The photo was taken in the middle of February 2015 along a beach in Libya. There are 21 men in identical orange jumpsuits being led to their place of execution. Behind each is a man dressed in black, right hand on the back of their captive’s neck, as they move them along to what will be their final moments on earth.
All the men were Coptic Christians from Egypt. The men were in Libya to earn money for their families back home. They were kidnapped weeks before, apparently beaten and tortured every day. At night, we are told, they buoyed each other with prayer.
Each man in black pushes their victims to their knees and then decapitates their captive with a knife. Gruesome does not even come close to describing what took place; shocking is too weak.
This horrific event is now described in The 21: A Journey Into the Land of Coptic Martyrs (Plough, 2019) by German-Catholic author Martin Mosebach.
The story is told in 21 chapters, each beginning with a picture of one of the martyred men.
The 21 is not for the faint of heart, particularly at the outset. But it is an important book, given that it describes the persecution of a group of Christians who are at the heart and root of the faith today. To turn away from this story would be to dishonor the 21 men.
“They lived in a world where, for the past several centuries, being Christian wasn’t a given,” Mosebach writes. “For their long line of ancestors, belonging to Christianity had always meant being willing to bear witness to their faith. … Life itself without faith would have been worthless to them. It would be mere existence — an existence more lowly than the animals.”
The first chapter begins with a description of the severed head of St. Kiryollos, one of the 21. The Copts are part of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, where martyrs are immediately called saints; holy cards venerated by the Copts quickly follow.
Mosebach looked at the face of Kiryollos, posted on social media by the Islamic killers to foment terror, but the author felt something far different. He writes:
“[The severed head] didn’t inspire fear, at least not at first. After the beheading a flicker of consciousness and warmth had lingered a moment on his face — an eternal moment of dreaming and slumber, in which the finality of what just happened no longer seemed important.”
Each, we are told, was given a chance to live. All each had to say was the Muslim affirmation of faith: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
Who would have blamed them if they said some seemingly empty words just to save their young lives? Who would judge? How could they face their terrible ends with such poise? What was it about their lives that prepared them for this moment?
These questions are at the heart of The 21.
Indeed, Mosebach makes clear that the 21 should never be thought of as victims. “Victim,” he believes, is too passive a word, reserved for those not willing to give up their lives for the Christian faith.
“I suspected they had a strength that granted them a well-protected inner core of independence, and I was convinced their murderers’ cruelty couldn’t penetrate that deep.”
Of course, while the book focuses on these 21 modern saints — looking deeply into the way they were raised, the homes they lived in — their deaths did not come out of a vacuum.
Just a few of the recent examples of Coptic martyrdom:
In May 2017, 29 Copts were shot dead in Egypt for refusing to renounce their faith.
Eighteen months later, militants attacked several buses of pilgrims, killing seven people and wounding 19. A young boy, 15, and a girl, 12, were among the dead, news reports said.
Christianity in general in the Middle East is under severe pressure. But like the now-famous photo of men in orange jumpsuits, the Copts have become symbolic of that struggle.
There are roughly 18 million Copts in the Middle East today, mostly in Egypt. They were followers of Christ before the Gospels were written and were one of the first Christian groups to define Christ’s incarnation as both divine and human. They date their founding to 42 years after the death of Christ, and it is thought that St. Mark evangelized them.
“It is simply evil that many Christians are being driven from their homes,” Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto, told the Register. Cardinal Collins has been active in helping Coptic refugees and said a “Red Mass” for the Copts this year. “They are the indigenous communities of the Middle East. We do what we can to help refugees, but it is simply wrong that they are forced to flee.”
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., a part of the Hudson Institute, went last year to Egypt to see the persecution of the Copts on the ground.
“Their disappearance would mean the virtual end of religious pluralism in the region,” she told the Register. “Moreover, it would be a profound loss for worldwide Christianity, since the Coptic Church is an authentic link to the earliest Christian Churches, uniquely preserving some of their traditions and rites.”
The Trump administration, she said, takes seriously the plight of persecuted Christians, but it has “not pressed Egyptian President Sisi enough on ensuring that the Copts are able to build and maintain their churches, have full rights to citizenship and are protected from Muslim attacks.”
Sisi, she said, has at times come to the defense of Copts, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
“But one senses he does it out of self-interest, since ISIS is targeting him too,” said Shea. “Sisi has been too lax in protecting the Coptic Christians from the assaults and pogroms of their own Egyptian Muslim neighbors.”
The current crisis can be traced to the so-called Arab Spring that broke out in December 2010 and which led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak just a month later.
Two years later, Sisi staged a coup removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
Paul Marshall, the Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, who has documented the plight of the Copts for years, told the Register the Muslim Brotherhood has blamed the Copts for their removal, accusing them of being a “fifth column.”
As a result, he said, the rate of physical attacks on this Christian minority has grown, noting that ISIS has killed more than 100 Copts in the past two years, not including the massacre in Libya.
Western governments must apply pressure to Sisi’s government, especially when it comes to foreign aid, Marshall said, “continuing pressure for equality for the rules for building houses of worship, reform of textbooks, reining in of radical preachers, removing or hiding religion on national IDs, and punishing those who engage in religious violence.”
Gift of Martrydom
Yet, for all the Copts have been through, writes Mosebach, their “lonely path” remains a gift to the Christian world.
“In its seclusion, the Coptic Church has preserved the characteristic of early Christianity; no one should say too much about early Christianity without first getting to know the Copts,” Mosebach writes.
Sixteen of the men came from El-Aour, a small town in Upper Egypt. They lived a life that would be unthinkably poor to most Westerners. Their constant companions would have been fleas and lice. The flies in the summer were as thick as clouds. The heat was torture.
“The 21 never slept on sheets,” Mosebach writes, “so had never experienced the physical benefits of a freshly made bed.”
The strongest part of The 21 emerges from Mosebach’s visit to El-Aour, to research the background of the men; he found families not in mourning but in a state of religious exaltation.
“Condolences and expressions of sympathy seemed out of place,” he writes. “Each family seemed to me to have somehow been elevated to another plane. A scorching flash of violence had struck them, followed by a majestic clap of thunder that had slowly faded yet never fully died out.”
Mosebach ponders what the terrorists would make of the reaction of the martyrs’ families, most of whom watched the beheadings on the internet.
“Would it surprise them to see how unflappable these simple-minded folk were; that these people had managed to turn an attempt at triggering boundless terror into something entirely different?” Mosebach asks. “Would they be able to see that their cruelty had failed to achieve its intended goal, that their attempt to intimidate and disturb hadn’t succeeded?”
Charles Lewis is a freelance Catholic writer in Toronto.