Martyrs can save a dying Church

Martyrs can save a dying Church Icon of the 21 Coptic martyrs

The murder of dozens of martyrs was nothing short of a devastating tragedy, but it is also an example of the courage and enduring faith of Egypt’s persecuted Christian community.

A new book by a renowned German author details his travels to one of the small villages these men came from. He meets their families and delves into the mindset of those who would rather give their lives than denounce their Christianity.

It was in February 2015 that fundamentalist terrorist group the Islamic State released photos of 21 Egyptian migrant workers who they had kidnapped in Sirte, Libya. They threatened to kill them for the alleged kidnapping of Muslim women by the Coptic Church.

Three days after this, on February 15, a five-minute video was published called ‘People of the Cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church’. It showed the beheading of the captives on a beach along the southern Mediterranean coast.


The persecution of Egypt’s Christians has long been a topic of criticism and anger, but the writer of The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs says the Copts are an example to the Church in the western world and the Coptic Church itself should not always be viewed as a victim.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic, international bestselling author Martin Mosebach says that for the Copts the most important part of Christian life is imitation of the Cross as “they consider themselves as members of the Church of the martyrs”.

He says: “We all are worried about the persecution of Christians in the Near East and consider this one of the most horrible consequences of the wars now in Near East, but we have lost a bit of the idea that Christianity and martyrdom belong together and, in each century, society and circumstance this is a couple, martyrdom and Christianity.

“Before the Gospels there were the martyrs and the martyrs were the element of Christianity that made Christianity grow so fast that it was impossible to extinguish, even when emperor Diocletian in Egypt tried to extinguish it just by mass murder, it was impossible. From these times, from the early times of persecution comes the particular side of the Coptic Church that considers itself as church of the martyrs and until now it’s not just an empty phrase. It’s something that the people are living.

Mr Mosebach asked the families of the martyrs about the Islamic State and its terrorist activities in the region. They were not interested. He had conversations with many people in Cairo regarding the politics of the nation but “the families of the martyrs were not interested at all about the Islamic State, about Islamism and political Islam, they did not care for that”.

“They had no political understanding of the state of politics in Egypt in the present, this was something they were looking at from the point of you could say sub specie aeternitatis, these islamist murderers, they were just some new incarnation of the devil, with the one task: to be a temptation for the Christians,” he says.

Their sons, brothers, husbands and more had overcome temptation, “so they were kings, victors, second Christs, this was the point of view of these people”.

Christian martyrdom can be a difficult concept to grasp, even for many Christians themselves. Mr Mosebach deals with this near the beginning of his book, with a section in which a ‘doubter’ and a ‘believer’ have a conversation about what it means to be a martyr.

While the doubter attests the word ‘martyr’ is propaganda and many use it as a glorification of violence and terrorism, it is argued back that Christians devised the term and that it meant even under the threat of death a person would not give up their faith.

It is also asked why an admission made under threat of death would carry any weight, Mr Mosebach argues: “Those to whom Jesus has revealed himself must not, and cannot, ever betray him; they must instead bear witness to his simultaneous divinity and humanity.”

“The secret behind the religion’s expansion is the people who, from the very start, were ready to die for their love of Jesus: martyrs.”


There have been several vicious attacks targeting Copts in recent years, with the issue seemingly intensifying.

In November 2018 seven Coptic Christians were killed and 12 more injured when a bus traveling to a desert monastery south of Cairo was ambushed by Islamic militants.

The bus was traveling to St Samuel the Confessor monastery when a number of attackers approached the vehicle from nearby dirt roads and opened fire. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

The ambush was very similar to an attack claimed by the Islamic State in May 2017, which also involved a bus heading to visit the monastery of St Samuel the Confessor, that time 29 people were killed and 22 injured.

The Copts seemingly suffered an increase in vicious attacks by Islamic militants after the Islamic State issued a call to target the country’s Christians in February 2017. In addition to the bus massacre in Minya in May of that year, 45 people were killed and over 125 were injured in two separate bombings of Coptic churches on Palm Sunday. In December 2017, 11 people were shot and killed in an Islamist attack on a church in the city of Helwan.

During these horrific terrorist attacks and after a call for more violence from extremists, Pope Francis visited Egypt on April 2017.

Following the Palm Sunday bombings, he travelled to Cairo and appeared in public with the Coptic Pope Tawadros II and other religious figures. Francis honoured various Coptic martyrs during this visit, and declared that the sufferings of the Copts “are also our sufferings”.

More recently Pope Francis sent Christmas and New Year’s greetings this year to Coptic Christians and all Egyptians upon the inauguration of a major Coptic cathedral, jointly opened with a larger mosque at the same complex.

Alluding to the deaths of many Copts who never denounced their faith despite death threats at the hands of terrorists, he said to the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, “you have some martyrs who give strength to your faith. Thank you for your example.”

He said the Coptic Church “is known to give a true witness of faith and charity even in very difficult times”.


Recognising the important role of the Church in Egypt can be overshadowed by media coverage of horrific attacks, Mr Mosebach says, “certainly they must be ready for any kind of act of aggression, of attacks against the churches – burning of churches and so on”.

“At the same time, it is a very proud and it is a powerful Church, it is wrong if you see this Church as a poor victim of persecution, at the same time it is a very powerful institution, even growing and now in a much better state.

“This is also one of the paradoxical developments in history, sometimes you find, now at a time of the highest persecution of the last centuries, the Church is flourishing more than a hundred years ago, it’s very fascinating.”


Coptic Christianity is very much based around their monasteries, some of which can be very large and house hundreds of monks Mr Mosebach discovered on his travels. Many of the monks are trained professionals, doctors or lawyers, some of which had a profession before they entered monastic life.

Some of the sites were the biggest monasteries near the Nile Delta were destroyed in the 19th Century now have become monastic settlements, they developed into “a kind of town of monasteries”, Mr Mosebach explains.

“To this place comes hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who confess there and pray at the tombs of the saints. All the people like to have a certain relationship with a monk, who is a confessor and gives them advice for life.” The vast majority of Egypt’s Christian community come from Northern Egypt, which is where many of the monasteries exist.


It is well known traditional religious practice in the Western world is declining as more and more people move away from their faith.

For Mr Mosebach he calls this part of the world’s “shrinking Churches” a “deeply depressing crisis”.

Contemplating how he might tackle the situation he said: “Finally, I came to the idea that these people, martyrs, are much more important for the life of the Church than any Pope or bishop or bishops’ conference or theologian in the western world can be.

“Where people are ready to die for their faith, there is a living Church. Martyrdom is the hope of the Cwhurch, so I wanted to create attention regarding this point.”

He adds that it is not only proof of a living Church, but that a martyr is considered in 1st Century theology to be a second Christ, “he has imitated the Cross and he has got the form of a second Christ”.

There is a distinction drawn between the brutal murder of Copts across Egypt based on their Faith, and the murder of the martyrs in Mr Mosebachs book.

“Many people were killed in Egypt, Christians, by bombs and so on, but not so many had the opportunity before their deaths to confess the Faith, and not to save their lives taking the very simple possibility to confess the creed of Islam which is one small and nice sounding sentence.”

Sympathy and outrage at the situation Christians face in Egypt is justified but Mr Mosebach points out that this is a Church that survived through 1,400 years of persecution. Although persecution of the Copts is becoming a hot topic currently with a huge amount of terrorist attacks perpetrated by fundamentalist groups over recent years, they have suffered for their religious beliefs for centuries at varying degrees.

“This situation will not change, they will not disappear, the situation cannot change for they are the minority and the Islamic majority will be in one way or another not friendly,” Mr Mosebach says.

“For you know in 1,400 years you have not only the question of religion, you have also the question of culture. The groups have become very distinct and this will be…never completely good for the Copts in Egypt.”

“I do not see a solution. It’s an insolvable problem, it’s very hot this problem and Islamism after the suppression of the Muslim brotherhood by the dictator All-Sissi, the abdication of President Morsi, this has heated the situation immensely, it has created an immense hatred against the Copts but this is only one small chapter you have to see it in the long run, this situation in 20 years 30 years will be another but it will be not much better,” he added.

Although the future of the Copts does not seem like it will improve any time soon, or ever according to Mr Mosebach, they have endured for so long in a culture of a Faith so strong even the threat of death has no power for many Christians. This, he says, is an example for Christians all over the world.