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When Belief in Christmas Means Death

The feasts of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents are a sad yearly reminder that believing in Christmas can mean death for the most persecuted religion worldwide, Christianity.

Deborah Emmanuel of Lagos, Nigeria, is a modern-day St. Stephen, stoned to death for her faith in 2022. And she’s not alone.

It is always a surprise when Christmas joy is followed so quickly by suffering. On December 25, we celebrate Emmanuel, God With Us, at Christmas. On December 26, we celebrate St. Stephen on on December 28, who were killed because of Emmanuel.

But this is a reality much of the Christian world lives with each year.

Deborah Emmanuel was stoned to death for Jesus this year.

The Nigerian university student was described as prayerful and hard-working, and she studied hard for finals last Spring.

“She was 22,” her father said. “She was just a humble girl who wanted a bright future. She believed so much in the Lord and took church seriously. In her school, she was a member of the Christian Student Association and was well known in the group because she didn’t miss activities. She was not a troublemaker.”

But then, after an exam went well, she posted online that her faith in Jesus helped her do well and added that “he is the greatest.”

That sentiment incited Islamicist radicals on campus, who accused her of blasphemy on May 12.

Police said that Deborah was protected at first by officers, but then “students forcefully removed the victim from the security room where she was hidden by the school authorities, killed her and burnt the body.”

She was stoned to death, beaten with rods and sticks in full view of law enforcement officers. The attack was videotaped and posted online.

Sadly, Deborah is not alone.

The religious freedom watchdog organization Open Doors International reports that “in Nigeria, a Christian is killed for their faith every two hours; that’s nearly 13 Christians a day and 372 Christians a month. … Research for the 2022 World Watch List reveals that in 2021, more Christians were murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Last year, Nigeria accounted for nearly 80% of Christian deaths worldwide, with more than 4,650 believers killed.”

The group’s World Watch List ranks the worst 50 countries for Christian persecution. Notable on the list his year:

  • As bad is the situation is there, Nigeria is only No. 7 on the list, in the same year the U.S. State Department removed its designation as “country of particular concern.”
  • World Cup host Qatar was No. 18 on the list, climbing from No. 29.
  • Afghanistan, a little over a year since the U.S. military presence ended there, rose to No. 1 on the list.

Aleteia reported that the religious freedom group Aid to the Church and Need has found an increase in religious violence in 75% of countries in 2022.

“Of particular concern in this regard is Africa, where extremism threatens previously strong Christian communities,” the group reported. “In Nigeria and other countries, this violence clearly passes the threshold of genocide.”

This December 26, pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world. For them, Christmas brings hope despite the violence.

Christians draw the same lessons from the death of Deborah Emmanuel that St. Stephen’s death taught 2,000 years ago.

The New Testament description of his martyrdom sounds a lot like Deborah’s story. Stephen proclaimed Jesus to hostile authorities and, “When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. … [T]hey cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together.”

Nonetheless, at Mass, the Church thanks the Lord who “gladdens us with the celebration of the blessed Martyr Stephen.”

The same sentiment followed Deborah’s death. Her father said, “My happiness is that her death shows the unity of the body of Christ. I see Christians speaking with one voice.”

In the end, he said, “We believe in God and thank him that he has called her back home this way. How many people die, and the news never goes around the world like this? So, she is a child of a poor man, but her name has become known worldwide. Glory be to God.”

This appeared at Aleteia.


Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.