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About 7 out of 10 Christians killed worldwide for their faith last year came from just one country: Nigeria.

So claimed a persecution report from Jubilee Campaign this spring. The report turned heads for its numbers, including almost 1,000 martyrs in Nigeria alone. Then, weeks later, Vatican officials warned the United Nations that the worldwide Christian death toll in 2012 was actually 100,000.

The disparate calculations called attention to martyrdom and how researchers measure it. Open Doors' tally of 1,200 Christian martyrs in 2012 aligns more or less with Jubilee's count. By contrast, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) agrees with the Vatican on a number roughly 100 times that. (Religious freedom watchdogs commonly cite both figures.)

Much of the discrepancy hinges on how researchers define martyr, and how closely they double-check each death.

The standard definition of martyr is "believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility," according to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary's David Barrett and Todd Johnson in their 2001 research tome, World Christian Trends.

It's the "situations of witness" aspect that gets tricky.

Johnson, director of the CSGC at Gordon-Conwell, casts a wide net for his research. For example, he counts as martyrs Christians who are targeted for their beliefs or ethnicity, killed while worshiping in a church, or murdered because they are the children of Christians. (Ethnicity is closely identified with a particular religion in many areas.)

His count of 100,000 is a carefully constructed average over the past 10 years. "At the end of the 20th century and ...

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