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November 23, 2013

Dying for their faith, by the numbers

Hamilton study center is key resource on religious persecution

HAMILTON — How many Christians around the world are killed each year for their faith?

When the British Broadcasting Corporation recently wanted to test a commonly used number — 100,000 — they went to the source. And the source is in Hamilton at Gordon-Conwell Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity. When it comes to religion, the center’s numbers are often quoted by major publishers like Time (Time Almanac) and news outlets like Reuters.

The work, done in a small library on the Gordon-Conwell campus, has been useful to religious writers like John Allen in his book “The Global War on Christians” and in “The Global Assault on Christians” by Paul Marshall, Nina Shea and Lela Gilbert. The center contributes importantly to the World Christian Encyclopedia. The facility houses thousands of books and a million documents.

BBC reporter Ruth Alexander was not happy, however, with the answers she got from the Global Christianity Center, and she suggested that the total of 100,000 deaths is exaggerated.

But it’s all in the definition, explains Todd Johnson, 55, director of the center. Deciding who has died for their faith isn’t as easily done as it sounds.

Johnson, whose training at the William Carey International University included courses in statistics, explains that the Center for the Study of Global Christianity charts the numbers of Christians and those of other faiths, country by country.

“The first question people ask is where do the numbers come from? ... We have people on the ground everywhere telling us what’s going on,” he said. He estimates they use 1,000 sources, with local churches sometimes self-reporting and surveys and polls thrown into the mix. “You never rely on a single witness.”

The BBC faulted the center’s methodology, contending that too many, up to 90 percent, came from the civil war raging in the Congo. Are victims of such strife actually killed because of their religion? The difficulty of deciding such a thing is summed up, says Johnson, in the quote of a man in the Congo whose family was slaughtered.

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