St. Stephen, the First Martyr and the persecution of Christians

On this second day of Christmas, we remember St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, who in the account of Acts was the first Christian killed because he confessed Jesus Christ to be the Messiah. It’s worth pausing on this day, as most of us recover in some way from the excesses of Christmas Day, to consider the plight of Christians across the world who suffer for their faith. Yesterday in Baghdad, more than 30 Christians were killed by bombs as they worshiped on the Feast of the Nativity. The number of Christians in Iraq has fallen by half (from 900,000) since the beginning of the US invasion in 2003, and now even Christian leaders in Iraq are urging flight.

In South Sudan, Christians are in the middle of renewed fighting. Jesse Zink is providing regular updates from his close contacts in the country. He also provides some background information here. Of the current Bishop of Bor, he writes:

Bishop Nathaniel’s successor, Ruben Akurdit Ngong, is reported to be in the UN compound just outside Bor. He, along with an unknown—but large—number of other people are seeking refuge there. Again, this is what bishops in this part of the country do. They go to where the people are and stay with them. During the civil war, some bishops were forced to seek refuge in Juba, Khartoum, or abroad. I once asked Nathaniel Garang why he went into the bush with his people, rather than to a city. He looked at me like the answer was the most obvious thing in the world: “Because I was there with the people. If I leave them, the church would not happen. My staying with the people, that’s how they received the gospel.”

Pope Francis spoke publicly today about the persecution of Christians:

“We are close to those brothers and sisters who, like Saint Stephen, are unjustly accused and subjected to violence of various kinds. This happens especially where religious freedom is still not guaranteed or not fully realised.

The Collect for the Feast of St. Stephen:

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.