How many Christians are killed each year because of their faith?

From time to time politicians and others quote figures indicating how many Christians are killed for their faith each year.

There has been sharp debate about these figures, prompting the Religious Liberty Partnership to publish, earlier this year, a Statement on Christians Killed For their Faith:

The Religious Liberty Partnership strives to demonstrate integrity in all its communications. This is to include integrity in promotions; integrity in information gathering; integrity in dissemination; and integrity in use of statistics and facts.

As members of the RLP, we therefore appeal for a cautious and wise use of figures, with understanding and insight into the underlying methodologies and their limitations.

We reject any exaggerations, oversimplifications or misrepresentations of figures about Christians killed for their faith, and warn that such abuse would jeopardize our credibility in all respects.

We warn the Christian community against any sensationalism that easily can become associated with ‘martyr’ figures. We have better motives for walking alongside the persecuted, and consider sensationalism counterproductive.

We therefore seek the promotion of truth and transparency about the painful and deplorable reality that too many people around the world are being killed for religious motives, or on account of their faith or none, including a large number of Christians.

The following is provided as background and context for the above statement.

How many Christians are killed for their faith?
Reflection within the Religious Liberty Partnership, By Christof Sauer

The simple answer is: It depends. It depends on how you define a Christian. It depends on how you categorize the circumstances of their death. And it depends on how you count them.

The members of the Religious Liberty Partnership have pledged to use the most reliable statistics to describe the number of Christians persecuted or killed for religious motives. We strictly use the best available statistics calculated in a solid and scholarly approach. Arriving at reliable figures is laborious, but the Partnership agrees that, to be a credible voice, the work is necessary.

Estimates of the number of Christians killed for their faith depend on the definitions and assumptions used.

At the low end of the scale, RLP member Open Doors preferably counts documented cases, based on direct evidence wherever this is available. Where this is not possible it makes a conservative estimate based on indirect evidence. For the 12-months period ending October 2017, it found 3,066 cases. In the two previous 12 months periods, Open Doors documented or estimated 1,207 and 7,106 cases respectively.

Open Doors also counts only those cases where specifically anti-Christian motives can be determined. This, too, keeps the number down. Proponents of a broader definition maintain that this narrower approach would miss out on some individuals who are popularly considered martyrs nowadays. Critics also maintain the such an approach does not sufficiently honour the seriousness and the magnitude of the problem.

Is 3,066 the true number of Christians killed for religious reasons in 2017? Certainly not, as it is a declared undercount. Obtaining reliable documentation in hostile, contested places such as northeast Nigeria is difficult and often not even possible. The actual number definitely is higher, but this number is a reliable absolute minimum for 2017.

Toward the middle of the scale, another RLP member, the International Institute for Religious Freedom, estimates between 4,000 and 6,000 Christians were killed for their faith in 2017. In 2016, its estimate was 2,000 to 3,000. An estimate of a general average given in 2015 was 7,000 to 8,000. The institute argues that it often is difficult to determine with certainty whether a victim was a Christian, or if the killing was related to faith. As the aim is to estimate probable minimum and maximum numbers the numbers are somewhat larger than the bare minimum numbers of Open Doors.

At the high end of the scale, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity has estimated that 90,000 Christians were killed from mid-2016 to mid-2017 for religious motives. It is a dramatic number, and thus is widely quoted. But there are several things to keep in mind about this figure:

  • It is a not based on an actual count but is declared “a calculated annual average over a 10-year period.” The number has its origins in an estimate for a ten-year period in the past that is averaged. The Center’s 2018 figure is a projection of that estimate into the present. The previous annual average over a 10-year period before 2010 was 100,000.
  • In reality, the number of Christians killed varies widely from year to year. For example, the actual documentable number dropped dramatically from 2015 to 2016 and rose again for 2017. Dramatic annual swings in the number make projections uncertain and averages rather meaningless for advocacy purposes.
  • The Center’s definition of Christian fatalities as ‘martyrs’  is extremely broad and designed for demographic purposes. It cannot be equated with theological definitions of martyrs which make a clear connection of the murders to the Christian faith indispensable. The Center’s definition rather includes victims of mass murders and civil wars, as well as victims of Christian-on-Christian ethnic violence. These make up the overwhelming bulk of the figures.
  • The estimates attempt to screen out killings where the motive is unrelated to religion. However, critics maintain that the method to determine the cross section between Christian martyrs and victims of genocides/mass murders is not sufficiently transparent and the results not substantiated. Plausibility tests on various years make the estimates appear implausible according to critics.

When a number is quoted, it is usually the high end estimate, often characterised as “one Christian dies every six minutes.”

For example:

The joint declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill states: “Our gaze must firstly turn to those regions of the world where Christians are victims of persecution. In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated. Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed. It is with pain that we call to mind the situation in Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, and the massive exodus of Christians from the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles, together with other religious communities.”

Today we observe a terrifying picture: the two-thousand year Christian presence in the Middle East and Africa is rapidly disappearing. According to figures by the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, in 2016 alone there were killed 90 thousand Christians, that is, every six minutes a Christian dies for his faith. Between half a million and six hundred thousand Christians are enduring harassment and restrictions in confessing their faith. This means that the world community has been unable to learn the lessons of the destructive wars of the twentieth century and, as before, places political interests above fundamental human rights.

[‘The Violation of Religious Rights and Freedoms: Intolerance, Discrimination and Persecution’ Presentation by Metropolitan HILARION of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations at the 5th European Catholic-Orthodox Forum (Paris, 10th January 2017)]

This information is often quoted as coming from Massimo Introvigne:

Christians continue to be the most persecuted believers in the world with over 90,000 followers of Christ being killed in the last year, according to prominent Italian sociologist and author Massimo Introvigne.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Introvigne, the founder of the independent Center for Studies on New Religions based in Turin, Italy, cited statistics compiled by the Center for Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for a annual report that is expected to be released next month.

Meanwhile, over 90,000 Christians have been killed in the past year, which equates to one death every 6 minutes on average, Introvigne added.

[Christian Post Dec 30, 2016]




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