It is a scrupulously made short film, shot with several cameras in 2015. Arabic letters dance atop a black background, as if afloat on a whirling current of water, finally coming together and forming a droplet of closely intertwined characters. In Arabic calligraphy—one of Islam’s most refined arts—an entire poem can be written as a single sign, which only a highly trained scribe can decode. This particular sign is the logo of one “Al Hayat Media Center.” In this carefully choreographed film, everything has its place.
Then the name of President Obama appears, his middle name, Hussein, emphasized with capital letters. We are clearly meant to recall this Muslim name as Obama himself appears on the screen. Known for his eloquence, reciting speeches as smoothly as a clergyman or actor, he’s shown in apparent distress, mourning the atrocities committed in the name of Jesus during the Crusades. The message is clear: In all of history, nothing is without consequence. Everything we’re about to see is the answer to the president’s contrite confession.
“A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross”: That’s the title of the film in English. It is elegantly set in a classical typeface, with most letters in black; only the word “blood” is red. We hear the sound of waves and see a sandy beach interspersed with rocky outcroppings. The overcast sky gives the colors intensity and depth. Text appears, informing us that it is the “Coast of Wilayat Tarabulus,” west of the Libyan port town of Sirte.
Then, from behind one of the rocky outcrops, a man in a bright orange jumpsuit slowly appears, his head bowed. His hands are tied behind his back and on his neck lies the hand of his companion, a black-clad giant whose face is hidden by a mask that leaves only his eyes visible. The two of them are not alone. They are followed by a long line of similar pairs in orange and black, and the men swathed in black all look to be about a head taller than the men in orange.
The camera then zooms out, giving an overview of the entire scene. The procession unfolds, moving quietly—almost leisurely—forward. When a man in orange hesitates at one of the rocky spots, his companion in black patiently waits until he has made his way over it, marking a shared moment, as if a farmer were helping his donkey over a small obstacle. A caption instructs the viewer, however, that these captives are “followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.”
Now the camera zooms in on the men. They line up beside one another in a tightly packed row; this happens smoothly, as if rehearsed. No one is out of step. The sand is full of footprints—maybe this is where they practiced for the perfectly staged event? Clearly no improvisation was permitted in this film. Its simple script won’t allow for any lulls or blurred takes: Not a single individual can break out of line, and there certainly can’t be any visible resistance. Then, after a short pause, all the men in orange fall to their knees simultaneously, in a grim kind of chorus line. The men in black tower behind them, looking even taller than before, each holding his left hand on his captive’s collar, while his right fondles the handle of the dagger sheathed on his chest. There are twenty-one men in orange, one of them a dark-skinned sub-Saharan African. So the lineup can be perfectly symmetrical, the sole black man kneels in the middle, and behind him stands the only captor dressed not in black, but in desert camouflage fatigues. His mask is pale yellow, the area around his mouth visibly moist from his breath.
The man in camo now addresses viewers in a speech. His English bears no discernible accent, which will lead many people to presume he is American. But even if he is, he likely doesn’t claim that citizenship any longer, since he is now the member of a larger, worldwide community. Whether the arrest of some of the perpetrators in October 2017 will help clarify his identity remains to be seen. He begins the speech with “all praises due to Allah, the strong and mighty”—words reminiscent of the Greek Orthodox liturgy, which were in turn incorporated into Coptic liturgy: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” a prayer that long predates the Islamic conquest. His voice is calm, though he is fiercely accusatory. He blames Christians for launching one long war against Islam—a battle spanning from the Middle Ages to the present day. It is fitting that Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, called the Iraq war a crusade, and that Obama decried the wrongs of medieval Crusaders. The spokesman in this video likely knows as little about the historical Crusades as any American president, but he’s obviously more intent on proving the symmetry that justifies his use of this term: On one side stands the American crusade, pitting its Christian vassals against all Muslims; on the other, the answer of all Muslims—yes, really, every single Muslim, since he apparently aspires to speak for the entire community of believers. For him, this is a worldwide conflict, a battle to the very end. When the good side finally wins, the mercy of the All-merciful will be manifest, and he will finally bestow peace upon mankind.
The spokesman pauses now and then, as if trying to remember a well-rehearsed text. “Here we are, south of Rome”—he speaks like a military commander aiming to advance. Rome is the real enemy. The name “Rome” encapsulates everything that has resisted Islam—even though the Coptic Church wasn’t involved in the Crusades and to this day maintains independence from Rome and the Vatican; even though America, which led the Iraq wars, was shaped by Christian sects that consider Rome the Whore of Babylon; and even though Arab rulers also participate—verbally, at least—in the ominous “war on terror.” The speaker points the tip of his dagger at us, the video’s viewers, but despite this threatening gesture, his tone remains calm, unshakeable. “The sea you”—Americans, Christians, Romans?—“have hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.” Where there is justice, there is no room for fanaticism, so his conclusion sounds almost peaceful. He has put the dagger back in the sheath on his chest; his fingers play with the strings hanging from its handle. And the camera’s lens now drifts back to the handle and sheath, implying the action is about to shift.
The disciplined speech, clearly articulated through the fabric of his mask, is followed by an eloquent silence. The staging is reminiscent of monks mutely lined up before entering church in procession—an intentional pause for reflection that in Christian monastic practice is known as statio. The camera then scans over the faces of the kneeling men in orange jumpsuits. This clothing is part of the message: It evokes a scene now familiar worldwide—images of bound prisoners kneeling in cages, their heads bent low—a reference to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
The camera lingers on individual faces. On the left you can clearly see twenty-three-year-old Kiryollos with his questioning, almost absent-looking expression. Then comes the face of twenty-two-year-old Gaber, whose brow is furrowed and whose eyes stay closed as his lips move in whispered prayer. Captivity has aged him, he looks like a forty-year-old. Ezzat, thirty-two, bends over as if something on the ground has caught his attention. Twenty-four-year-old Essam, whose fairer skin sets him apart, shifts a bit on his knees and turns his head to Matthew, the one sub-Saharan, who kneels beside him but does not return his gaze; he just stares straight ahead. One of the prisoners isn’t kneeling upright like the others, but has sunk back onto his heels: Samuel (Jr.), twenty-two, looks the most like his passport photo, and his youthful face, big eyes, and full lips show a fundamental, unflappable friendliness.
An eerie calm looms over the men. It has been suggested that the video’s directors, who had to ensure nothing interrupted the action, drugged their victims. Essam’s watchful expression and movement, which make it look like he’s ready to jump up, and Gaber’s prayer make me doubt it. Since none of them (save perhaps Matthew) speaks a word of English, they can’t understand the speech. But the speaker’s steady, self-assured voice probably tells them that not even a bullet to the head could change this man’s mind.
Then, in a synchronized wave, the captors push their bound prisoners forward, faces down in the sand. They loom over them, kneel atop their backs, grab their hair, pull their heads up, unsheathe their knives, and hold the blades to their throats. No one screams, only a jumble of soft voices is audible: Ya Rabbi Yasou!—“Oh my Lord Jesus!”—the quick prayer of the dying.
Most versions of the video still available today end here, but the original version posted online was also cut in this same spot—giving the technical film-editing term a gruesome connotation. Cutting the mens’ throats must not have gone as smoothly as hoped; some of the executioners must have had to hack away longer than planned to sever fully the cartilaginous trachea and neck, exposing a lack of professionalism that the propagandists who spread the news of this grisly crime had to hide. Suddenly it becomes clear why Dr. Guillotin and his wretched contraption were once considered humanitarian.
But then the result appears: The executioners have set the severed heads on the backs of the corpses. At first glance, they look like they’ve sprouted up on the spot, a bunch of cut up and then wrongly reassembled bodies. Their faces, which the camera zooms in on, are disfigured in death. Their features look as if they’re being pulled apart on all sides, and their skin, which had looked deeply tan just a moment ago, is now a deathly pale yellow. Would these men’s mothers still recognize their sons? Kiryollos’s head is the only one that hasn’t fully bled out, betraying nothing of the horrors that have just taken place.
The leader, who cut off the head of the sub-Saharan African, ends the brief moment of reverie. He has risen from the corpse and stands up straight. Holding the knife in his bloodied hand, he again points the tip toward the camera, as if to tell viewers: It’s coming for your necks, too, until victory is ours.
And then the camera pans back to the sea, which laps as softly as before, but the water is no longer a grayish blue; it’s now reddened by one hundred liters of blood. The stain doesn’t spread quickly, but grows like a cloud, gradually turning blue to red. This is only the beach of Sirte, but we get the message: This is what the sea will look like on countless coasts if the executioners get their way. Many perpetrators of political violence over the last hundred years have hoped that a new world and a new righteousness would emerge from such rivers of blood, but few have celebrated sheer bloodshed as much as these men on the beach of Wilayat Tarabulus.
Not long after the Twenty-One were beheaded, I met with a German cardinal. I asked him why the Catholic Church did not formally recognize the testimony of these men of faith, as the old Church generally had in cases of martyrdom. “But they’re Copts!” he answered. I shall not mention this dignitary by name, because I do not believe his helpless words should be heard as an expression of his own personal views. Wasn’t he simply saying precisely what many of his peers would have, if given the chance? Right then and there I decided I had to learn more about the Copts, and the Twenty-One in particular.
A few months later, I was on the road to El-Aour, a village along the Upper Nile where sixteen of the martyrs grew up. All around spread a broad plain of verdant fields—modern farms growing semi-dwarf wheat. This green sea was dotted with island-like villages whose tallest points were domed towers topped by crosses. As we proceeded north, mosque minarets became a less frequent sight. We started out following a canal that ran straight as an arrow, which we soon crossed, and then continued down a dirt road. Each village looked the same as the next at first, but then an unexpected sight caught my eye: Amid a cluster of buildings on the horizon, a gigantic, round, white structure stood out. A nuclear reactor, perhaps? As we drew closer, it became clear: This mighty concrete dome, curving from the ground upward, was no reactor, but its massive size dwarfed the many buildings crowded around it. Not just the houses, but even the steeple of the old parish church in the middle of the village seemed small and fragile in comparison.
We looked at the giant dome. Construction was still underway all around it. Egyptian president General el-Sisi had ordered the building of this pilgrimage church to commemorate the martyrs. The general had been forced to give a clear sign of sympathy for the Egyptian citizens murdered abroad, and this building was its manifestation. Precariously positioned between both sides of the civil war, he felt dependent on the approval of the Copts. Might having a magnificent church in which to honor their martyrs help put them at ease?
Meanwhile, the noteworthy structure has gained still greater significance. When it was planned in 2015, the martyrs’ bodies were still missing. “The murderers threw them into the sea, where fish ate their remains,” was more or less how I heard it told by a young deacon. It was a somewhat childish idea, since human bodies aren’t easy to dispose of, but the ongoing civil war in Libya made it impossible to investigate any further. And then, in October 2017, the bodies were finally found. Buried in the desert not far from the scene of the massacre, their hands were still tied behind their backs, their jumpsuits stained with blood.
For the Coptic Church it was immediately clear that the remains must be brought home. Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria called on the Egyptian government to lobby Libya for their return. In May 2018, a private jet flew the bodies of the twenty Egyptians to Cairo. (The body of Matthew was not with them.) From there, the martyrs’ remains were brought to El-Aour and laid to rest according to the solemn rites for handling sacred relics. The house of worship built in their memory became a sepulchral church, making it even more exceptional among Egyptian churches.
Copts keep the relics of their saints in heavy wooden cylinders, which the priest holds for the faithful to kiss and also holds to their heads, because Copts believe in maintaining physical contact with their saints. Other churches would certainly want relics of the new martyrs, too, so they might well be divided up and sent to several places. The high dome of their new church now holds a glowing ember, in the form of the martyrs’ sacred bodies, which will radiate the faith far and wide.
I had gotten no farther than the outside courtyard of this church when I came upon a photoshopped poster, by a designer who will likely remain anonymous but whose work has since spread through the whole of Coptic Egypt. He took the men’s heads from old photo IDs and placed them on other bodies—a process that somehow echoes the theme of beheading—standing ramrod straight, dressed in white liturgical robes, the red stoles of deacons crossing their chests. Each has been granted the honor of this garment, including those the bishop hadn’t expressly ordained as choirmasters—even Matthew, although we don’t know whether he had ever heard a Coptic Mass, or if he first learned Coptic chants during their shared captivity. The martyrs’ hands, which aren’t really theirs, hold crosses of the sort a bishop uses to bless his congregation; on their heads perch regal crowns whose two-dimensionality contrasts with the photographic faces underneath, looking instead like gold paper cut-outs.
I soon discovered countless variations of these martyrs-as-crowned-priests pictures. Some showed all the men together like a royal band, standing before a pale blue sky with little white clouds hovering amid painted angels; others showed them with a cut-and-paste, American-style Christ, his head lowered in mourning; still others had a Russian-looking, enthroned Christ Pantocrator—ruler of all—in the middle.
And for each of these curious variants several sub-variations had been created as well. I saw their crowned photo-ID portraits amid painted angels and saints, but there were also versions that had taken their still images from the video, uniting them as sublime, crowned saints in orange jumpsuits.
So the martyrs’ family members weren’t surprised when people came to visit. Their husbands, sons, and brothers had experienced the most amazing transformation of all: They had left home as poor migrant workers, and would never return, but had become saints and were now more present than ever, albeit in a different form. They now wore crowns, even though they had only done what was expected of them, and what all their brothers were equally prepared to do. Unexpectedly, this natural fulfillment of duty that would otherwise be taken for granted was surrounded by the greatest splendor—but this served only to prove that little more than the thinnest tissue separates earthly life from the heavenly sphere. One must always be prepared for the possibility that this tissue could tear, letting a golden ray of light fall into the realm of everyday life. Precisely by accepting such a cruel fate, their husbands, sons, and brothers were magnificently exalted. The martyrs’ relatives made no pretense of sharing their late loved ones’ glory, but they did take calm pride in the dead.
The sixteen men from El-Aour all lived on the same village lane. Life there was lived in public, without much privacy, as it had been in rural Europe at least until World War II. Countries where such living conditions continue into the present day are regarded with condescension and pity, as if they’ve failed to strive for and reach a prescribed socioeconomic goal. The horror such long-preserved ways of life inspire carries with it a particular kind of prudery, as if what is widely termed “backwardness” also implies some kind of moral failure. So let’s be perfectly clear: The Twenty-One never slept on sheets, so had never experienced the physical benefits of a freshly made bed. It’s entirely possible that they were well-acquainted with fleas and lice; none of them had a bathtub. The fact that their families now live in new houses, and that some of them own a refrigerator, hasn’t much affected their way of life. But in the living rooms of their family homes there’s always a picture of the murdered son wearing a crown and the red stole of a deacon. Much like King David, who once lived in a shepherd’s hut, a king has emerged from each of these families.
All the houses I visited shared one common feature: The household was not in mourning. Condolences and expressions of sympathy seemed out of place. They struck me as somehow elevated to another plane. A scorching flash of violence had fallen upon them, followed by a majestic clap of thunder that slowly faded yet never fully died out. Now, at the end of the lane most of the martyrs had lived on, stood the massive, bare, concrete dome that looked so foreign to this village it might as well have been beamed down from outer space.
Language alone could not do justice to the events—the archdiocese was at a loss when it came to describing the personalities of the individual martyrs for the official martyrology based on sparse biographical information.
“He was quick to forgive, argued with no one, and was faithful and honorable” (Magued).
“He served his whole family” (Hany).
“He was friendly and had a kind heart” (Ezzat).
“He slept with the Bible on his chest. He prayed and strictly followed the fast” (Malak).
“His peaceful smile showed how close he was to God” (Luka).
“He gave alms even though he was poor” (Sameh).
“He carefully considered his words before opening his mouth” (Milad).
“He was discreet, respectful, and calm” (Essam).
“He was calm, obedient, and quick to confess” (Youssef).
“He devoted a lot of time to helping the ‘Lord’s brothers’ (the poor)” (Bishoy).
“He was a man of prayer and liturgy” (Girgis Jr.).
“He was a quiet man, even when criticized” (Mina).
“He was an honest worker and treated his parents with respect” (Kiryollos).
“His heart was pure and simple, his words humble” (Gaber).
“He was compassionate and strove to help others” (Girgis Sr.).
The common thread running through all these descriptions is discretion. Pray, serve, stay silent—that’s an apt characterization of a monk. But they weren’t monks, much as Kiryollos might have wanted to become one. He was the only one said to have had such a wish, but hadn’t made the cut; monasteries judged postulants according to strict standards.
Couldn’t one easily conclude that the episcopal registrar had tried to craft an exemplary past for these new saints by distilling their lives into a sententious formula? After my visits to El-Aour and the neighboring villages, however, I suspect that he simply wrote down what he was told. I heard the exact same things he had.
“He was good—a good son, a good husband, a good father.” The words sounded too modest, too ineffectual for men who were now legend. It seemed likely that this trait of discretion was a hallmark not only of the Twenty-One martyrs, but of the entire region and its villages—a shared heritage not in the sense of stubborn omertà or enforced silence, but rather of circumspection that made coexisting in such close quarters, for days, months, years, and decades that all seemed the same, bearable. In a village where everyone knows everything about everyone else, gossip can make life a living hell. The widow of Tawadros—at forty-six by far the eldest of the martyrs—who now had to raise their three children on her own, said of her husband, “He was honorable and simple.” Might the Virgin Mary have said the same of Saint Joseph?
The pastor was the only one I heard put a different spin on it: “You have to understand: These were average young men, completely normal guys. I never would have thought they’d become saints!” It still perplexed him—if only he’d known!
Well, if they were indeed your average young men, then the bar for what was average was set pretty high. Tawadros’s widow recalled that in Libya he’d been told to change his Christian name, Theodore, lest it cause him trouble. His reply: “Anyone who starts changing his name will end up changing his faith.”
Just before bidding me goodbye, the widow of Magued—forty-one years old and the second-eldest of the Twenty-One, a coarse-looking peasant with a low brow and dense hair—said with visible embarrassment, as if it were hard for her to confess: “He wanted us all to be angels.”
The young widow of twenty-eight-year-old Samuel Sr. showed me a professional family photo in which she, her husband, and their three children posed before a backdrop featuring a futuristic skyline. She added that when her husband called from Libya, he always asked whether the family was praying. It was his last question on every call.
Twenty-six-year-old Milad kept the fast even when working long, hard days in the fields, against the pastor’s advice. His reply: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” That’s how I heard it from his widow, who looked to be not much older than a child, her mourning attire seeming almost costume-like. He had sent her his Bible from Libya, and she always carries it in her pocket. She can’t read, but is preserving this precious keepsake for their children.
Twenty-three-year-old Girgis Sr., newly betrothed to his cousin, would often stay in his room for two hours, praying; his one-eyed, white-turbaned father pointed to the closed door, covered in colorful holy images, as if his son were still behind it. Incidentally, unlike most of the martyrs’ families, his still lived in an old adobe house with umber-colored walls, beamed ceilings, and earthen floors. Sure-flighted swallows darted through the room, and a rat scurried across the adjacent table.
The young widow of twenty-eight-year-old Luka—who never met his own daughter—recalled how he could read minds, including hers: “He always sent me money, even before I could tell him I needed something.” After my visit with her, I learned that these young widows would never remarry, solely because they had been married to a martyr.
The mother of the brothers Bishoy and Samuel Jr., a petite, gaunt woman, held a picture of the latter that portrayed him with the large eyes and gentle face of an icon. He always said, “I am the king’s son.” When he was twelve years old, a stone had fallen from the third floor and struck his head. “He was in the intensive care unit when the Blessed Virgin appeared to him and said, ‘Fear not,’ and soon thereafter he was healed.”
Mina’s mother also listed the accidents from which her son had been saved, echoing a motif found in the lives of so many martyrs of the past. “As a boy, he survived a heavy electric shock; soon afterwards, he plummeted from a third-story window to the street, but was only slightly injured. In the monastery of Saint Samuel he tumbled, head first, down a long flight of steps; it was bad, but even that didn’t kill him.” He had overcome many dangers to meet his final destiny.
Only the mother of Kiryollos, who had given birth to five other sons, had little to say about her son. A cheerful mood prevailed in her home, and a young uncle who was a priest joined us. Wearing his cassock, he leaned comfortably into the big cushions to tell me about his late relative: “He never said much, never thought about the future. He just lived, one day at a time.” Was that what I thought I’d read on his face in the video of his execution—his somewhat lost gaze, his slightly absent expression, the look of someone daydreaming? Even once his head was severed, his face still preserved a touch of that expression.
It had been dangerous to go to Libya seeking work. The Arab Spring had plunged the country into chaos. There had been violence against Christians well before 2015, including several murders. The priests of one Egyptian diocese—the Holy Metropolis of Damanhur, in the Nile Delta—who also looked after the Copts in Libya, ceased their usual trips. But the families of the Twenty-One needed the money, and Libya was both closer and posed fewer formalities than the Gulf States. They were poor, just an inconspicuous little group heading out to look for jobs. Who would care about such people?
And yet their departure was accompanied by a few premonitions. Twenty-three-year-old Abanoub, a young man whose unusual features made it look as if he might be from India, said to a friend returning home to El-Aour from Libya in 2014 to get married, “You come here to wed this year, but in 2015 we will all celebrate our wedding.” Might his listeners have been reminded of the “marriage supper of the Lamb” from the Book of Revelation, wherein the blood of the sacrifice cleanses the robes of the righteous to a purified white? After the fact, that’s precisely how his enigmatic words were interpreted.
Girgis Sr. was also twenty-three and, according to his father, always carried a photograph of two Christians killed in a bombing, saying, “I wish I were with them, and like them.”
Sameh phoned his family shortly before being abducted—he had been in Libya for six months already—and asked not only that everyone back home pray, but above all that they look after his little daughter.
Essam’s widow showed me a photograph people considered prophetic. During a visit to the Monastery of Saint Samuel, Essam had asked a monk about what his future might hold. Essam kneeled silently before him, the monk put his hands around the young man’s neck, and that’s the exact moment the snapshot recorded. On the night the Twenty-One were abducted, the monk had a dream: He saw Essam and other men tormented by a large hound dog in uniform, and then suddenly a dagger pierced his chest.
Luka’s widow said that once, after hearing a sermon on martyrdom, her husband had said, “I’m ready.” He mentioned having an intuition that martyrdom awaited him. He had often taken walks on the very beach where he was later beheaded. He also clearly had a macabre sense of humor: She showed me a photograph of him lying in a coffin he himself had built. As I left, she gave me a T-shirt with a print of her husband and Essam, both in sparkling crowns.
The miracles didn’t stop after the massacre. Samuel’s little son fell to the street from the third floor, and his arm was broken in several places. When he regained consciousness, he said his father had caught him, and a few days later his X-rays showed not a single fracture. Samuel’s sister, who entered the door barefoot in a stained jellabiya, confessed that for three days following the death of her brother she had fought with God: “I blamed God!” But then a bright light appeared in the heavens, Samuel’s face shining brightly from within. “And then twenty-one crowns appeared surrounding the light. From then on, I didn’t complain anymore.”
And Sameh’s son, who fell ill and began vomiting after his father’s death, also saw him again. Sameh laid his hand on the child’s head and said, “It’s going to be all right,” and the boy immediately felt well again.
Ezzat’s mother—a stout woman who had borne seven other children and had a noticeably spirited eloquence compared to most of the people I met here—suffered a severe stroke a while after her son’s death. Ezzat and St. George came to her in a dream, her son laid his hands upon her, and she was healed.
A childless Muslim woman came to Essam’s mother for help (local Muslims often ask their Coptic neighbors to pray for them): “Your God listens to prayers, and works wonders.” She gave the woman one of Essam’s shirts. Maybe the woman wore it when she lay with her husband? In any case, after fifteen infertile years, she became pregnant twice while in possession of his shirt.
The families didn’t care to remember the grief, pain, and fear they felt during the men’s captivity, nor the tears unleashed by the news of their death. They all went out of their way to avoid leaving me with the impression that the decapitation of their sons, brothers, and husbands had caused them any misfortune. Naturally, they were depressed while awaiting news, as they’d been kept in the dark and could only prepare for the worst. But when they saw the video and knew with certainty what had happened, their confidence returned: “We now have a holy martyr in heaven, so must rejoice—nothing can harm us anymore.”
Which explains why the families handled the video with a complete sense of ease. There was an iPad in every household on which one could watch the full-length, uncut, unedited video. Malak’s mother was the only one who refused to look at the screen, while all her family’s young men, cousins, and brothers stared at it, apparently undisturbed, pointing out the men they recognized, as they had often done. There could have been no better place to watch the video—surrounded by the men’s families and runny-nosed children, in rooms adorned with images of the crowned Twenty-One, while a goat poked its devilish-looking head through the doorway and a calf next door wauled for its mother.
What would the murderers say about their video being shown like this? Would it surprise them to see how unflappable these simple-minded, poor folk were? Would they be able to see that their cruelty had failed to achieve the intended goal, and that their attempt to intimidate and disturb hadn’t succeeded?
Gaber’s hunched-over, barefoot mother—whose house had rung out with unidentifiable voices singing Hallelujah during his death, as their Muslim neighbors also confirmed—was quick to express her gratitude that her son had become a martyr. Youssef’s family members—his young widow with their little boy, his turban-clad father, his mother holding an icon of her crowned son to her chest—told me, as well as each other, how happy they were when they realized that he was in heaven.
Hany’s mother also readily admitted her joy, especially with regard to her four little grandchildren: Once they’re a bit older, they’ll be so proud that their father is a martyr.
Milad’s parents thanked God for their son’s martyrdom, and the parents of Girgis Sr. recalled how their son had always wanted to become a martyr. During his captivity, they hadn’t prayed for his deliverance, only that he remain strong. He had remained strong indeed, and was now the family’s pride.
All these words were spoken not with fanaticism or willful zeal, but rather serenity and calm. These weren’t Spartan mothers celebrating some rigid ideal, but rather believers whose faith had been forged and strengthened by adversity. Whereas Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death features Thomas Paine asserting that pain is the touchstone of atheism, in this case it turns out to be quite the opposite: Pain is the touchstone of faith and Christ’s revelation. Ezzat’s mother, who had been cured of stroke by her son’s supernatural intervention, was the only one who still seemed to feel equal cause for both mourning and rejoicing. As she spoke to me, her lively eyes grew moist. Malak’s father, the otherwise cheerful colossus, drew her close and embraced her. He had shown us his son’s Bible; he himself was unable to read it, but he gave it a reverent kiss before putting it away for safekeeping.
He knew many passages by heart, and began quoting from the book of Samuel, where David inquires about his son.
“Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
“You understand? We’ve done just as King David did, or at least we’ve tried,” he concluded. But at that he, too, lost his composure.
In the many conversations I had, not once did anyone call for retribution or revenge, or even for the murderers to be punished. It was as if the families wanted nothing whatsoever to do with them, because the martyrs’ sheer splendor outshone them, leaving them to become immaterial lemures, as the ancient Romans referred to such spirits—the wandering, formless, vengeful ghosts associated with darkness and condemned to be hunted by Satan for all eternity. The martyrs had “fought the good fight,” “finished the race,” and “kept the faith,” as the apostle Paul writes, in a line all of them knew well. Or might this type of surrender be the result of centuries of experience, repeatedly proving that persecution of the Copts never was and never would be penalized? Could turning this inherited defenselessness into a wise refusal to be vengeful constitute a virtue?
When I later asked myself what I had actually learned about the martyrs during my weeks in El-Aour, I was at a bit of a loss. When reworked photo-ID pictures and relatives’ stories are the only thing one has to go on, it’s not easy to get a fully developed impression of a dead man. Malak was the only one I saw a slightly more personal photograph of: It showed him freshly shaven, his cheeks rosy, in a shiny black jacket, white shirt, and loose tie, striking a little pose. Was his right hand on the knot to further loosen the tie, or to tighten it? He gazed straight at the camera, giving the viewer an expectant or perhaps encouraging look. Was he on his way to a dance party or a date? Why was the pastor so emphatic about the martyrs being “average young men”? A vast labyrinth spreads out behind the term “average guy.” What’s “average,” anyway? Might this young man be the village Romeo, a brawling soccer fiend, or a hard partier? Did he like to pick fights, or race around on his motorbike?
It was none other than Malak, the young man in that picture wearing the tie—maybe the photographer had loaned it to him?—who spoke the decisive words for the Twenty-One. The pastor told me about their last conversation before Malak left for Libya. The pastor had tried to say that believers could bear witness not only by dying for Christ, but also by living a long and faithful life. “That’s not enough for me,” Malak answered, “I want to do it through death.”
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 Diocletian Persecution. On the way to his execution, he was spotted by an unknown man. Moved by the sight of Felix in chains, the man professed his own Christian faith on the spot. He was then executed alongside Felix and, because his name remained unknown, is venerated as Saint Adauctus, “the added man.” The twenty Copts martyred on the beach in Libya also had an Adauctus among them: the young black man, Matthew Ayariga, who was abducted along with them—he came not from Egypt but from Ghana.
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 didn’t matter. 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.
Had Matthew survived and expressed a desire to be accepted as a Copt, he would have had to undergo baptism again. Like many Orthodox churches, the Coptic Church doesn’t recognize baptisms performed by other churches. So is Matthew simply an unbaptized person who somehow became a saint? Not at all. By his willingness to die alongside his Coptic companions, he received baptism on the Libyan seaside. His own blood took the place of both the holy water and the priest’s christening in the sacrament.
Martin Mosebach is the author of The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, from which this essay is adapted.
Artwork courtesy of Antoun Rezk.