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Historically, a martyr (from Greek martys for "witness") was considered to be a person who died for their religious faith, typically by being tortured to death.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Martyrdom Today
3 Hero or villain?


Christian martyrs in the first three centuries A.D. were crucified in the same manner as Roman political prisoners or eaten by lions as a circus spectacle. They are recognized as martyrs because they have preferred to die rather than renounce their Christian faith, usually by making a sacrifice to a pagan deity.

With the Constantinian shift and the identification of Christianity with the Roman Empire, the tables were turned and pagans sometimes became martyrs if they refused Conversion to Christianity. It didn't take long before Augustine of Hippo authorized the use of force against heretics or fellow Christians who refused to fall in line with orthodoxy. Intra-Christian persecution and the martyrdom that sometimes went with it became institutionalised in the office of the inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Some Christian sects such as Anabaptists and Mormons trace their origins to widespread persecution and martyrdom at the hands of mainstream Christians trying to suppress their break away sects. The Anabaptists have embraced this part of their heritage to such an extent that the book Martyrs Mirror, which describes the deaths of Anabaptist Martyrs in the 16th and 17th century is still widely owned and read in Mennonite and Amish households (see Anabaptist persecution for more).

Martyrdom Today

Many church historians believe that there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in the first 19 centuries combined.

The term has since been used metaphorically for people killed in a historical struggle for some cause, such as Steve Biko or Rachel Corrie, or those whose deaths served to galvanize a particular movement, such as Matthew Shepard.

In the 20th century, many Muslims called suicide bombers belonging to Islamist and Palestinian nationalist groups "martyrs". Such usage is very controversial and generally has not occurred in the English media. On the other hand, the Arab word "shaheed" has been sometimes used since in English it carries no obvious emotional baggage.

A person who was expelled from school for his or her religious beliefs may be called a school martyr, no matter whether the cause for expulsion is student's religious beliefs or those of his or her parents.

Hero or villain?

The term "martyr" is in some ways semantically interchangeable with "hero" — both are almost always controversial. The phrase 'one man's hero is another's criminal' is a simple way of expressing this disparity. Warriors throughout history returning from battle are typically revered for "heroism" and "bravery". In recent history, those that commit criminal acts during war run the risk of military courts martial. In all cultures, war dead are considered to be in some sense "martyrs." This is true of U.S. soldiers killed in foreign military operations — the U.S. President commonly refers to "their sacrifice" as being "for the cause of freedom." The actual word "martyr" is not used, however.

Suicide bombers in Palestine are typically hailed as "martyrs" by many Palestinans (the actual percentage is also disputed) due to Islam's prohibition against suicide. It is generally believed by most people, except for the militants involved themselves, that the cause of Palestinian freedom or nationalism tends to be hurt by the targeting of Israeli civilians by terrorists.

Such terrorist attacks are generally denounced around the world due to the indiscriminate and intentional targeting of civilians.

The isolated but still worryingly widespread embrace of martyrdom and death itself in parts of the Arab and Muslim world, if WMD is involved, has been characterized as the number one most likely cause of the extinction of the human race. This risk is arguably far smaller than the risk of nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, but if they are the only people eager to detonate e.g. nuclear weapons or pandemic diseases, other major risks are present but less obvious.