The story begins with a video in 2015. It’s difficult not to remember the line of 21 men in orange jumpsuits, their hands tied behind their backs, being marched along a beach by masked men in black. The 21 were Egyptian Copts who had been working in Libya; their captors were self-proclaimed members of ISIS. Each of the captive member were forced to kneel in the sand, and then beheaded by the masked captors standing behind them.
The highly-staged and professionally-produced video was meant to terrify; what it did was horrify.
German writer Martin Mosebach watched that video, and the expressions on the victims’ faces overwhelmed him. The faces did not show terror or fear. Instead, what Mosebach saw was acceptance and calm. These men were prepared to be martyred. And he asked himself, who were these men, where did they come from, and what kind of tradition and culture led to an acceptance of martyrdom?
He’s answered those questions in The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs. He traveled to Egypt, specifically Upper Egypt, to the villages where 20 of the 21 men came from. He talked with their priests, their bishops, their families, and their neighbors. He talks with the Coptic pope in Alexandria. He talked with Copts working in Cairo. He understands that his Western European cultural tradition will make it difficult for him to understand why the 21 seemed to go peacefully into martyrdom.
What he finds in Egypt is a flourishing Coptic community, a reality very different from what little is presented in the news media, which focuses on Muslim atrocities and bombings of Coptic churches. Those threats exist, but so does a massive church building program, hospitals run by Coptic Christians and often employing both Christian and Muslim doctors, and people who live their daily lives unafraid because of their faith.
And what he learns is that Coptic Christianity has survived nearly 1,500 years of Islamic domination, and one way it has is the acceptance of martyrdom as a fact of life.
Mosebach, born in 1951, is a novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, playwright, and poet. His novels translated into English include The Heresy of Formlessness and What Was Before. Also available in English is his 2019 collection of essays, Subversive Catholicism: Papacy, Liturgy, Church. The 21 is his first non-fiction work and was translated from the German by Alta Price.
The author seems surprised and attracted by much of what he finds in the land of the martyrs. What he describes seems solidly in context with the history of the early Christian church, and readers familiar with that history will be less surprised. Mosebach in The 21 tells the stories of those men martyred for their faith on that Libyan beach. He also tells the story of how martyrdom was an integral reality of their faith. Many Western readers may find that hard to accept, but many Western Christian readers will not.