"Nik Ripken, a global strategist with the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, went to southern Sudan to investigate martyrs, he wasn't able to corroborate large numbers of them. He did find many deaths among historically Christian families. But cultural Christians killed in political or ethnic conflicts are not necessarily witnessing for their faith. Thus, they shouldn't be counted as martyrs, Ripken argues. "When I asked a broad section of Christians in southern Sudan how they witnessed to Muslims, they said, 'Bring a Muslim to Christ? Why in the world would we do that?' "
He offers the Christian exodus from Iraq as another example. "Is that real persecution? Absolutely," he said. "Was it due to sharing their faith with their neighbors? No. It was sectarian violence—Muslim against Christian—and a lot of those ['Christians'] can't tell us who Jesus is."
From a short but thought provoking article on the difficulty of defining martyrdom today that can be found here.
I know Russian Orthodox Christians who regard Tsar Nicholas and his family as martyrs (in fact the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has canonised them as such), but were they killed because they were Christian or because they were the ancien regime personified? The fact is that in some traditionally "Christian" cultures such distinctions are meaningless because religious, cultural and national identity have been fused - or should that be confused? Such cultures can even be great persecutors themselves (witness the Tsarist persecution of Russian 'Old Believers'), which calls into question their Christian status.
Interestingly, Pope Francis offered this recently: "Politics is a noble activity. We should revalue it, practise it with vocation and a dedication that requires testimony, martyrdom, that is to die for the common good." But in what sense is dying for the common good, however laudable, Christian martyrdom?
Christian martyrdom, I suggest, occurs when someone is killed because of their testimony to the Gospel. Thus, I'm inclined to agree with Ripken that true martyrs are rare even in times of persecution/sectarian violence. That might also mean that true Christians are rare, something Luther thought to be true.
Pic: The Martyrdom of St Stephen