UNLIKE the other historic Middle Eastern Churches, the Egyptian (or Coptic) Church is massive in numbers, ecumenical influence, and dynamism. Its resurgence over the past century has transformed it, and certainly it has a very different view on many things from those of its sister Oriental Orthodox Churches. Martyrdom is one of those areas. Unlike the Armenian and Syriac Churches, which protest loudly about their own genocides (mainly in 1915), the Copts embrace martyrdom in a way to make many modern Christians uncomfortable.
Martin Mosebach’s book about one group of recent martyrs, killed in Libya by Islamic State (IS) in February 2015, is not quite their story, but a broader look at where the Coptic Church in Egypt is today. He has much to say, not least about the heroic bravery of (often poor, rural) passionate believers when faced with the extreme fanaticism of IS and its fellow movements.
It is a book worth reading, but there are areas that I found uncomfortable. Mosebach is a conservative German Roman Catholic lover of the Tridentine mass, and finds in Egyptian Christianity some of the practices and ideas that the 20th century found troublesome. He views the Copts through Rome-tinted glasses, instead of trying harder to understand them on their own terms. But his conservatism does enable him to be less critical of miracles and medieval practices, and to be sympathetic to these heroic Christians.
It is a travel book with a difference. Out of a fascination with these martyrs, Mosebach tried to uncover what gave them their courageous faith, and wanders around, slowly painting a picture of this heroic Church.
With 21 chapters, each with the photo of one of the martyrs and his name, I had expected more on these heroes, including the one non-Egyptian, a Ghanaian. In fact, there is little to say about them. Their homes and families and lives had been unexceptional, but for their profound faith and willingness to die as Christians at the hands of evil men, and the Christ-like forgiveness shown by their families.
I hope that all Churches will now keep 15 February as the Martyrdom of the 21.
The Revd Stephen Griffith is a retired Anglican priest. He specialises in Syria and the Syriac community in Turabdin.
The 21: A journey into the land of Coptic martyrs
Plough Publishing £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10