Six years ago on Feb. 15, the world watched, horrified, as photos and videos circulated of the 20 laborers from Egypt and one from Ghana who were brutally executed by Daesh on a beach in Libya. The 21 Martyrs joined the ranks of thousands of Christians who came before them, whose stories of persecution they would have heard almost every time they went to church. Their modern Christian martyrdom stands in stark contrast to the largely imagined persecution trumpeted by the American Religious Right.
The day before the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, a prominent member of the Christian Right tweeted a photo of the 21 Martyrs, asking, “What price are you willing to pay for what you believe in?” He compared the political campaign to overturn the U.S. election to the steadfast Christian faith of those 21 men — a post that was as historically ignorant as it was offensive.
Remembered among the saints
The 21 Martyrs were killed at the crossroads of geopolitical battles they had no part in creating. Before they set out to work in a politically unstable Libya to support their families , 20 of the 21 Martyrs led ordinary lives in Egypt. We don’t have much information about the martyr from Ghana*, but Martin Mosebach described the Egyptians’ life stories in The 21: They were not politically involved. Many of them were ordained cantors and readers in their village Coptic Orthodox church, where they prayed and heard Bible readings and stories from the Synaxarium, the official chronicle of saints and martyrs.
Christianity spread in Egypt from the first century A.D., but the Era of the Martyrs marks the beginning of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s liturgical calendar. Diocletian became emperor of Rome in 284 A.D. and soon embarked on the Great Persecution, during which many Egyptians were killed for being Christians. Thus begins the first Coptic year. The 21 were martyred in 1731 anno martyrum and remembered among the saints every year since.
Even after the Roman empire ended the bloody “red” martyrdom of Christians in 313 A.D., there were Egyptian Christians who sought after another kind of martyrdom: the “white martyrdom” of the desert, leaving the world and fighting their own passions and the demons they believed would tempt them away from nearness to Christ. Some lived as hermits; others would establish monastic communities, gathering people in radical equality under the Pachomian Rule, which would become the basis of the Benedictine Rule of the West.
The 21 Martyrs, like many Copts, might have made pilgrimages to these ancient monasteries, many of them still running since those early centuries. Their world and worship, ancient, liturgical, and self-sacrificial, would form them into the unshakeable force that refused to submit to earthly powers.
In Egypt, Coptic churches are lined with icons: faces of faithful heroes who held steadfast to the faith before them. They smell of incense, sand, and sweat. The wooden pews are strewn with prayer books full of Psalms and liturgical books in both Arabic and Coptic, the latter the language of the early Egyptian Christians.
The faithful wear crosses around their necks and crosses tattooed to their wrists, remembering their ancestors who were called “blue boned” for being forced to wear heavy metal crosses around their necks to differentiate them from their invaders.
For the 21 Martyrs the cross was a sign of victory — victory over sin, not over others. The 21 Martyrs would have crossed themselves 500 times every Good Friday as they prostrated in repentance, asking their Lord Jesus to remember them when he came into his heavenly kingdom. The cross was for them a sign of love.
The 21 would have taken Holy Communion many times. Their bodies would have been anointed with holy oil, first at their baptism and later at church services throughout the year. Their families would pray for the return of those bodies after their deaths, so that they might also be anointed with perfume and spices. When they were returned to Egypt three years later, thousands of faithful celebrated them with ululations inside a church newly built for them in their village of Al-Our, Samalut.
Even on earth, the 21 Martyrs’ legacy outlives their persecutors. Their names are known and remembered. Their captors remain nameless and faceless cowards.
The evangelical persecution complex
I learned the same stories the 21 Martyrs heard. I participated in the same kinds of church liturgical services, which are markedly different from my evangelical Protestant friends’ worship services. Saints and martyrs play a huge role in Orthodox and Catholic worship, though frowned upon by many evangelicals. As an American Copt coming of age in the 1990s, I also observed, with some gratitude, the growing evangelical focus on global Christian persecution even as U.S. news media typically only paid attention to terrorist attacks in Egypt when tourists were targets. Coptic Christians killed by those same terrorists were largely ignored — except by evangelicals.
This gratitude turned into confusion and concern as I started to recognize a “persecution complex” among evangelicals, specifically the political Christian Right. They saw global Christian persecution, and were somehow identifying with it. Possible infringements on Christian religious liberties, real and imagined, were spoken of in the same terms as the bloodshed for Christ we heard about every Sunday.
The martyrs’ stories are told with courage, love, and victory. Americans arguing that somehow they are also persecuted use a different tone, characterized by fear, anger, and victimhood.
Many members of my religious community in the U.S. emigrated to enjoy their freedom to worship without the fear of violence they faced in their home country. Why do some Christians here claim persecution in a country where they constitute the majority and where religious freedom is a constitutional mandate? Threats to religious liberty do exist — but we live in a country with systems for speaking up against these infringements.
Martyrdom in the Coptic tradition is not about victimization, but victory. The story of the 21 Martyrs can’t be molded to political ends. It lives above and outside, a witness for us, an exhortation. The 21 faced death with courage because of the faith that formed them, and through the stories of those who came before them. They died not because they fought, but because they loved.
*Some reports say the man was from Chad.