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‘I am a Christian’: the migrant worker who volunteered for martyrdom

With these words a West African migrant embraced martyrdom at the hands of ISIS. What kind of man was he?

The Martyrologium Romanum lists August 30 as the feast of the holy martyrs Felix and Adauctus. Felix was likely a Roman citizen sentenced to death in 303 during the Diocletianic Persecution. En route to his execution he was spotted by an unknown onlooker who, moved by the sight of Felix in chains, professed his own Christian faith on the spot. He was then beheaded alongside Felix and, because his name remained unknown, is worshiped as St Adauctus, “the added man.”

The Copts martyred on a beach in Libya in 2015 also had an Adauctus among them – a young black man from Ghana who had also been abducted. Initially his country of origin was unclear, and during my visit to El-Aour there was still talk that he might be from Chad or Senegal. But given the inaccurate grasp of geography among the people I was with, the mention of these place names likely meant little more than “from far away”. There were probably no Copts in his homeland. The kidnappers, I was told, thought he wasn’t a Christian and wanted to let him go. But he didn’t think it just: whether he was Catholic, Protestant, or belonged to another Christian sect, he didn’t much care for such distinctions. And so the kidnappers had to take his word for it; he was a Christian and said so, and that was enough for them to kill him alongside the others.

At first I thought it plausible that the Synaxarium [the liturgical list of Coptic martyrs] called him “Matthew” out of convenience, so that they didn’t have to speak of yet another “Adauctus”. In the meantime, however, I’ve learned that his name actually was Matthew – and he couldn’t have been better named in order to become a Coptic saint as a dark-skinned sub-Saharan African. Matthew the Evangelist and Apostle, who was martyred in Ethiopia, is traditionally credited with founding the Ethiopian Church – the sister church of the Coptic Church founded by Mark the Evangelist. So even though Matthew was not Ethiopian, his name connects him to the Coptic Christians of all sub-Saharan Africa. The Coptic Church has respected his refusal to be separated from his fellow prisoners, and therefore made him one of its own sons.

The only pictures we have of Matthew are stills from the video that show him kneeling on the sand, among the Egyptians, in an orange jumpsuit. It seems that no one in his homeland missed him for quite some time. While the Egyptians were accompanied on their final journey by the hopes and prayers of their relatives, Matthew’s didn’t learn of his fate until later. He looks in the video both devoted and resigned; his expression shows no fear or tension whatsoever. His killer holds him by the collar, as if worried that he might jump up and run off at any moment, and so his bare neck, which will soon be cut, is almost completely exposed. His posture is especially straight. He might have understood the threatening speech the killers’ leader gave in English. At any rate, he surely had no doubt about the gravity and hopelessness of his situation. But he didn’t see that as any reason not to hold his head high. Things could not have been worse, but he seems to have recognised that there was nothing he could do about it.

What kind of man was Matthew? He had ventured from West Africa to the Mediterranean as a migrant worker, and was voluntarily beheaded alongside men from another nation. What conclusions might we draw from the little we know of him?

“I am a Christian,” I am told he said – not, “I believe in Christ.” Belief belongs to the realm of meaning, certainty, conviction; it is something we declare about ourselves that invariably carries risk, since no one is as unknown to us as ourselves. Often enough we have had the experience of a seemingly absolute certainty, an incontrovertible thought, beginning to inexorably decay as soon as it has been uttered, such that we realise – with a sense of relief as well as a guilty conscience – that we are clearly going to have doubts about what we have just professed. In Mark 9:24, the epileptic child’s father commits himself to Jesus with these prayerful words: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Few people in the surrounding crowd who claim to be believers dare leave after the boy’s miraculous return to health.

In contrast, the words “I am a Christian” contain a liberating degree of objectivity. True, Christians become Christians through faith, but there is also an aspect of the sacraments that doesn’t depend on faith: one becomes a Christian through baptism. (Christianity also entails the undeniable fact that spiritual transformation can be brought about by means of material things such as water and oil, wine and bread.)

A baptised person can also say “I am a Christian” when overwhelmed by doubt because, according to the Church’s teachings, even the most corrosive doubt cannot alter the efficacy of baptism. But Matthew’s declaration, “I am a Christian,” leaves no room for doubt or any other such out-of-place considerations. It all must have been quite simple for him.

I imagine his Christianity was as indisputable for him as his skin colour. Denying his Christianity, as I see it, would have struck him less as a betrayal, and more as giving in to hopelessness. He likely would have found it pointless.

His captors just hadn’t looked closely enough when they tried to let him go – on closer inspection, they would have quickly realised he was so sure of his faith that it might as well have been written on his forehead. The man so calmly kneeling there in quiet anticipation of the knife that would be brought to his throat is – one might imagine – not only the son of another land and civilisation, but also of a time that has long since sunk far down into the darkness of history: a time in which people knew exactly who they were, and trusted that language presupposed reality, sealing one’s fate and leaving no doubt about what it rendered. Accounts of people proclaiming “I am a Christian” when they know the consequence will be death have a fairytale-like ring to our contemporary ears. One might be tempted to say that it is impossible for anyone to think that way today, had Matthew’s blood not flowed from his throat into the sea at Sirte.

That the Coptic Church counts Matthew among its new saints was by no means a given, however. Had he survived and expressed a desire to be accepted as a Copt, he would have had to be baptised again since, like many Orthodox churches, the Coptic Church does not recognise baptisms performed by another church.

So is Matthew simply an unbaptised person who somehow became a saint? Not at all. By his willingness to die alongside his Coptic companions, he received the baptism of blood on the Libyan seaside: his own blood took the place of both the holy water and the priest’s christening.

This is an extract from The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, by Martin Mosebach, translated by Alta L. Price, (Plough, 15 February 2019). Reprinted with permission