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10 Nigerian martyrs that show us the power of faith

July 21, 2022 by Global Christian Relief in Africa

That’s nearly 13 Christians a day, 372 a month and 4,650 a year—representing only the deaths we have record of in 2021 (many go unreported). Just six months into 2022, Nigeria is on pace to match—and even exceed—that total.

And while the numbers help tell the story, it’s the lives of Nigeria’s martyrs that can bring us up close to the more vivid picture of what’s happening.

The reports of violence in our world are so commonplace that as individuals, we have become desensitized and numb to the humanity. We can get lost in the numbers and brutality—forgetting that every martyr was a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, or a beloved friend.

We combed through articles, Facebook posts, news reports and memorials for details and photos to introduce you to 10 martyrs—our Nigerian family—now part of the hall of faith we read about in Hebrews. and honor their lives. They are just 10 of tens of thousands of Nigerian Christians killed because they made the decision to follow Jesus.

As you read about these believers and share their inspiring stories, please pause to consider the reality and humanity and pray—for comfort, for strength, for courage, for perseverance, for hope.

Deborah Samuel, daughter, sister: To a shocked world, 19-year-old Deborah Samuel, also known as Deborah Yakubu, is the most prominent face of Christian persecution in Nigeria. She was stoned and her body set on fire by a mob of her Muslim classmates for a series of posts that began in a chatroom when she was asked how she passed her exams. She replied “Jesus o” and refused to take down the post when Muslims in the chat group demanded it. She was the daughter of Emmanuel Garba and Alheri Emmanuel, the second-oldest of six siblings and little sister to Nakaka Garba. Deborah was a second-year home economics major at Shehu Shagari College of Education, in Sokoto State, one of 12 areas governed by Sharia (Islamic) law.

She grew up in Tungan Magajiya in Rijau Local Government Area of Niger State but had been living with her uncle since she was in primary school and had been using the name “Samuel.” Deborah’s parents tied their hopes and dreams for their family on Deborah. While she attended college, some of her siblings had to stay home because the family couldn’t afford to send them all to school at the same time. The 19-year-old was known to be very studious—she was set to finish her degree in the 2023/2024 school year.

Deborah’s father, a security guard, traveled to the school to bring home his daughter’s body and bury her in the town’s Christian cemetery. The family has been outspoken, like their daughter, about their trust in God. Speaking for the family, her father said, “I have nothing to say, we are pained by what happened, but we have left all to God.”

According to one of Deborah’s classmates, Deborah’s last words were to her attackers: “What do you hope to achieve with this?”

Father John Mark Cheitnum, son, brother: Father Cheitnum is the latest victim in the string of murderous kidnappings in Nigeria. On July 15, 2022, he was kidnapped by extremists from the church where he served in the Lere region of Kaduna state and was killed in a field that day. He was only 44 years old.

Father Cheitnum was a true leader, ordained for nine years. He served as chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria’s local chapter and the coordinating chairman for its regional branch in southern Kaduna. He was also director of communications for his diocese and pastor of St. James Parish in Fori.

He was also known as a “bosom friend” whose work ethic and company were well-known and enjoyed in Nigeria. In recent tributes, he was described as an “ever smiling, humorous and dedicated priest of God who took the ministry seriously” and a “kind man of the people who was loved by all who came in contact with him.”

In addition to master’s degrees in philosophy and theology, John Mark also held degrees in education and TV production. The priest’s friends told The Pillar that he will be remembered for his bold voice in defense of the downtrodden, especially Christians in southern Kaduna state where Christian persecution is frequent, violent and often done with impunity.

Chukwudiorinya Onuoha, son, brother, husband, father; Deborah Onuoha, daughter, sister, wife, mother: The Onuohas were two of the worshippers who were celebrating Pentecost at St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, on June 5, when a group of armed men opened fire on the congregation, killing 40 people, including four children.

The couple was sitting beside each other in church when the attack happened. Deborah, 54, was a petty trader and is remembered as always being willing to help. Chukwudiorinya, 60, was a gardener at a university. The BBC interviewed their son, Chinedu Onhoha, who shared, “My mum was extraordinary, always willing to help the less fortunate, and was not biased.” He said he had lost a mentor in his father.

All three had been in church when the attack happened but Chinedu was sitting in a different section away from his parents. He believes his mother would still be alive if she had received treatment in time. “Fake news,” he said, circulated that the nearest hospital was not receiving patients.

The Rev. Yohanna Shuaibu, son, brother, husband, father: As the leader of New Life Church in Kano states’ Massu village and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in the Sumaila Local Government Area, Yohanna had a target on his back. He died from machete wounds on September 23, 2021, when a mob of Muslim extremists attacked his home the previous day, burning down the pastor’s home, church and school.

Through his ministry, many Muslims learned about Jesus and converted to Christianity. Hearing that he was a target, Yohanna found shelter in a neighboring village the night before the attack, then returned to Massu to help evacuate students from the school.

Yohanna was instrumental in securing funds for the school for indigenous Hausa Christian children who would have been denied an education due to their faith. He also led fundraising for boreholes for Christian communities who were denied access to government-provided water sources.

“Under his watch, we were able to raise funds and drill boreholes from which Christian communities that were denied access to government sources of water could access water,” a friend of the family told Morning Star News. “At one point, one of the sources of water at the mosque was refurbished by us as our support to the Muslim community, which we believed would foster peace and avert some of the obvious threats against the peaceful Christian brethren.

Bridget Agbahime, daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother: Bridget Agbahime was the 74-year-old wife of a Christian pastor in Kano city—she was fondly referred to as “Mama Pastor.” She was also a small businesswoman who sold kitchen utensils at the Kofar Wambai Market. She was killed in her place of work on June 2, 2016, after she asked a Muslim man engaged in ritual Islamic cleansing to move his ritual from her shopfront.

She and her husband were meeting with the market landlord about the persistent problem when the man and other Muslims returned and began chanting that she must die for blasphemy, shouting the jihadist chant “Allahu Akbar (God is greater).” The mob overpowered the few policemen present.

Bridget and her husband Pastor Mike Agbahime led Deeper Life Bible Church in Kano, where she had lived for 38 years. She was known to be a humble, quiet and devout believer who lived out her faith in word and deed. She had been a seller in the same market for nine years without any incident or conflict.

Before she was beaten and clubbed to death, Bridget knelt and began to pray.

Rev. Emmanuel Bileya, son, brother, husband, father; Juliana, daughter, sister, wife, mother: While working on the farm their church owned in Taraba state, Emmanuel Bileya and his pregnant wife Juliana were shot and killed on June 2, 2020. They were parents to eight children and were expecting their ninth.

Emmanuel was a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria (CRCN). He and Juliana were said to have had a “passion for God and the work of evangelism.” Emmanuel started working as a high school math teacher when he felt God’s call to full-time ministry. In Makurdi, the capital city of Benue state, he planted a church that still thrives today. He continued working as a church planter in various parts of Nigeria.

Juliana was a music composer and vocalist who believed that creativity made the Bible message more understandable.

In 2014, Emmanuel completed his master’s in theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As part of his appreciation for his time at the Seminary, Emmanuel willingly took on the task of cleaning widows as a tangible expression of his gratitude.

“Pastor Emmanuel helped us see beyond the walls of Calvin Seminary to see and hear of his ministry in Nigeria,” said Seminary President Jul Medenblik. “Even as he and his church and family faced significant challenges, he always expressed deep confidence in being called by God to live fully before his face and be an instrument of reconciliation.”

The baby daughter of Hajaratu and little sister: The July 10, 2020, death of an infant during a Fulani extremist attack on the Christian village of Chibob in northeastern Nigeria reminds us of the far-reaching impact of Nigeria’s Christian persecution. When the gunshots began, Hajaratu flung her baby daughter on her back and strapped her on with a cloth. As the shooting grew louder, the villagers ran, scattering in several direction. Hajaratu’s baby daughter had little time on earth. She was lost in a rushing river as her mother, with the baby on her back, continued to run from extremists’ fire, crossing the dangerous waters. As she climbed out of the river, gasping for air, Hajaratu heartbreakingly realized her daughter was no longer on her back. The river had stolen her youngest child.

“I began to cry uncontrollably,” she says, remembering the loss. When her other children asked about their baby sister, she said, “I told them the river had taken her away.”

“Our constant prayer in the camp is that this type of terrible experience should never happen in Chibob again—nor to anybody,” Hajaratu says.

Eunice Olawale, daughter, sister, wife, mother. Every morning Eunice Olawale brought her Bible and megaphone to an area in her home city of Abuja to preach the Word of God. She was well-known as a street evangelist and preacher. At only 42 years old, she was murdered by suspected extremists during the early morning hours of July 9, 2016, as she preached the gospel in the streets.

She was a native of Ekiti state and a deaconess in her church. She and her husband Elisha Olawale were married for 16 years and had seven children.

Eunice usually left her home every morning at 5 a.m. before dawn to evangelize (referred to as “morning cry”). Several days before she was killed, she overheard nearby Muslims comment about her preaching and that she should be chased away. Out of caution, Eunice suspended her daily morning evangelism for only a week before resuming her normal schedule.

Her husband said Eunice was hardworking, God-fearing and a sustaining support for her family, while others described her as a humble woman and passionate preacher. Her killing didn’t deter other preachers—one of them continued her morning preaching in the exact spot where Eunice was murdered.

Daniel, son, brother, husband, father: On October 2, 2012, Daniel was watching TV with his family when Boko Haram fighters jumped the gate to the house and stormed into the family’s home, shouting. That day, Daniel was martyred by Boko Haram extremists who told him, “Today is yours; tomorrow isn’t yours.”

Daniel had lived in Maiduguri all his life and was the father of five children: four sons and a daughter. He loved Maiduguri. When the Boko Haram insurgency sprouted in their city, leaving the area wasn’t even a thought. He and his wife Amina raised their children to love Jesus. They were active church members and he and Amina were known to be people who supported and helped others where they could.

The day he died, Daniel and his sons repeatedly refused the fighters’ demands to renounce their faith. They told them, “If you are not going to denounce Christ, we are going to kill you today.”

When they killed Daniel, he was praying to Jesus.