and the Congo were, it is misleading to count most of those victims as martyrs. He defines martyrs as those killed for their faith “who would not have been killed had they not been Christians.” By this standard, he thinks that there might only be 7,300 Christian martyrs a year on average—an appalling number, but one that can stand up to scrutiny from secular critics who, according to Schirrmacher, routinely question higher totals such as the Vatican’s.

modern martyrs: Mourners and priests gather in the back lot of a Catholic church now turned into a mass grave in Madalla, Nigeria, for dozens killed in a Christmas Day bombing by a radical Islamist sect.

Sinking ROC?

The nondenominational Richmond (Va.) Outreach Center, known as “The ROC,” is one of America’s fastest-growing churches. But legal troubles for two of its pastors have sent the congregation into turmoil. Texas authorities have arrested and charged Pastor Geronimo “G” Aguilar with seven felony counts, including aggravated sexual abuse of a child under 14, in two cases that date back to the mid-1990s.

Aguilar has taken a temporary leave of absence from The ROC, as has Pastor Jason Helmlinger, whom police have accused of making threatening phone calls to former church member Allen Caldwell. Caldwell had publicly alleged “inappropriate behavior between Pastor G and some church wives.” Helmlinger reportedly called Caldwell, “yelled profanities and threatened to do bodily harm” to him.

In a statement in May, The ROC’s board of directors said that they consider the charges against Aguilar “completely untrue and unfounded,” and will continue paying him during his leave. Five days later, the board announced that Helmlinger had “voluntarily removed himself from his pastoral duties” while he dealt with his misdemeanor charges, and that he would “seek counseling regarding this issue.” Founded by Aguilar in 2001, The ROC has a weekly attendance of 11,000 on several campuses, a Spanish-language service, and several affiliated social ministries. —T.K.

Thomas S. Kidd Thomas is a distinguished professor of history and associate director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is a former WORLD religion correspondent.


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