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The first Christian martyr, but by no means the last


And they cast Stephen out of the City and stoned him. And he lay down and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my soul’ – Acts 7: 59-60

THE compilers of the Book of Common Prayer didn’t mess around. On the day after Christmas, in the story of the stoning of St Stephen, they tell us what Christianity is all about: persecution. Here are some events that those compilers would readily understand . . .

Canon Andrew White was the only Anglican priest left in Baghdad until he was withdrawn in 2014 ‘for security reasons’ – that is, he was in imminent danger of being murdered. The details in his subsequent report are typical of the horrors being perpetrated on three continents.

‘On Christmas morning, Islamic State turned up and they said to our Christian children, “You say the words, the shehada, to convert to Islam, that you will follow Mohammed.” And the four children, all under 15, said, “No, we love Jesus. We have always loved Jesus. We have always followed Jesus. Jesus has always been with us.” The men from IS said, “Say the words!” The children said, “No, we can’t”.’

At this point in his report, Canon White began sobbing: ‘They chopped all their heads off. How do you respond to that? You just cry. They’re my children. That is what we have been going through. That is what we are going through.’

Throughout IS-controlled Iraq, churches were turned into torture chambers for Christians. All who refuse to convert to Islam suffered prolonged torture and many were killed. Abu Aasi, a witness, said, ‘They are blindfolded and handcuffed and IS are breaking all the crosses and statues of Mary. They have turned the ancient Chaldean church of the Immaculate Conception in Mosul into a prison for Christian women.’

The atrocities are not confined to Iraq. In Somalia Muslim terrorists boasted that they slaughtered a group of Christians ‘while they were celebrating Christmas’. Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, spokesman for the gunmen from Al Shabaab, gloatingly announced that they had killed ‘14 Christian enemies’.

In Pakistan, Elizabeth Bibi, a pregnant 28-year-old Christian mother of four, was beaten, scorned and humiliated and made to walk naked through the streets. In the ordeal, she lost her baby. She was then beaten with pipes by two Muslim men. As usual, the police failed to make any arrests and Elizabeth’s relatives received death threats because they insisted on pressing charges.

In Egypt’s Minya province on Christmas Eve last year, the deputy head of a Muslim school was arrested for forming a terrorist cell and plotting violence against Coptic Christians during the Christmas celebrations. Those caught were found to have Molotov cocktails, pictures of the ousted president Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and circuitry connected to mobile phones with which they intended to detonate bombs remotely in churches. Since scores of churches were destroyed in the Islamic uprising of 2013, many Christians were obliged to pray outdoors where the police were powerless to protect them from attack.

In Tehran, as they celebrated Mass in a private house, nine Christians were arrested by paramilitary agents, taken to a secluded location and seven were hanged on the orders of the Iranian regime.

In the Catholic diocese of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria, Christians are terrorised by Boko Haram. Father Gideon Obasogie reported: ‘These people have no homes and are living outdoors in a condition of hopelessness in fear of suicide bombers disguised as nuns.’

In Taraba State, more than 100 Muslim Fulani herdsmen slaughtered 16 Christians, including a one-year-old infant and his mother, and torched several churches and Christians’ homes in two separate attacks. A resident from one of the villages said: ‘We have buried those killed in the attack, and the sad thing is that this is not the first time that such an attack was carried out on Christian communities here. No one cares about us. Lives and properties are being wasted every day, and the government is not doing anything to stop the constant killing of our people.’

Last December police arrested and beat up 36 Christians from the Bahri Evangelical Church, in North Khartoum, for still using the church that authorities had condemned to destruction and which had already been raided and partially demolished during the previous two weeks. ‘We have enjoyed worshipping and praising God in prison,’ one of the arrested Christians said. ‘The power of God was present among us; let the name of God be praised and glorified from now and evermore.’

Meanwhile in the town of Mandera in Kenya, gunmen from Al Shabaab launched an early morning raid on quarry workers while they were asleep in their tents. They separated the Christians from the Muslims and either shot or beheaded 36 Christians. Afterwards, Al Shabaab posted a statement condemning the ‘crusaders’ – a standard jihadi reference to Christians – and added: ‘We are uncompromising in our beliefs, relentless in our pursuit, ruthless against the disbelievers and we will do whatever necessary to defend our Muslim brethren.’ These killings came ten days after Al Shabaab’s attack on a bus and the massacre of 28 Christian passengers.

In Libya, Muslim men broke into a Christian household in the middle of the night. They handcuffed and killed the father. They then entered the children’s bedroom. The mother was there, cried out, tried to fight back, and was killed. They took the eldest daughter with them. The girl’s body was later found in the desert, shot three times. The two younger daughters were left for two-and-a-half hours in their bedroom with the body of their murdered mother.

In Turkey – a country supposed to be an ally of the West – 10,000 New Testaments were destroyed in an arson attack on the offices of the Bible Correspondence Course in a suburb of Istanbul. David Byle, co-founder of the BCC, said: ‘It is people who don’t like people who do the activities we do here – mainly giving out free New Testaments and explaining the Christian faith to people.’ Of the police response, Byle said: ‘We were disappointed by how little interest was shown by the authorities investigating this. If a depot in Germany or England located right above a mosque, in the same building full of thousands of Korans, had a fire start right exactly where the Korans were stored, and if a policeman from England or Germany arrived at the scene and tried to convince all the onlookers it was an accident, that man would be out of a job very quickly.’

Islamic law holds that new churches are never to be built in Muslim lands and existing ones never repaired. Even so, many of these partially wrecked churches continue to be used, and are packed during church services. Meanwhile all over Britain mosques are opening at an even faster rate than the closure of pubs. Anyone expressing the mildest disquiet about Muslims’ sectarian and exclusivist practices is considered to be guilty of ‘Islamophobia’. And while their Christian brothers and sisters are being persecuted, dispossessed, raped, tortured and beheaded on three continents, our archbishops and bishops remain silent – apart from the fatuities they utter in their everlasting ‘conversations with moderate Muslims’.

Today we commemorate St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He was by no means the last.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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