On November 11th, an email arrived in the inbox of one Sister Anne Koop, from one of her fellow Sisters of Loretto. The email’s subject line was “Punjab: Christian Woman Sentenced To Death For Blasphemy.” “The nun’s message told the story of a Catholic farm worker, Aasia Bibi, convicted of violating antiquated blasphemy law propped up by Pakistan’s Islamist political parties. Allegedly, when some women workers pressured Aasia to renounce her Christian faith and accept Islam in the summer of 2009, Aasia responded that Jesus had died on the cross for the sins of humanity and she asked them what Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had done for them. Her crime, blaspheming the prophet, carries a mandatory death sentence.”1
Ms. Bibi is not the first Christian to be tried by an insulted court and be sentenced to death for the crime of being a Christian. A little less than three-thousand years ago another big-mouthed Christian managed to get himself dragged in to the ecclesiastical court for blasphemy. His name, a play on the Greek for crown (stephanos), was Stephen. “The early Christian congregations, like the Jewish synagogues, had a program of assistance for needy widows, and some of the Greek-speaking Jews (who were sometimes considered less than full-on, non-diaspora, Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking Jews) in the Jerusalem congregation complained that their widows were being neglected.” They took their concern to the Apostles, and the “apostles replied: “We cannot both preach and administer financial matters. Choose seven men from among yourselves, respected, Spirit-filled, and of sound judgment, and let them be in charge of the accounts, and we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” The people accordingly chose seven men, including Stephen, and the apostles laid their hands on them.”2 And so the Church ordained her first deacons.
Of the seven, Stephen was the most well known. He bordered on infamy, actually, because of his fiery tongue, and some scholars speculate that the Church picked Stephen to be a deacon so that he would talk less and administer more.3 But St. Luke tells us that Stephen was full of grace, full of power, and full of the Holy Spirit; and as we all know, the Spirit has a tendency to not shut up, even when you want him to. So Stephen, presumably taking a break from serving the widow and the fatherless, opened again his mouth.
Fifty verses. Fifty verses out of sixty of the seventh chapter of the book of the Acts is just Stephen talking. He talked about the history of his people, the Temple sacrifices and the efficacy thereof, he talked about the rejection of their Savior; he basically said what Aasia Bibi said: Jesus died for our sins: what has your Law ever done for you?
Ms. Bibi is not alone in facing death while trying to celebrate the birth our Savior. “Ban Daub… narrowly survived the onslaught. She and her nephew were at prayer when they heard explosions. They escaped before five attackers stormed in, but many of their friends did not. A neighbor died clutching his son and daughter in his arms… In October in Iraq, church-goers “saw their brethren murdered during Mass and then [they]were bombed in their homes as they mourned. Al-Qaida vowed to hunt them down. Now the Christian community of Iraq, almost as old as the religion itself, is sensing a clear message: It is time to leave. Since the Oct. 31 bloodbath in their Baghdad church, Iraqi Christians have been fleeing Sunni Muslim extremists who view them as nonbelievers and agents of the West. At a time when Christians in various parts of the Muslim world are feeling pressured, Iraqi Christians are [having] their grimmest Christmas” in living memory.4
There’s not much we can do to help Aasia Bibi, Ban Daub, and the persecuted Christians in the Middle East, Africa, China, Viet Nam, and around the world. We can bug our representatives incessantly until they do something. We can give to Christian organizations who help our brothers and sisters in the aftermath of violence. We can grab hold of the hope that in that strange, merciful economy of God, it is the blood of the martyrs that waters the Church. But mostly we can pray; we can pray that peace will come and the violence will end; and until it does, we can pray that every Christian who for the cause of the Faith waits on the stone, the rope, or the ax receives the same reward as St. Stephen, and with him may look to the sky and say “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God!”
1Christian Mom Faces Execution, The Daily Beast, 12/15/10
2Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
4The New York Times