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In the study of martyrdom and contemporary persecution, it’s rare for the body counters to disagree. It’s like haggling over the number of buttons on the dress your grandmother is buried in. At graveside, some points of fact fade in significance.
So it’s noteworthy that the global charity Open Doors publicly challenged a recent accounting of the number of Christian martyred compiled by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity. In a treasure trove of data on global Christianity, the center reports 90,000 believers martyred annually. Open Doors, in the January release of its annual World Watch List, cited only a fraction of that number—1,207 believers killed globally “for faith-related reasons.”
The two organizations used vastly different methodology. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity added up estimated killings of Christians between 2006 and 2015 and divided by 10. Open Doors based its figures on eyewitness accounts.
The Gordon-Conwell center counts anyone who “died prematurely, acting out their faith,” said assistant director Gina Zurlo. That includes Christians killed in war. Two-thirds of the number the center cited were victims of tribal conflicts, while nearly half were victims of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Open Doors director of research Ron Boyd-MacMillan said its figure is “probably lower than it should be, but you’ve got to give figures you can absolutely verify.” He told the BBC there was “a lot of exaggeration” relating to the persecution of Christians.
Numbers matter, and the dispute is clarifying. The number of Christians killed in conflict of all types is helpful. At the same time, it’s useful to know exactly how many have been targeted specifically for a public testimony of faith. In the end, God alone names and numbers His martyrs. It’s important for Christians not to exaggerate before a watching world, but equally important not to miss the larger picture.
Allowing religious expression to have a prominent and public place in any community is the essence of free society.
Overall, persecution worsened in 2016, with 215,000 people experiencing “high, very high, or extreme persecution,” Open Doors estimates. Particularly troubling is the rise in nationalist crackdowns in India, the world’s largest democracy, and in China, where even state-sanctioned, high-profile church pastors no longer are safe from arrest. While not the leading cause of persecution in those countries, Islamic extremism remains the lead driver of attacks on Christians worldwide.
The latest World Watch List’s top ten persecuting countries include most of the world’s hot spots for overall conflict: North Korea again tops the list, followed by Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Eritrea. By now it should be well established that from religious tyranny flow other forms of tyranny, leading to war, arms proliferation, and the kind of wretched disordering that produces failed states.
There’s a reason the founders made religious freedom the first order of business in the Constitution. Without the First Amendment’s protection of thought and belief, none of the others matter. Allowing religious expression to have a prominent and public place in any community is the essence of free society.
We are hearing new policy from the Trump administration—on trade pacts, U.S. aid, support for Israel, and targeting ISIS—but the whole world most needs to hear from America the pre-eminence of freedom of thought and religious belief. It’s enshrined not only in our Constitution but in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the most translated document in the world.
Beyond a ringing statement of the philosophical priority animating U.S. foreign policy, the Trump administration would do well to study the World Watch List as a lead indicator of countries that will bedevil the United States. And to reorient foreign policy strategy accordingly.
Putting America First is all right for national security, but it’s historically not been the principal way America has succeeded in the world. For Christians who follow a gospel that defies ethnic, religious, and geographic boundaries, it’s also problematic. In setting foreign policy priorities, one way to avoid the pitfall of an America First focus is to put America’s First Amendment first.