Why Is It So Hard to Study Persecution?

If you want to find out about the extent persecution is affecting Christians around the world, you certainly can. There are a number of ministries and agencies tracking persecution around the world.  But the research varies dramatically from one source to the next. Accurate research on persecution is not easy to obtain for several reasons. First, those committing persecution are, obviously, not interested in reporting it, and those who suffer oftentimes have neither the means nor the time to report what has happened to them. Consider, for instance, this testimony from North Korea:

INTERVIEWEE 37: “…A person caught carrying the Bible is doomed.  When a person is caught [worshipping], he will be sent to kwanliso [prison camp]…and the whole family may disappear.”[1]

Disappearing people are notoriously difficult to count. So, the nature of the persecution dynamic agitates against accurate reporting.

Christian Persecution StudyAccurate research is also difficult to obtain because of a general confusion of categories. So, second, category confusion leads to skewed numbers relating to persecution statistics.  What counts as persecution, and what is political oppression? When the Muslim Sudanese government in the North attacks and razes Christian and animist villages in the South, is the government guilty of persecuting Christians?  True, hundreds of thousands of Christians were slaughtered in the Sudanese Civil War. However, thousands of animists and other non-Christians were killed at the same time. Their villages were targeted, too. In what category do the dead Christians of Sudan fit—victims of political oppression or victims of persecution?

There are many other such questions related to categories of suffering. What is legitimate criminal punishment and what is an abuse of the law for the purpose of persecuting an evangelist? Stories abound which describe successful evangelists being arrested and charged with gun smuggling, spying, or stealing—often evidence is planted in their homes or in their vehicles to substantiate the charges. Even more to the point, what happens when Christians actually defy the law and proselytize their neighbors or smuggle Bibles into forbidden places. When is the arrest an act of justice, and when is it systemic persecution?

The Apostle Peter warns against suffering as a criminal or an evildoer. Peter makes plain that Christ’s blessing is for those who suffer on account of Christ—not those who suffer for being criminals. Where exactly is that line drawn? One may be imprisoned, tortured, or killed for a principle or a cause, but that suffering may not necessarily be the suffering of a martyr. There are countless examples of people suffering and dying on principle (think about the Civil Rights movement, the pro-life movement, or the actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Such suffering may or may not have been the result of Christian persecution.  Clear-cut categories are definitely needed in order to guarantee accurate figures concerning the size and scope of the Christian persecution problem.

So, the numbers are affected by the lack of reporting and by the confusion of categories. Third, the numbers are also affected by the lack of attention in general toward persecution. Relatively speaking, very few outlets are paying attention to Christian persecution.  One need not be overly critical to notice the barrenness of reporting by secular media on behalf of Christians.  John Allen explains that there is “a reflexive hostility to institutional religion, especially Christianity, in some sectors of secular opinion. People conditioned by such views are inclined to see Christianity as the agent of repression, not its victim.”[2]  Secular media, it seems, have a hard time tracking what they don’t believe can exist.


[1] Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea, Persecuted, 54.

[2] John Allen, The Global War, 15.

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