What would it mean to live in a church in which the believers were like the early Christians—I mean, in which practically all of the believers, just “ordinary” Christians, were ready to die as martyrs rather than deny the Faith before the world and its powers?
Such a church exists today among the Christians of Upper Egypt. These Coptic Christians, the descendants of the original Ancient Egyptians, endure and have endured for many centuries a consistent and always-near-at-hand persecution, whether bloody, or social and economic. Their persecuted state as confessors and martyrs of their faith in the Holy Trinity is so permanent a fact that their very calendar is dated from the last great persecution of the Roman emperors, that of Diocletian.
Despite centuries of Islamic persecution, Coptic Christians make up around ten percent of the population of Egypt, and the Upper Nile is where they are most of all to be found. With a regular rhythm, and much bloodshed, churches are bombed, houses burned, shops raided at the decree of some local imam. Instead of trials for the criminals who commit such violence, the government holds “reconciliation” meetings in which the Christians are pressured to retract any complaints they may have. Social persecution is so great that Coptic men suffer very high unemployment, almost complete during the recent pandemic.
It was this lack of work that in 2015 led twenty Coptic Christian men, mostly in their twenties and thirties, thirteen of whom were from a single village, to travel to neighboring Libya in search of work. They slept in a single room, most on the floor, since they did not want to spend the money they intended to send home on accommodations. They were joined by one other, an African from Ghana. Terrorists of the so-called Islamic State captured them together at night. They sequestered them, clothed them all in identical orange prison jumpers, and with a carefully choreographed video, led them to be beheaded.
The video is accessible online with some effort. The leader of the band of executioners addresses his viewers, mocking the worshippers of the Cross, and threatening the same fate for others as well. He concludes (they are standing in the video on the Mediterranean coast facing North) that Rome across the sea is their final goal: the destruction of Christians and their capitol city. The terrorists proceed to cut off the heads of these men each with a hand-held knife, a gruesome and hardly rapid method.
Not one of the martyrs stirs, not one begs to be let go, not one seeks to flee. No one denies Jesus and the Holy Trinity. Even the lone African from Ghana, not a member of the Church, proclaims “their God is my God,” and accepts martyrdom even though he was offered freedom. He is the twenty-first martyr, literally baptized in his own blood, which according to St Thomas is an even closer conformity to Christ’s death than baptism in water.
The traditionalist German novelist and essayist Martin Mosebach hastens to investigate, and writes a fine book about these twenty-one new martyrs. He visits the village of the thirteen, and finds poor people with no earthly status who express pride and joy that their sons and brothers were deemed worthy of martyrdom.
A Coptic bishop in Upper Egypt asserts, “This is not a Western church in a Western society. We are the Church of Martyrs. I take no special risk when I say that not a single Copt in Upper Egypt would betray the faith.” A young woman of the village explains, “They were ready to die, and even longed to. We all do! We’re all ready and yearning because we all want to vouch for Christ.”
If we were to read the same assertions in a standard story of some Roman martyrs, we might think, “Well, that’s how they always speak in these hagiographical compositions.” No! This is what the martyrs really say, bishops and faithful, men and women in every age, including our own.
Small wonder, then, that Pope Francis has ordered these martyrs to be included in the Roman Martyrology, the liturgical book that lists the saints and blessed venerated in the Church each of the days of the year. This is not as solemn as a canonization, but it does mean that these martyrs may be given liturgical honors at Mass and the Divine Office.
Some have objected that they should not be so honored since they were Orthodox and not Catholic, and they bring arguments from conciliar documents taken out of their proper moral context to make their point. That’s another post. But suffice it to say that the supreme act of love for Christ that gained these models of Christian manly courage heaven may surely be honored by Catholics with no danger to their faith! These Apostolic Christians with fully valid sacraments are as innocent of the controversies of the fourth century as we are. And in any case we could not honor them as much as the Holy Trinity does right now in the heights of heaven!
Holy Coptic Martyrs of Libya, intercede for us!