The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs
by Martin Mosebach (translated by Alta L. Price)
Plough, 272pp, £19/$26
This book introduced me to the writing of the German novelist, poet and essayist Martin Mosebach. A Catholic and lover of the Tridentine liturgy, he has tackled a subject highly suited to his gifts as an imaginative writer and man of faith. It is the story of the 21 Coptic migrant workers who were beheaded on a Libyan beach on February 15, 2015 by black-clad, masked ISIS terrorists.
At the time, our parish priest distributed prayer cards of these men, depicting the 21 in icon-style, undifferentiated and each with a halo. He invited us to pray to them as martyrs, the name given to those who die for their faith. Then, as with most news items, I forgot about them. Mosebach’s book does great service in bringing these young men back into the collective consciousness of the West. For theirs is an extraordinary story of group courage, steadfastness and dignity in the face of an appalling form of death (as Mosebach observes in a dry aside: “It becomes clear why Dr Guillotin and his wretched contraption were once considered humanitarian”).
His book seeks an answer to the question: how could these uneducated, humble, largely illiterate migrant workers have found the inner strength to die so nobly, with “O my Lord Jesus!” on their lips? For us their behaviour is almost incomprehensible.
Of course we have read of the early Christian martyrs, singing in the catacombs as they were led into the Colosseum to be the prey of wild beasts – but that was long ago. We forget that in certain Muslim countries, and especially those areas dominated by ISIS, the choice of martyrdom is still a daily reality.
To find the answer, Mosebach visits the martyrs’ village of El-Aour in Upper Egypt, an area dominated by the Coptic Church. He interviews the Coptic Metropolitan as well as the two Coptic pastors in Damanhur, in the Nile Delta, who were the last people to have seen the young men before their capture, 43-day captivity and slaughter.
They described the 20 – the 21st, a Ghanaian Christian named Matthew, chose to die with them, so has been given posthumous honorary Coptic status – as “pious, thrifty and deeply devoted to God and their families”. They report that the captives, who sang and prayed together, were given the choice to abjure their faith and become Muslims, but refused.
This account takes on a new life when the author visits El-Aour and talks to the families of the dead men. Then his reflection that “life itself, without faith, would have been worthless to them” begins to make sense.
The families are not in mourning for their dead, whose icon pictures, complete with crowns of martyrdom, are everywhere displayed. They regularly watch the unedited video of their deaths – ironically made by ISIS to inspire terror in those who view it – in order to be edified and uplifted by their sons’ glorious transformation in death into saints in heaven.
The virtues of the men, listed in the official Coptic martyrology, are moving to read in their utter simplicity: “He was an honest worker”; “He was a man of prayer and liturgy”; “He gave alms even though he was poor”; “He was quick to forgive, argued with no one” and so on. It is clear from Mosebach’s interviews with villagers that this is not hagiography, invented to sustain a pious myth – the men’s behaviour was entirely normal to this deeply devout community (now very much a minority), whose adherence to their ancient faith has continued throughout 1,400 years of Muslim rule.
The Coptic Metropolitan told the author: “This is not a Western Church in a Western society. We are the Church of Martyrs.” Mosebach, impressed by the Metropolitan’s air of authority and strength, comments that he is “a kind of leader utterly unknown in the West”. His moral authority and holiness are unquestioned by the faithful, whose lives and faith are completely interwoven. Christianity is not something for an hour on Sundays in the midst of an otherwise secular life, or to be rejected as one grows up. The author comes to see the Coptic Church as “a kingdom full of splendour and mystery”.
Mosebach includes an imaginary dialogue between an “Arab, the Doubter” and himself, “the Believer”. The “Arab” suggests that martyrdom is a “cult of violence”, that the 21 threw away a life “they hadn’t even lived” and that most Christians wouldn’t die for their faith. Mosebach rebuts these objections, explaining that Christianity isn’t “any truth” – it is a person: Christ. He could be addressing the legions of uncomprehending Western Christians.
To read this book is to enter a world of seeming poverty, alongside extraordinary faith. It should be required reading for professing Catholics.
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