”Martyrdom is a regular, ongoing feature of church life in the 25 percent of global Christianity that we call the ‘underground church’,” claims David Barrett of the World Evangelization Research Center. “In one part of the globe, over 10,000 Christians have been killed every year since 1950, due to clashes with anti-Christian mobs, infuriated relatives, state-organized death squads, and so on.”

Such staggering statements remind us that Christian martyrdom is not confined to the early centuries of Christianity and the Middle Ages. In fact, Barrett’s statistics show martyrdoms increasing, from 35,000 in 1900 to an estimated 260,000 this year. Asked to explain the dreadful upsurge, Barrett says: “All the long-term underlying factors which produce martyrdoms seem to be gradually increasing in our day.” Such factors include widespread social, economic, and political unrest.

From the USSR to Uganda

“The church in the USSR has suffered more severe and sustained persecution than that of any nation in recent history,” claims Patrick Johnstone, compiler of Operation World. The USSR’s anti-Christian activities have gone through peaks and valleys since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, but at one time 88 percent of Russian Orthodox churches were closed and 400 leaders of unregistered Baptist churches were in prison. About 10,000 Christians were sent to Siberian gulags or exiled. In a peculiarly cruel kind of persecution, some 1,000 Christians were prisoners in psychiatric wards. Barrett estimates that of the 60 million killed and 66 million imprisoned between 1917 and 1953, half were Christians.

During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), religious activity was forced underground, most Bibles were destroyed, believers’ homes were looted, and many Christians were imprisoned or executed. In 1983 the government arrested hundreds of church leaders and cracked down on illegal house-church meetings.

Beyond the Soviet Union and China, Christians have laid down their lives for their faith in some 180 countries. In Uganda, under Idi Amin, some 400,000 Christians died, disappeared, or fled the country between 1971 and 1976. The most notable martyr was Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum, apparently shot by Amin himself.

In Vietnam, congregations were disbanded and buildings destroyed. Hundreds of pastors were sent to re-education camps. Other Christians died of starvation and disease because their fields were confiscated and their harvests stolen.

Today, persecution seems most severe in Nepal, where conversions are outlawed, and in Peru, where Christians are caught in a brutal Maoist-inspired guerrilla uprising.

The ever-present possibility of persecution for many Christians calls for response. Daniel Kyanda, who escaped execution under Idi Amin, now represents Christian Solidarity International in Nairobi, Kenya. He goes about Africa giving seminars on preparation for persecution. Why? “When I see more and more Africans being converted, I just conclude that each one is a candidate for persecution,” he says.