In the book of Acts, chapter 8, we find the account of St. Peter witnessing to an Ethiopian eunuch, baptizing him and presumably sending the faith back with this new Christian to Ethiopia. Regular church-goers know the story. We can also presume that this convert was the forerunner of the Ethiopian church, which we rarely hear much about, at least not until recently.
In a 30-minute video released last Sunday, the Islamic State provided two scenes where they courageously beheaded Ethiopian Christians. What valor. In the video, the Islamic State declares that there is clear evidence the Ethiopians were Christians. The penalty? Death, of course.
Approximately 15 men in orange boiler suits are seen being beheaded by masked militants on a beach in eastern Libya. Of course, the righteousness of their actions is seen in the fact that they have to hide their identity.
Then, the video shifts to a scene in southern Libya where similarly dressed militants executed at least another dozen Christians by shooting them in the head. The video includes a subtitle, which describes both groups as “worshippers of the cross.”
Now why would Ethiopians be executed in Libya? Because many of Ethiopia’s 60 million Christians are fleeing to countries, such as Libya, in order to then board a migrant ship to Europe. Therefore, those entering that very unstable country become prime targets.
Interestingly, migrant ships carrying refugees made the news this past week as some 900 perished at sea attempting to make the crossing. So far, in 2015 alone, an estimated 1,500 have lost their lives fleeing northern Africa for European soil.
But getting on a migrant ship that avoids sinking still doesn’t mean Christians are safe. What has gotten lost in the recent reports of drownings is the violence fueled by religious hatred on the migrant ships themselves.
That is, what did not get widely reported was that on one migrant ship last week, 15 Muslim migrants discovered that some of their shipmates were Christians. Their response? Throw them overboard. Approximately 12 Christian migrants died.
The Italian police arrested the perpetrators, but so far little has been done to stem the tide of violence against our Christian brothers and sisters where the Islamic State can find safe shelter.
Perhaps we can’t quite relate when we read Jesus’s statement in Matthew 5:10-12, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” After all, we figure, we aren’t living in the time of Nero; how many of us are persecuted because of our faith? More than we know.
The real question is not, “Can that happen here?” Of course it can. The real question is, “How should we respond?”
For now, we grieve with the families of Christians who went to their death — in Libya and on the sea — not only proclaiming their allegiance to Jesus Christ, but precisely because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Blessed are those “worshippers of the cross,” indeed.
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.