If martyrdom is the sharpest edge of persecution, then Christians in northern Nigeria, Egypt, and Iraq felt the blade fall most heavily in 2011 with three hundred and ninety- eight Christians killed for their faith in these three countries alone.
The figures are from Open Doors researchers gathering data in preparation for the annual World Watch List, due for release on January 4, which ranks the fifty countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. In reality, the true numbers are far higher, but most martyrdoms rarely attain a standard of proof that can be definitely reported, often because they occur in very remote areas and among communities that are deeply underground.
Northern Nigeria had a total of 300 confirmed martyrs – those who lost their lives as a result of their identification with Jesus Christ – but the true total is thought to be in the high hundreds. In April 2011 Muslim extremists in various northern states that apply sharia law went on the rampage after the defeat of the Muslim Presidential candidate to the Christian incumbent, Good Luck Jonathan. The attacks left at least 170 Christians dead. Barely a month goes by in Nigeria, however, without reports of militant Islamic groups attacking entire Christian villages or bombing churches. Between August 22 and September 22, more than 100 Christians were killed in Plateau state alone. A pastor in Jos told Open Doors, “We have a history of Muslim-Christian violence in this area going back thirty years or more, but few of us have seen the level of organized Muslim militancy as we see now.”
Egypt ranked second on the list, with a minimum of sixty believers killed, followed by Iraq with thirty-eight confirmed deaths. Although most deaths were at the hands of Islamic extremists, there were exceptions. Twenty-seven Members of an ethnic religious group from North Africa but primarily Egypt, where they are the largest Christian denomination in the country. More Christian demonstrators lost their lives in the so called Masapero massacre in Cairo on October the 9th. Some were shot by soldiers, some run over by tanks, and some killed by Muslim extremists. In Iraq no less than 21 Christians lost their lives in Baghdad alone, where cleansing of Christians from certain neighborhoods continues.
In Colombia, five Christians were killed in 2011: three by right wing rebel groups, and two missionaries by illegal militias. The true number is thought to be nearer twenty and many of the murders were attributed to “narco-crime,” because drug runners see Christian leaders as threats to their rackets. In Mexico at least three Christians were killed, two of them Evangelical pastors killed in the lawless state of Chiapas by extreme traditionalist Christian elements. In tiny Laos, four Hmong Christian women were killed after being brutally beaten in front of their husbands and children.
“The importance of martyrs is not measured by their numbers but in their symbolic significance; an inspirational death can revive the spirits of an entire church,” said a Pakistani pastor in 2011 following the high profile martyrdom of Christian Cabinet Minister, Shabaz Bhatti who was gunned down by Muslim extremists in his car on March 2nd. The 42-year-old Cabinet Minister was responsible for minority affairs in the government and was the highest ranking Christian in the land. His crime was to dare to attempt to repeal Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which allows anyone to accuse another person of slandering the Prophet Mohammed and to have them instantly jailed. Bhatti’s death shocked the world, demoralizing Pakistan’s Christians, yet also inspiring them. He told reporters only weeks before his death, “I am living for my…suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights.”
Many Christians who die as a result of persecution are not counted as martyrs. The World Christian Encyclopedia defines martyrs as, “believers in Christ who lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.” Although not listed as martyrs, five Eritrean Christians jailed for their faith died this year in prison as a result of illness, and there is evidence that they were denied medical attention by authorities.
The number of persecuted Christians runs into the hundreds of millions in the world today. Martyrs remain a tiny minority of the total world population of 7 billion; yet often their stories dominate the headlines of the persecuted church. As a Chinese pastor in Beijing confided, “This is how it should be – there is no light more dazzling than the life laid down for Christ, because it proves we have a God not only worth living for, but worth dying for.”
Lord Jesus, when any member of Your body suffers, we know that You share in the depths of their pain and reach out to bring comfort and healing. We turn to You today and ask that You would bring restoration and healing to Your body around the world. Though we are inspired by the faith of our brothers and sisters who loved You more than their own lives and have even now entered into Your heavenly kingdom, we also know that each of these faithful believers leaves behind loved ones who grieve and miss them. Please comfort and sustain the families and local church congregations of Your children who chose death rather than denying You in 2011. We pray that You would move in power on behalf of the persecuted church to remove or change the hearts of leaders who would persecute them. Amen.
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