An eye-opening account of 21st century martyrs

by Father James Gross

“The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs” by Martin Mosebach, 2019.

Maybe you’ve seen the same statistics I have, which report that there had been more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in any previous century. There were no shortage of genocides and wars to account for that total but is martyrdom something we suspect will occur in our time or where we live? One readily conjures up examples from history of people (either clergy or laity) standing in the gladiatorial arena and facing down a Roman prefect. German author and novelist Martin Mosebach reminds us with his book “The 21” that we need not look so far in the past for a dramatic witness of those who shed their blood for Christ.

Many readers will remember the story of 21 men executed by ISIS operatives near the city of Sirte in eastern Libya February 15, 2015. Few who saw it will ever forget the gruesome scene propagandists captured and disseminated by video to the world: black-clad, masked militants escorting the victims—one from Ghana and the rest from Egypt—wearing orange jumpsuits to the place of their deaths along the Mediterranean seashore.

Mosebach was captivated by their story and sought to investigate both their act of heroism and their culture. His book provides a vivid study of the unique religious and sociological milieu of Coptic Christians. Theirs is a community that appears exotic in comparison to the American Church, as if transporting the reader to an ancient setting that seems rather out of place in the 21st century.

Egyptian Christianity boasts several influential elements from the Church’s earliest times, including the Patriarchal city of Alexandria, its leading role in the refutation of the heresy of Arianism, and St. Anthony of the Desert and the planting of the seeds of monastic life. However, a doctrinal split from both Rome and Constantinople centuries before the Orthodox Schism of 1054 led to the Copts charting a separate course. The reader may initially be confused by the popular acclamation of “Pope” attributed to Tawadros II, the current Coptic Orthodox Archbishop.

The seventh century brought two distinct waves of invasions (from Persian and Muslim Arab regimes) that overwhelmed the native inhabitants. Although the government conceals specific data, ethnic Copts now make up between 10-20% of the total population. For a long time, persecution has become an inexorable fact of life, thrusting the Christians of Egypt into a persistent status of a political minority. Each generation can point to the destruction of many of their holy places and artifacts. In this part of the world, grand Christian churches do not remain standing for long.

Mosebach concludes that this dynamic has disposed Coptic Christians to attune themselves to the possibility of dying for Jesus but stresses that their disposition is not one they express flamboyantly. On the contrary, his travels revealed a modest village in Upper Egypt in which relatives described the martyrs as normal men who left home looking for construction work. Of course, there is now a great pride in their accomplishments, but no one spoke of the men as spiritual prodigies from their youth.

Once in Libya, it was not so much overt proselytizing that endangered their lives as much as their steady and unabashed practice of prayer. The Christians were kidnapped over a month prior to their beheading and were tortured and beaten every day of their captivity, but legend holds that their wounds, no matter how severe, healed by nightfall each day.

I found Martin Mosebach’s account to be an eye-opening window into a part of the world that, on one hand, so little resembles my own but nevertheless stirs up deep admiration. We as Roman Catholics can gain inspiration from the story of the “21,” despite our differences.

Father James Gross is the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Grand Forks.