When we think of martyrs we normally think about the first few centuries of the Church's history. We think about St. Peter and St. Paul who died in Rome. We may recall the Christians who were persecuted under Nero and Diocletian, some of whom were fed to the lions in the Coliseum.
But even in those early years, persecution was normally regional or localized, and not nearly as widespread as we sometimes think. Unfortunately, the persecution of Christians did not die with the Roman Empire, and in fact, the present numbers are staggering.
According to Open Doors, a group that closely monitors Christian persecution, in just the last year there have been:
-Over 245 million Christians living in places where they experience high levels of persecution
-4,305 Christians killed for their faith
-1,847 churches and other Christian buildings attacked
-3,150 believers detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned
Those numbers may be hard for us to comprehend, especially when persecution in our country may simply mean a dirty look on the subway as we read our Bible compared to being arrested or even killed.
For many of us, these numbers were given a face on February 15, 2015, when a video surfaced from ISIS showing twenty-one men in orange jumpsuits being forced to walk on a Libyan beach, each being led by a masked man in black.
Whether you watched the video or not, you knew the final outcome from the news headlines. Each had been beheaded by their captor, and the Islamic State threatened perform similar horrific murders around the world. The video said that these executions had taken place as "Muhammad's answer" to the "nation of the cross."
They soon discovered that these men were not randomly picked, twenty of the men were Coptic Christians from Egypt who had traveled to Libya looking for work. The other man was from Ghana who had been abducted with the others.
In the book The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs, author Martin Mosebach journeyed to Egypt to learn more about the men who courageously gave their lives. He went to their home village and spoke with many people including their priest and their families. Though he wasn't able to uncover a lot of personal details about the men, he shows how they have been transformed from lowly migrant workers to modern-day saints in the minds of the Coptic faithful.
Soon after their death, they were recognized as saints in the Coptic Church, and their village is now a pilgrimage destination. These men were all poor with very little education, but they had a strong Christian faith. Many of the families talked about the strength of their faith when looking at their faces right before their execution. In the video, none of the men seem nervous or worried, they all have a calm expression on their face. They went to their death knowing that Jesus is Lord.
Mosebach's book explores several themes as he delves into the Twenty-One's martyrdom. He takes a closer look at the Coptic Church and their place in modern-day Egypt. He makes the historical connection that persecution has always been a part of the Coptic faith. The Twenty-One are just the most recent of a long line of Egyptian martyrs. He thoughtfully interviews the families who both express grief at their son's loss, but also triumph that they are now considered a saint.
This is as much a spiritual journey for the author as it is for the reader. Mosebach's deep faith is evident in his writing, and I find it both powerful and inspiring.
My one regret is the lack of personal details of each of the men. Clearly, the author tried to get as many details as he could from family and friends, but to no avail. Many of the families wanted to only talk in very broad terms about their son's courage and faith. We don't get to hear what they were like growing up, or their passions and interests. Because of the lack of detail, the author is forced to talk more about the culture than about the men themselves.
Either way, this book will open the reader's eyes to the stark reality of persecution that is happening around the world. We as Christians in the U.S. must never forget what our brothers and sisters are experiencing daily around the world. At the very least this knowledge should greatly shape our prayers for peace and our longing for Christ's return.
The great miracle is that even in the midst of persecution, the Church continues to flourish. As Tertullian said, " "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."
Here are the names of the Twenty-One:
Bishoy Adel Khalaf
Samuel Alhoam Wilson
Hany Abdel-Masih Salib
Melad Mackeen Zaki
Abanoub Ayad Attia
Ezzat Bushra Nassif
Yousef Shokry Younan
Kirillos Shukry Fawzy
Majed Suleiman Shehata
Somali Stéphanos Kamel
Malak Ibrahim Siniot
Bishoy Stéphanos Kamel
Mena Fayez Aziz
Girgis Melad Sniout
Tawadros Youssef Tawadros
Essam Badr Samir
Jaber Mounir Adly
Malak Faraj Abram
Sameh Salah Farouk