, Salem, MA

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.

“We don’t know who killed us,” he said. “And we don’t know why they killed us.” But many who oppose insurgent armies — and are targeted because of it — are acting out of moral principle, rejecting lawlessness and killing.

“What about Joan of Arc?” Johnson asks. Was she fighting for France or for her faith? He recalls pointing out to the BBC reporter that the 20th century religious martyrs memorialized in Westminster Abbey include Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed after being implicated in the plot to kill Hitler. Were they not cut down for standing up for their religious beliefs?

Johnson counts the 1 million killed in the Iran/Iraq War as martyrs for Islam even though those on both sides were Moslem and largely Shia Moslems at that. Yet, animosity between fundamentalist Iran and the more secular Iraq certainly played a part in the conflict.

The mistreatment of Christians doesn’t always end in death. Sometimes, persecution means varying degrees of suppression, says Johnson, through social means and via government. In Saudi Arabia, any Christian worship is harshly punished. In communist countries, churches are driven underground.

With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, he adds, persecution globally has actually lessened for Christians. Still, he said, “five-hundred million live in a country where they are likely to be persecuted.”

Johnson notes that the United States government has had difficulties dealing with all this. In Iraq, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities is the target of murderous terrorists, driving a large proportion out of the country. The U.S. has hesitated to show overt support for them, he believes, lest it make their situation worse. Egyptian Copts find themselves in a similar bind.

The mistreatment of their co-coreligionist has seemingly escaped the attention of many American Christians. Asked why, Johnson says, “I don’t know.” He adds, “I have a friend who works 24 hours a day trying to get the Iraqi Christians on the radar.”

The Global Christianity Center is supported by sponsors and Gordon-Conwell. Seminarians, some with international backgrounds, pitch in to help. The organization has been up and running for 10 years. For Johnson, the concern seems to be as much about freedom as religion. He stresses that religious freedom is affirmed in the United Nations charter.

He complains of cases where Christians persecute other Christians and of people who suffer though they have no religion at all.

“An atheist has been in an Indonesian jail for a couple of years because it’s illegal to be an atheist in Indonesia,” he said. “Everybody’s supposed to have their freedom.”