IT HAD been dangerous to go to Libya seeking work. The Arab Spring had plunged the country into chaos, and public safety was effectively a thing of the past. 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, as there was no reliable police force left to protect them.
But the families of the Twenty-One needed the money, and going to Libya was a shorter journey and posed fewer bureaucratic difficulties than going to the Gulf States. They were poor — just an inconspicuous little group heading out to look for jobs together. Who would care about such people?
And yet their departure was accompanied by a few premonitions. Twenty-three-year-old Abanub, 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 came back here for your wedding 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, which all of them would have been familiar with, in which the blood of the sacrifice cleanses the robes of the righteous until they are pure white? After the fact, that is precisely how his enigmatic words were interpreted.
GIRGIS (the elder) was also 23, 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 for him, but above all that they look after his little daughter.
Issam’s widow showed me a photograph that people considered prophetic. During a visit to the Monastery of Saint Samuel, Issam had asked a monk what the future might hold. Issam knelt silently before him, and the monk put his hands around the young man’s neck — that was the exact moment the snapshot recorded. On the night the Twenty-One were abducted, the monk had a dream: he saw Issam and other men tormented by a large hound-dog in uniform, and then a dagger suddenly 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 had a macabre sense of humour: she showed me a photograph of him lying in a coffin he had built. As I left, she gave me a T-shirt with a print of her husband and Issam, both wearing sparkling crowns.
Malak’s father, a fat, merry farmer in a grey jellaba, described a phenomenon that occurred the night after the murder: a bright white light appeared in the dark sky, “like a laser cannon”. He and the neighbours spotted it even before news of their sons’ death had reached them. He recalled that, throughout the 43 days their sons had been held captive, the government had kept all the men’s families in the dark, without any news. “We didn’t know how they were doing, but as soon as we saw the light, it was clear: either they’ve been freed, or they’re dead.”
He had begun to join our visits to other families, and let others confirm this miracle as well; and, indeed, they, too, had seen it. Phenomena involving bright lights are a recurring theme in Coptic narratives, and accompany almost all major events that the Church has experienced over the centuries.
THE miracles didn’t stop, even after the massacre. The little son of Samuel (the elder) fell to the street from the third floor, and his arm was broken in several places. When he regained consciousness, he claimed 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 jellaba, confessed that, for three days after the death of her brother, she had fought with God: “I blamed God!” But then a bright light had appeared in the heavens, Samuel’s face shining brightly from within. “After that, 21 crowns appeared around the light. From then on, I didn’t complain any more.”
Sameh’s son, who fell ill and began vomiting after his father’s death, also saw him again: Sameh had laid his hand on the child’s head and said, “It’s going to be all right,” and the boy had immediately felt well again.
Ezzat’s mother, a stout woman who had borne seven other children and had a noticeably spirited eloquence compared with most of the people I met here, suffered a severe stroke a while after her son’s death. Ezzat and St George had come to her in a dream; her son had laid his hands upon her, and she had been healed.
A childless Muslim woman came to Issam’s mother for help (local Muslims often ask their Coptic neighbours to pray for them: “Your God listens to prayers and works wonders”). She gave the woman one of Issam’s shirts. Maybe the woman wore it when she lay with her husband — who knows? In any case, after 15 infertile years, she became pregnant twice while in possession of the shirt.
THE martyrs had often saved children falling out of windows: after his death, Luka, too, had caught his two-year-old nephew, saving him after he fell from the fifth floor. This served as confirmation — not just for the families, but also for their neighbours and many others in the surrounding countryside — that the martyrs were, indeed, now with Christ. Their steadfastness had led to their sanctification (this is why they were portrayed wearing crowns), and they now served as mediators of divine grace for their fellow human beings on earth.
All of this is why their families didn’t care to remember the grief, pain, and fear that they felt during the men’s captivity, nor the tears unleashed by the news of their death. In fact, 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 had returned: “We now have a holy martyr in heaven and must rejoice. Nothing can harm us any more.”
THIS also explains why the families handled the execution video with such apparent ease. There was an iPad in every household where the full-length, uncut, unedited version could be watched. Malak’s mother was the only one who refused to look at the screen, while all the young men, cousins, and brothers in the household — as they had often done — stared at it, apparently undisturbed, pointing out the men they recognised.
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; that these people had managed to turn an attempt at triggering boundless terror into something entirely different? Would they be able to see that their cruelty had failed to achieve its intended goal, that their attempt to intimidate and disturb hadn’t succeeded?
Gaber’s hunched-over, barefoot mother — whose house had resounded with unidentifiable voices singing a hallelujah at the hour of his death, as her Muslim neighbours 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 realised that he was in heaven. Gaber’s family had a similar response.
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 also thanked God for their son’s martyrdom; and the parents of Girgis (the elder) recalled how their son had always wanted to become a martyr. During his captivity they had not prayed for his deliverance, but only that he remain strong. He had remained strong indeed, and was now the family’s pride and joy.
All these words were spoken not with fanaticism, or zealously, but, rather, with serenity and calm. These were no Spartan mothers celebrating some rigid ideal, but believers whose faith had been forged and strengthened by adversity. Whereas Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death features Thomas Payne 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 the revelation of Christ.
This is an edited extract from The 21: A journey into the land of Coptic martyrs by Martin Mosebach, translated by Alta L. Price and published by Plough Publishing House on 15 February at £18.99 (CT Bookshop £17.10).