Christian campaigners will be heartened by the news that the number of people sentenced to death in the US reached a 30-year low in 2003 when the Death Row population fell for the third year in a row.
The US government reported at the weekend that last year 144 inmates in 25 states were given the death penalty, 24 fewer than in 2002 and less than half the average of 297 between 1994 and 2000, according to the Justice Department.
Most denominations and many Christians throughout the USA and the rest of the world are opposed to the death penalty, based on their understanding of justice and respect for life.
At the end of last year Pope John Paul II added his voice to support the renewal of the international campaign against the death penalty.
Death penalty opponents say the report shows how wary the public is of executions, heightened by concerns about whether the punishment is administered fairly and publicity about those wrongly convicted. Illinois emptied its Death Row in 2003 after several inmates were found to be innocent.
"What we're seeing is hesitation on the death penalty, skepticism, reluctance," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centre.
ìI do think there is some concern about the death penalty, and it's reflected in death sentences from juries."
Opponents also point to other reasons, including fallout from Supreme Court decisions requiring that juries be told that life in prison without parole is an alternative to death.
Supporters doubt the decline signifies a major shift in public opinion about the death penalty, which is in effect in 38 states and the federal justice system.
"I don't think it means a change in death penalty attitudes. I think it means the numbers change," said Dianne Clements, president of the victims advocacy group Justice For All.
At the end of last year, 3,374 prisoners were awaiting execution, 188 fewer than in 2002, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Illinois accounted for 91 percent of the decline, the result of former Gov. George Ryan's decision to commute the death sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison and to pardon four others.
Nationally, 267 people were removed from Death Row last year. That was the largest drop since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.
Last year 65 people, all men, were executed. Texas again was the leader, with 24, followed by Oklahoma with 14 and North Carolina with 7. No other state had more than three. Florida had three executions in 2003 and ended the year with 364 on Death Row.
All but one of those men executed nationwide were killed by lethal injection. The other was electrocuted. Since 1977, 885 inmates were executed through 2003 by 32 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.