A mere 1 million 20th century Christian martyrs? (updated)

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Every now and then, a journalist gets pulled into a serious error when covering a speech or some other form of public presentation of complicated material.

It happens. It’s especially disturbing when the speaker — perhaps a person of great authority — makes an error and the reporter is in the position of having to quote the bad information or to challenge the information in print. Awkward.

However, it appears that The Baltimore Sun needs to run an immediate correction after this morning’s coverage of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s final address as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is the context of what almost certainly is a horrible and painful error.

“Painful”? Yes, especially if there are any Orthodox Armenians, Russians, Egyptians, Syrians or Romanians (I could make this list longer with ease) who still read this particular newspaper. Frankly, I know very few who are still subscribers.

Here is the top of the story, including the quote I am questioning:

At a time when the nation’s top Roman Catholic leaders have been making headlines with their stands on religious liberty and immigration reform, Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened this year’s convention of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by focusing his attention beyond American borders.

Actually, this lede is misleading. It’s clear that Dolan’s emphasis was on religious liberty AROUND THE WORLD, including the United States. Let’s move on:

Catholics and other Christians are facing so much violent persecution around the world today that the 21st century could accurately be termed “a new age of martyrs,” Dolan said Monday as he addressed church leaders gathered at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore.

More than a million people have been killed solely due to their faith in Jesus Christ since the year 2000, he said — more than suffered such a fate during the entire 20th century.

What was that again? There were a million Christian martyrs — or fewer than that — in the 20th century?

What about the Armenian genocide alone? That’s a controversial issue, but you will frequently see claims that 1.2 million or more believers died in that wave of persecution.

And what about the persecution of the church in Russia in the decades before and after the establishment of the Communist regime?

Once again, statistics vary widely for the number of Russian Orthodox bishops, priests and believers who died as martyrs. However, most academic studies put the number somewhere between 10 and 20 million killed. And what about Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe? What about previous rounds of persecution in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, etc.? And I in no way mean to imply that the Orthodox in these lands were the only Christians to die for their faith in the troubled 20th century! No way. I am simply noting some obvious cases.

I have searched to see if other media outlets have quoted Cardinal Dolan making this error.

In the Catholic News Service report, this section of the speech is rendered in the following manner:

“We are living in what must be recognized as, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, ‘as a new age or martyrs,’” Cardinal Dolan said, noting that as many as 1 million Christians have been killed in the first 13 years of the 21st century because of their faith.

Also note that this wording correctly attributes the “new age of martyrs” quote to a rather important source — the Blessed Pope John Paul II (who faced persecution from Nazi and Communist regimes and saw believers killed).

Then note that in the YouTube at the top of this post, which features a short clip from this speech, the cardinal says:

“One expert calculates that half of all Christian martyrs were killed in the 20th Century alone and the 21st Century has already seen in its first 13 years more than 1 million people killed around the world simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ. One million already, in this still young century.”

Unless Dolan returned to this subject later and inserted language that led to this error, it seems that Sun copy desk allowed a major error to get into print.

Correction please. An urgent one, from the point of view of this Orthodox reader.

Meanwhile, it appears that the story does offer a fair overview of the rest of this important speech. I thought this section was especially gripping:

Dolan laced his remarks with anecdotes of violence directed at Catholic priests and other Christian believers around the world. He described a massacre of Iraqi Christians at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad that left 58 believers dead last year. The “humanitarian catastrophe” flowing from this year’s bloodshed in Syria has also bred religious persecution, he said. Dolan recounted the stories of two Orthodox bishops who were kidnapped and another who was killed by sniper fire while trying to help individuals wounded in the widespread violence.

In August, he said, Muslim extremists stormed a school run by Franciscan sisters in Upper Egypt, raping two and parading three others through a crowd as “prisoners of war,” and he told of a 2008 massacre in Orissa, India, where “hundreds of Christians were murdered and thousands displaced.”

Dolan was clear in pointing out that it isn’t just Christians who face persecution — he cited the abuse of certain sects of Muslims at the hands of others, as well as Buddhists in Tibet who face government torture and oppression. But Dolan said he agreed with John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, a Rome-based journalist and author who has written that “Christians are singled out in far more places and far more often.”

Actually, the cardinal quoted research from the Pew Forum on this topic as well.

UPDATE: A correction has been made that states:

A previous version of this story incorrectly summarized Dolan’s comments about the number of Christians killed in the 20th century because of their faith.

And the wording of the corrected material reads:

Catholics and other Christians are facing so much violent persecution around the world today that the 21st century could accurately be termed “a new age of martyrs,” Dolan said Monday as he addressed church leaders gathered at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore.

More than a million people have been killed solely due to their faith in Jesus Christ since the year 2000, he said — and he cited a calculation that half of all Christian martyrs were killed in the 20th century alone.

To the Sun team: Thank you for the quick and clear correction.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    An interesting story on this from the BBC: Christian martyrs: Do 100,000 people really die for the faith
    each year?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24864587

    • tmatt

      That’s a related topic, but one not directly connected to this error.

      • Julia B

        I think it is directly related. Were the folks killed in Northern Ireland martyrs? Same with the killing of Armenians, etc. Not because they are Christians, but because they are different ethnicity. I have in-laws killed in Iraq who were Catholics – were they martyrs or inconveniently of the wrong ethnicitiy – Assyrian?

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    According to the copy of Dolan’s speech that I took off the internet, the Cardinal was very much defending all Christians. The article I have included the words : These Christians’ suffering” must be ours as well.”
    Also: “I want us to broaden our horizons, to ‘think Catholic’ about our brothers and sisters in the faith now suffering simply because they sign themselves with the cross, bow their heads at the name of Jesus, and profess the Apostle’s Creed.”
    As a corollary to this I wonder if the media is ever going to report how popular Vladimir Putin is becoming among many American Christians because he seems far, far more interested in the fate of Christians in the Middle East than our president and government.

    • tmatt

      URL to the full text please?

  • FW Ken

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