Four year ago this week, on a beach in Libya, 21 orange-clad men were beheaded by fighters of Islamic State, who published a video of the moments leading up to the executions.
The video leaves out the actual moment of death for these Christian martyrs, perhaps because it is too amateurish and messy to fit the careful choreography of the atrocity.
Still, it’s a moment that made it utterly clear to the world that this was an evil with which there could be no compromise.
Of the executed men, 20 were Coptic Christians from Egypt, all from the same small area and identifiable by the small crosses tattooed at the base of their thumbs. The 21st, Matthew, was from West Africa, perhaps Ghana. No tattoo for him, and his captors are said to have told him to go. However, he said “I am a Christian” and chose to share the others’ fate. Like them, his demeanour facing death was extraordinarily peaceful. It is this evident willingness to die, with the last whisper of “Ya Rabbi Yassou!” – “O my Lord Jesus!” that has led to them being hailed as martyrs by the Coptic Church.
Their story is told in a fine account by novelist Martin Mosebach, whose book The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs is an extraordinary exploration of the spirituality that allowed these “ordinary men” – and this ordinariness is a recurring theme in the book – to rise to such a height.
In February 2017, Mosebach travelled to Upper Egypt to meet the families of the 21 and other people who knew them. Apart from Matthew, they were Coptic migrant workers from Egypt, who came from poor farming families and had travelled to Libya to find better paid work. In Libya, they had been sleeping side by side on the floor in a large room, so they could save more money to send home to their families. Some of them could read but probably not write – others were illiterate.
Coptic Christians are a people who, for the last 1,400 years, since the Arab Muslim invasion, have been a minority, often oppressed and downtrodden. But their outsider status has helped preserve their greatest treasure: their Christian faith, which also preserves them in the face of all their trials.
This faith is profound and personal, and not only among “professional” Christians, the priests and monks. Back to “ordinariness”: Mosebach interviews a bishop who asks him why he is so curious about the martyrs. ‘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.”