There is a troubling news image that has stayed with me, stored in memory, for four years. You probably remember it, too. It is the image of 21 young men wearing orange jumpsuits being marched to execution by members of ISIS. The men—20 Coptic Orthodox Christians from Egypt and one Ghanaian Christian—were beheaded because they would not renounce their Christian faith.
They seemed calm as they walked to their deaths at the edge of a beach in Libya, under a clouded sky. An ISIS video of the death procession shows them walking, hands bound behind their backs, led by men in black whose faces are covered. The condemned men knelt before their executioners. The video ended there, with the men about to be slain.
Their last words were “O my Lord Jesus.”
A German Catholic author, Martin Mosebach, has written a book about them: “The 21: A Journey Into the Land of Coptic Martyrs.” It is an account of Mosebach’s visit to Egypt to see the martyrs’ homes, meet their families and gain a better understanding of their society.
Mosebach spoke at an event in Manhattan Feb. 11 with Coptic Orthodox Archbishop Angaelos of London. The event, held at the Union League Club, was sponsored by Plough Publishing House, publisher of “The 21,” and First Things, journal of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. Plough is operated by the Bruderhof, an international Christian movement.
The event nearly coincided with the anniversary of the martyrs’ execution on Feb. 15, 2015. The Coptic Orthodox Church has canonized them and honors them as saints. Mosebach explains in the book how deeply affected he was by their deaths, and how he decided to visit Egypt to learn more about them.
All of the Egyptians were poor subsistence farmers who had gone to Libya in search of work. Matthew, the Ghanaian, was a migrant worker. Mosebach was told that the kidnappers thought Matthew was not a Christian and wanted to release him, but Matthew insisted he was a Christian and refused to leave his friends.
Mosebach remarked at the event that all of the Coptic martyrs’ family members feel “a quiet pride” in the men’s steadfast faith unto death. The mother of one martyr told him, “I never prayed during his captivity that he may come free. I prayed, ‘God, let him stay firm.’ And he stayed firm.”
Mosebach did not find bitterness toward the executioners, or a desire for retaliation.
“There was never the question of revenge, never the question of justice,” he told the audience. The issue of Muslim-Christian opposition did not arise. The families, he said, attributed the persecution and killing of the men to “evil, the devil.”
Archbishop Angaelos stressed that Christians have suffered martyrdom from the beginning of Christianity. He noted that “martyr” means “witness.” A martyr is a witness to the truth of the faith.
“It is not an act of ending life, it is an act of choosing life,” he said.
He also noted the sharp decline in the number of Christians in the Mideast. Christians are about 15 percent of the population of Egypt, and they represent about 80 percent of Mideast Christians.
Persecution is one reason for the decline.
After the presentation, I spoke with Angela Georgy, 37, a Coptic Orthodox woman from New Jersey whose parents were born in Egypt and who is active in her local church. She radiates a joyous faith, and she said that she is proud of the martyrs.
“Their martyrdom encourages me,” she said. “Our faith is not cheap.”
I cannot help but compare the martyrs’ experience of Christianity with my own. How incomparably easier it has been for me to practice the faith than it was for them. As we prepare to observe Lent, I need to think about what my faith truly means to me, and about the price that countless Christian martyrs have paid to remain faithful. They gave up everything for love of Christ, as Christ, on Calvary, gave up everything for love of us.