The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs

The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs


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Behind a gruesome ISIS beheading video lies the untold story of the men in orange and the faith community that formed these unlikely modern-day saints and heroes.

In a carefully choreographed propaganda video released in February 2015, ISIS militants behead twenty-one orange-clad Christian men on a Libyan beach.

In the West, daily reports of new atrocities may have displaced the memory of this particularly vile event. But not in the world from which the murdered came. All but one were young Coptic Christian migrant workers from Egypt. Acclaimed literary writer Martin Mosebach traveled to the Egyptian village of El-Aour to meet their families and better understand the faith and culture that shaped such conviction.

He finds himself welcomed into simple concrete homes through which swallows dart. Portraits of Jesus and Mary hang on the walls along with roughhewn shrines to now-famous loved ones. Mosebach is amazed time and again as, surrounded by children and goats, the bereaved replay the cruel propaganda video on an iPad. There is never any talk of revenge, but only the pride of having a martyr in the family, a saint in heaven. “The 21” appear on icons crowned like kings, celebrated even as their community grieves. A skeptical Westerner, Mosebach finds himself a stranger in this world in which everything is the reflection or fulfillment of biblical events, and facing persecution with courage is part of daily life.

In twenty-one symbolic chapters, each preceded by a picture, Mosebach offers a travelogue of his encounter with a foreign culture and a church that has preserved the faith and liturgy of early Christianity – the “Church of the Martyrs.” As a religious minority in Muslim Egypt, the Copts find themselves caught in a clash of civilizations. This book, then, is also an account of the spiritual life of an Arab country stretched between extremism and pluralism, between a rich biblical past and the shopping centers of New Cairo.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874868395
Publisher: The Plough Publishing House
Publication date: 02/15/2019
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,226,667
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Martin Mosebach passed his bar exams to qualify as a lawyer in 1979, and then established himself as a writer. His first novel was published in 1983. Since then, he has received many accolades, including the Heinrich von Kleist Prize, the Georg Büchner Prize, and the Goethe Award.

Alta L. Price runs a publishing consultancy specialized in literature and nonfiction texts on art, architecture, history, and culture. A recipient of the Gutekunst Prize, she translates from Italian and German into English.

Read an Excerpt


The Head of Saint Kiryollos

The picture on the cover of a magazine drew me in: it showed the head of a young man, evidently of Mediterranean origin, surrounded by a bit of orange-colored fabric. He was a lean youth with brownish skin, a sharp hairline, and rather light mustache, his eyes half closed; his thin lips were slightly parted, offering a glimpse of his teeth. His expression wasn't exactly a smile, it was more one of deep relaxation, such that his mouth involuntarily opened to take in a deep breath or let out a sigh.

But this cropped detail, as I soon learned, had misled me. I hadn't immediately gathered that this head had been severed from its body. There were no signs that this man had suffered any violence – had his face tensed up during the decapitation, had pain or fear made themselves visible, then any sign of such circumstances must have vanished the instant he died.

This image shows the moment immediately after the crime. It comes from a video taken by his killers, to document their deeds and spread terror worldwide. Strangely, though, this image, separated from its broader context, doesn't initially inspire fear. This was not yet the head of a dead man. After the beheading, a flicker of consciousness and warmth seems to have lingered a moment on his face – an eternal moment of dreaming and slumber, in which the finality of what had just happened perhaps was no longer of any importance. The cruel and sudden severing of this life had already created a new condition: all else receded into the past. The entire existence of this young man was now in his head, from which it, too, would soon recede – but at the moment captured in this still, we see a self-contained life that seems tangible once more.

I have since learned his name: Kiryollos Boushra Fawzy, born November 11, 1991 in the Upper Egyptian village of El-Aour in the diocese of Samalut. His patron saint was Cyril of Alexandria, who at the fifth-century Council of Ephesus played a significant part in establishing the title of Theotokos, "Mother of God," for Jesus' mother. Unlike Cyril of Alexandria, though, Kiryollos played not even the most modest role in Egyptian public life when he was alive. He was one of the far too many who cannot find work in their own country. But that did not prevent him from becoming one of the saints of the Coptic Orthodox Church, just like his namesake. Only two weeks after the massacre, Tawadros II of Alexandria, Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, added Kiryollos's name to the Synaxarium, the liturgical list of Coptic martyrs; his image is now worshiped on icons. In the February 15, 2015, video showing his execution, and that of his twenty companions, I see him alive. He kneels in an upright position before his executioner. He looks relaxed; his curiously indifferent gaze seems to be directed at the beach in front of him, as though he wanted to take in every last detail. And I have since also found a passport photo of him, likely from 2009. He was a soldier at the time, and his blackfelt beret features the insignia of the Egyptian Republic, an eagle centered on a black, white, and red flag. The image on the facing page shows that he had a palsy – his left eyelid drooped, partially obscuring his eye – although it clearly did not prevent him from passing the medical exam. In this picture, too, a sliver of his teeth can be seen, although his lips are closed.

Christianity's history is rife with beheadings. The severed head of John the Baptist, Jesus' forerunner, is the subject of many paintings and mosaics that have become widely appreciated works of art. John the Baptist was beheaded before Jesus was crucified, to satisfy the whim of an enraged queen. Then came Paul the Apostle who, as a Roman citizen, was granted the privilege of requesting death by decapitation, thereby sparing himself the fate of being tortured to death – a punishment reserved for slaves. From then on, countless heads have rolled for maintaining their belief in Jesus Christ, even in predominantly Christian countries: consider the case of Sir Thomas More under King Henry VIII in England, or Alexander Schmorell, a member of the White Rose movement during World War II in Germany, who was later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

And yet such figures feel far removed from us, as if they belong to some other, seemingly incomprehensible era. Much as the brutal nature of their deaths and the firmness, even stubbornness with which they confessed their faith seem to match one another in context, we find their fate equally eerie. Hasn't the Western world, with its openness toward discussion and dialogue, long since overcome such life-threatening opposites? We live in an era of strict religious privatization, and want to see it subjected to secular law. Society seems to have reached a consensus to reject proselytizing and religious zeal. Hadn't all that put an end to the merciless, all-or-nothing alternatives of believe or leave, or worse, renounce your faith or die?

But the photo of Kiryollos's severed head, and the video showing his companions' severed heads, are only a few years old. What does this apparent anachronism mean? Should we read it as a sign that our idea of historical progress was mere delusion? That martyrdom and Christianity go hand in hand through every historical era, and that as long as there are Christians there will also be martyrs?

The head on the cover of the magazine would not let me go. Many readers were outraged, as an editor who had also been disturbed told me when I asked about it. But I wanted to keep it with me – I saved the clipping, and frequently contemplated it at length.

Kiryollos was the first of the fallen to step forward out of anonymity for me. The twenty-one men beheaded on the beach near the port town of Sirte, Libya, are always regarded as a group, just like the young martyrs of the Theban Legion, who were also from Egypt. Only one of the group was not a Copt, and came, as we have since learned, from Ghana, in West Africa. But because the Copts have considered him one of their own since his death, I, too, choose to refer to them here as the "Twenty-One."

The Coptic community and its Christian traditions, which have been faithfully preserved since the early apostolic age, are not well known in the West. The Roman Catholic Church has long cultivated a certain arrogance with regard to Eastern Christians, who are not in communion with Rome, a fact that prevents many – especially Catholics – from looking eastward. 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 high church 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.

How might I get closer to them and get to know more about their lives, their origins, the circumstances in which they grew up? There are so many historic martyrs we know so little about, just a few inaccurate details about their death; the dry lists of the Martyrologium Romanum, the Catholic Church's official register of saints, remained abstract concepts until Christian art turned them into tangible, relatable images. Things are rather different with the Twenty-One: not only is there a video of their Passion, but this video has the selfsame intention and effect as a work of art, albeit a particularly vile one – it is at once both document and aesthetically staged, pathetic concoction. Stretching our definition of "art" to such a degree may seem unwise, but mustn't we admit that the video is effective, carefully choreographed, and designed with an attentive eye for color? Aren't there other realms where the border between art and reality has become dangerously blurred? The increasing irreality of the world has roused in many a hunger for absolute authenticity – isn't it a welcome enhancement to the spectacle when the blood bathing the stage is real?

The Twenty-One could well have echoed the words of Paul the Apostle: "for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men." But before they became such a spectacle for God and the world, each led the unremarkable life of a poor farmer. Seen in retrospect, this could be considered nothing more than apt preparation for their martyrdom. Was there anything in their villages that might have foreshadowed all this? In February and March of 2017, two years after the massacre, I traveled to Upper Egypt, to the homes they had left when they set out for Libya in search of work.


What I Write about and What I Do Not Write about

The twenty-one coptic migrant workers were beheaded on a Libyan beach after the killers' leader called upon "merciful God"; the video documenting the murder describes itself as "Muhammad's answer" to the "nation of the cross." The language is clear – the situation seems to need no further explanation. Two equal sides are in opposition, a murderer for every victim. This was evidently important to the event's choreographers: the sacred purification of the world must be carried out by every single pure soul. That such pure souls must necessarily dirty their own hands, that the death of nonbelievers is good – but that it is even better to kill nonbelievers oneself, with one's own hands – this is a task to be completed, a serious duty. This is how I understand what this "message" to "the nation of the cross" intends to say, and yet I know just as little as anyone else about who was actually behind this crime. Masks hid the faces of the perpetrators, and even after some of them were arrested in October 2017, including the video's cameraman, their nations of origin are still unknown. They are members of the belligerent terrorist troops of the Islamic State – but in Egypt many devout, educated Muslims claim that a vast array of contradictory, inconsistent interests are hidden behind this frightening name, interests that have nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with the influence world powers have on the Middle East. How could faithful, God-loving people commit murder, they rhetorically ask. One must be careful not to view this massacre as one more chapter of an ongoing religious war – that would be a false use of religion, invoking it solely to fuel the dispute in Egypt, justify the military dictatorship, and incite Western nations to intervene with weapons, air strikes, and troops. Just once, as we consider this crime, let's try posing the classic investigators' question: Cui bono? – Who benefits? The answers will likely constitute a garish bouquet of hypotheses in which the name of nearly every world power involved in the war in the Middle East pops up: Americans and Russians, the dictators in Syria and Egypt and the hostile Muslim Brotherhood, Israel and the Gulf States, Iran and Turkey – somehow anything is plausible, since it's apparent that none of the forces involved in this "Islamic world's Thirty Years' War," as some commentators have dubbed it, is interested in putting an end to it. Did the killers act out of deeply perverted zeal, or are they just unscrupulous mercenaries who can be bought to commit all kinds of bloodshed? Do they hold sole responsibility, as terrorists who've lost all sense of control, or were they just peons – pawns on a board whose actual players and goals are unknown even to them?

These questions also have many answers – too many. They include expert opinions, but also wild rumors, and sometimes both come to a similar conclusion. And can the perpetrators' portrayal of themselves, as shown in the notorious video, even be believed? Isn't it reckless to trust men capable of such acts?

I admit that I hadn't yet grappled with these questions when I made the decision to learn more about the decapitated Copts. I also had no intention, when I set off for Egypt, to learn anything more about the perpetrators. It was enough for me to leave them in the darkness they themselves aspired to. To call the political situation underlying the massacre on the Libyan beach complicated is a fussy euphemism. Anyone who's taken in even the most superficial bit of contradiction-laden news from this region of the world knows as much. Another question I wasn't seeking to answer was whether Islam, the religion of the Prophet Muhammad, contains in its purest form elements that fundamentally complicate Muslims' ability to live alongside believers of other religions – a hotly contested question nowadays. Here, then, Islam will only be mentioned when it touches upon Coptic lives.

I was significantly more moved by, and motivated to know more about, the fate of the murdered men for whom, I suspect, things had been rather simple. Some of them could read, but probably couldn't write, as there was no need to in their daily lives. They hadn't taken part in the political discussions frequent among Egyptian intellectuals – even the subject matter of such debates would probably have been incomprehensible to them, because their daily toil aimed to meet the kind of modest needs that, from loftier points of view, seem insignificant: providing for their wife, parents, and children; saving for a new house; buying seeds to sow in their small fields; perhaps even putting some money aside in case misfortune struck. These tasks shaped their daily lives much as it did their donkeys', upon whose backs they unthinkingly strapped heavy loads, since they themselves were so used to bearing such burdens. Their gaze sunk in the field's furrows, unable to think beyond their narrow horizons – people looking on from the viewpoint of Western civilization, as well as Cairo's academics, might well describe these men this way, and find ample material to back it up. Yet such a summation would be wrong, or at least grossly incomplete.

We have become accustomed to assuming primarily political and economic motives lie behind every religious conflict, because we don't want to consider the fact that a person's faith might actually be the ultimate, highest reality. But for these twenty-one Coptic peasants and migrant workers, that is precisely what their religion was. They lived in a world where, for the past several centuries, being Christian wasn't a given. For their long line of ancestors, belonging to Christianity had always meant being willing to bear witness to their faith. They were well aware of the disadvantages associated with being a Christian in Egypt. But these people who superficially seemed so weak, who eked out such a meager existence, were willing to accept these disadvantages. They didn't seem to struggle over the decision: what they held already, in the form of faith, was infinitely more precious to them than anything they could have acquired if they gave it up. Life itself, without faith, would have been worthless to them. It would be mere existence – an existence more lowly than that of the animals, for animals are perfect in and of themselves, but humans are imperfect; their aim for perfection requires divine assistance.

That is why I found it repugnant when the Twenty-One were referred to as "victims of terrorism." The word victim seemed too passive to me, implying an unwillingness – a giving in to something forced, something one might complain about. None of that, I thought, suited the Twenty-One. I suspected they had a strength that granted them a well-protected inner core of independence, and I was convinced their murderers' cruelty couldn't penetrate that deep.

The fate of Coptic Christians in Egypt is not looking bright, and it doesn't take an oracle to predict rough times ahead. But we mustn't forget that the Copts have fared badly or very badly ever since the Islamic conquest of the country in the seventh century, meaning they've had it hard for the last fourteen hundred years or so. Our present day marks just one more instance in a long series of scourges. The Twenty-One in Libya certainly weren't the first Copts ever killed – the list of prior crimes is long – and what has followed seems to be an attempt to surpass all previous horrors. The blood on the walls of Cairo's St. Peter and St. Paul Church, where just before Christmas 2016 twenty-four women and the sexton were shot during prayers, had not yet dried when over forty worshipers in the churches of Tanta suffered the same fate. And that atrocity had just happened when pilgrims near Minya, including many children, fell into the hands of Islamist murderers. Is it unfair, ultimately, to single out the Twenty-One and their fate from this long series of atrocities – gruesome acts it currently seems will continue into the future? This is a rebuke I heard from several Copts in Cairo, who accused the church of remaining silent about the many killings on Egyptian soil so as not to embarrass the government, and of emphasizing the Twenty-One simply because they were murdered abroad. I then tried to explain what I saw as the key difference between the many people shot or bombed and the Twenty-One: they had not only been defenselessly slaughtered, but they had audibly professed their faith in Jesus Christ just before and even during their decapitation.


Excerpted from "The 21"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Plough Publishing House.
Excerpted by permission of Plough Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. The Head of Saint Kiryollos, 1,
2. What I Write About and What I Do Not Write About, 9,
3. The Video, 17,
4. A Conversation about Martyrdom, 29,
5. The Martyrs' Bishop, 39,
6. The Martyrs' Pilgrimage Church, 53,
7. The Martyrs' Village, 61,
8. The Martyrs' Houses, 71,
9. With the Martyrs' Families, 79,
10. Saint Menas's Oil, 99,
11. Matthew the Copt, 111,
12. Abuna Bolla and Abuna Timotheus, 117,
13. The Martyrs' Liturgy, 135,
14. The Flight into Egypt, 157,
15. Hierarchical Style, 167,
16. Pilgrimage to the Cloisters, 175,
17. Wonders Old and New, 189,
18. With the Zabbaleens of Mokattam Village, 199,
19. A Coptic Fantasia, 209,
20. New Cairo – A Mirage, 217,
21. The Minority and the Majority, 227,
Epilogue – The Invisible Army of Martyrs, 235,
Acknowledgments, 241,

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