As the Coptic Church remembers its modern-day martyrs on the 15th of February each year, it is an honor to share this guest post by Mariah Heron, whose story evinces the early Church apologist Tertullian’s remark: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Guest post by Mariah Heron
The brilliant Christian writer of the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton was once asked, along with other literary figures, what book he would choose to have if stranded on a deserted island? Instead of the well-rehearsed request for a Bible, Chesterton replied, “Well a guide to practical shipbuilding of course!” The story in its simplicity brings humor because, in all truthfulness, one would also want a guide to ease the mind and heart in such a trial. A search for the meaning behind the ordeal and the hope of a purposeful existence would prompt the want for the ship manual in the first place. As it is with many of the solutions we seek, they are first set in motion by our philosophical burdens. However, if one looks to a faith, which serves up various abstract answers, the next quest is to obtain a very real sense of strength and peace from its concept. The well known Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias has said, “Morality is not something outside of us but on the inside. Hence the reason we cry when we’ve been wronged, not because of the physical pain, but because someone failed in an area where the standards were to be met with goodness.” That being said, evil acts are an undeniable and ever-present reality. This is an accepted fact. The difficulty is finding hope in the face of evil’s destruction. Whatever conclusion one settles upon it should uphold coherent answers, logical consistency and relevant experience. When the Middle Eastern Churches underwent intense hostility in 2014, I felt the standards of my denomination incapable of encompassing the durability needed against persecution. The tyrannical events that would continue to unfold, charged me to look for a form of Christianity that would conquer such trials with peace. It was at this time that the long-suffering Christians of the Coptic Church came into my view. This personal narrative is on the various key aspects that reformed my view on Christianity. My story undeniably encompasses the death of the 21 Coptic Martyrs. Their example was a stark influence that ignited in me a powerful desire for a stronger faith. It was through their response to evil that I found comfort in suffering. By and large, their sacrifice was the signifying moment that birthed within me a desire to belong to the faith they kept. Faith even to the point of death.
Though I was raised in a Christian home, I was never taught church history, nor did I understand the various denominations of Christianity. This includes Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and the various branches of Protestantism. Christianity was only ever presented as a relationship between the person of Christ and myself. At a young age, I struggled with the daunting condition of evil and how the bearability of it disperses when the end verdict only leaves grief. Hence the distressI felt at the slaughter of Christians whose only crime was holding to the same title I claim.The western world had come to terms with the systematic killing of innocent people from terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria. The events of a Yazidi genocide and the beheadings within Orthodox and Catholic communities left thousands destroyed. From various social media sources, the ambush of the innocent was being screened. I recall one video that caught my attention. A crowd of men standing side by side like a beaten down regiment, continuously repeating the powerful words “Kyrie Eleison” which means, “Lord have mercy.”
The video was attached to an article that pronounced the Coptic Christians as mirroring the biblical scripture in the book of Isaiah. The verses mentioned spoke about those in Egypt saying, “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt…When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them.” (ESV Bible, Isa 19:19-20). To see a Church exist and live out the words mentioned in scripture was worth an honest examination. It was this compilation that lead to my research on just who the Coptic Christians were and what made their faith so resistant.
I set out my goal to study church history for one year. The Church Fathers were ordered, the notebooks were ready to be jotted and the exploration to know more of the Christian faith from the first followers began. Prior to starting any earnest study, I had the unexpected privilege to meet a Coptic priest. Unexpected, in the sense, we met in a parking lot. If one of us was delayed or hastened by a fraction of a minute we would have missed each other entirely. At first sight, the look of the man, with his dark complexion and the long black cloak was intimidating, to say the least. As I examined him steadily, I quickly noticed the chain around his neck which was connected to a weighty cross hanging midway across his chest. Presenting myself in front of his path and with the untactful words asked, “what are you?” He must have had similar encounters because he replied graciously, “Coptic Orthodox.” As our brief meeting passed, he invited me to visit his church. Thereafter, with each visit, I began to see what was lacking in my previous Christian structure. One realization was that the majority of western churches present the idea of persecution and martyrdom as something medieval or far off in a hostile nation. It seemed there was no continuity in recognizing the bloodstained chain of faith that kept the Christian presence alive from its inception. I found this concerning, especially since the single most profound expression of unity to a relationship with God, from the earliest Christian personals and Church entities, was a partaking of tribulation. The Church down through history have had the component of suffering mold and support the strength of the Christian faith in the same way as wedding vows shape a marital union.
Another factor was my lack of exposure to a strong faith. I thought to myself, I carry the title “Christian” as those do in Egypt, yet they bear their spirituality as a cross, where I wear my spirituality as a cause to my personal preferences. This reflection amongst the others placed a hunger to become apart of a faith so deep-rooted, that despite the intensity of pain frequently experienced by this persecuted group; the truth behind the faith would serve as a strong enough pillar of hope. As I continued to search the scriptures, the recurring connection Christ has with humanity is often related to suffering. Based on various biblical scripture, He is a Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows. One who is hungry, thirsty, naked, poor, sick, and imprisoned. He is considered stricken, smitten, and afflicted. As well as prophesied as a sheep led to the slaughter. He is recognized as wounded, scorned, mocked, beaten, unknown, and homeless. These truths furthered my hunger to be apart of a Church that could see God on such terms. I noticed this connection between that of the Coptic Church in comparison to the religious culture in North America. With this statement, I want to be careful to exclude the mysticism that western society often brands onto things that are foreign. I was not attracted to the culture behind the Coptic Church. Rather, I strictly mean the Coptic Church was a close parallel to that which was proposed in the New Testament scripture. A body of believers who were described 2000 years ago as the suffering Church. This idea is offered in the last book of the Bible. It is called Revelation and is considered a prophetic book. Within the second chapter, a Church is described to be known by God due to her afflictions and poverty, yet it is considered spiritually rich. The question that sent me into spiritual exploration was that, if one is going to subscribe to a spiritual entity and participate in a belief that is to transcend the physical world, it is only logical to engage in the most authentic and genuine offering of that spirituality.
This decision was strengthened in February of 2015 due to the martyrdom of the 21 Coptic Christians. Caption after caption, social media portrayed an endless stream of pictures and videos with men in orange jumpsuits abducted by militants from the Islamic State. The content of the recordings displayed mass bloodshed through heinous beheadings. To many, it was considered another barbaric act committed by fascist members. For the terrorists, it was the proper consequence of the infidel. All the while, the choice of the Martyrs was something all marveled at. For most of the martyrs, their story traces back to Egypt. The report from BBC news concluded that the majority were from the province of Minya, an area of high poverty in Northern Egypt. Despite the danger of armed groups operating throughout Libya, many Egyptians feel they have no choice but to travel to the state to find work (BBC News). I often reflect on the plight these men were forced to face. Traveling many miles away from their wives and children, their hearts would have been broken to leave. The security of home was gone for these men. Not just tangibly, but also mentally, as they were divided from being protector to fulfill the urgent need of provider. The long distance would have increased the desire to return and so the effects of separation and longings were all the more enhanced. Though they kept communication, the hope of these men was to return to their loved ones. Weeks prior to their execution, ISIS released a statement entitled, “A Message Signed With Blood: To the Nation of the Cross.” It was a title that could relate to most regions in the Middle East prior to the 7th century Islamic invasions. However, the announcement was strongly felt to be directed towards the Coptic Orthodox Church. This is partially because the Coptic Christians, “Coptic meaning Egyptian, are the largest Christian minority in the Middle East ” (Chaillot 199). The Copts have been Egypt’s Christians since the first century when the apostle Mark, the disciple of Jesus, evangelized the region (Bishoy 3). The first converts, “being descendants of the Pharaohs,” were immediately challenged by pagan rulers (Chaillot 199). Nevertheless, once the apostolic succession and doctrinal practices of the Church were established Egypt became known as the main center of Christian influence from the East. Despite the numerous forms of oppression the following centuries brought, the persistence of the Copts increased, and with it, their desire to relate to the character of God. This was the cause for their many Martyrs and the following of converts who were convinced they held onto something eternal. The Coptic Church is historically called the Church of the Martyrs, “because they did not see death as an end but rather as an entry into new life.” (Bishoy 3) This pattern only magnified the strength and assurance of the gospel’s saying, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”(ESV Bible, Matt 5:11-12).
As soon as the families realized their husbands, brothers, and sons were abducted they immediately reached out to find a way to save them. From multiple trips to the embassy in Egypt to various demonstrations held, Egyptian officials consoled with words but no action ensued. It was only when the video was released that President El Sisi announced a time for national mourning. Once again, the tormenting abstract questions filled my mind, but the issue never felt so real. However, the situation was different. I realized this first through the families. My heart grieved at the idea of them. I was sure if the suffering was no longer felt for the martyrs, then it will be felt by the ones abandoned. As I came across their interviews, in their mourning they only spoke forgiveness. This was an amazing reaction, especially from the wives. Though they are now considered widows, their children fatherless, and the source for survival taken away, they did not hate. The response of these families is not due to a culture that glorifies martyrdom. After all, Copts do not rejoice at other religious forms of death. Their response was based on a biblical view of life and death, and in that they were able to approach suffering with strength. On the bridge of martyrdom, it is a process where death is not an end in itself. One can depart and witness, expressing a composition of love and faith. An act that serves as a legacy and a window to a soul that can see hope in a unknown country. It was the famed Christian writer, C.S. Lewis who said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” The attitude of these families made this quote a fact. It was here, that I realized this vicious cycle of the problem of evil could be broken. Though the figures of victor and victim were in view, the victims carried no trait of the title. The first gleam of hope I saw was that the martyrs’ faith was so real, it could actually weigh in on an inconceivable ultimatum and succeed. Their faith had a foundational hope. Expression of trust one would only think to have existed amongst the first-century followers. As the 21 men were forced to kneel to the submission of those blinded by evil, their response was the second beam to ease my heart. In the suffering they were about to endure, they were not lost in an unanswerable search for reason, nor did they pronounce curses of revenge. Instead, they kneeled with honor and nobility as they were to stay until the commanding soldier gave the order of execution. Each face was filled with humble sincerity to remain steadfast. As the command was spoken and each body fully descended upon the sand, the last cries were in a unified prayer of “Lord Have Mercy.” It was the confirmation to the family, the profound proclamation to the world, and the only ammunition to bid evil goodbye.
My one-year commitment turned into three as I was attached to the Coptic community and attended multiple spiritual retreats. Nearing 2017 I had studied the complete comparative theology by the late Pope Shenouda, which answered many questions concerning the interpretations of scripture between Protestants and Orthodox. As well as accomplishing various other books written by Coptic leaders. Months prior to my baptism, three other major attacks against the Copts took place. The latest claiming the lives of 28 children. One may ask how can you be drawn to the same faith of those who have undergone so much affliction? If pain and suffering is a problem why have its presence be prevalent in your religious identity? The existence of pain and persecution in and of itself is a horrid sight to behold. However, it is a reality of life and despite our philosophical or scientific advances, no such skills can quite soothe cries of heartache. In the face of turmoil, the consistent comfort the Coptic Church upholds is that where there is suffering there is a God who has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”(ESV Bible, Isa. 53:4). An equation is given where, in spite of pain and the threats that try to destroy faith, there is a hope above the evil and the pain. This hope as the Coptic Church demonstrates is in a suffering Christ. A divine figure who agonizes over our own individual loss, but also for those who inflict the pain out of their own deprivation. Therefore, suffering no longer consists in a realm of evil but elevates one into being fulfilled in God. The human chaos does not need to continue between a spectrum of torment and revenge. Rather, we can be elevated into a bigger picture. Though we suffer, in our sufferings we are weaved into the heart of God, which seems to be the safest haven in a world that is callous and cold.
BBC News.“Islamic State: Egyptian Christians Held in Libya Killed,” 2015.www.bbc.com/news/world-31481797 Accessed 24, Feb. 2018. Web.
Bishoy, Angelos. The Alter In The Midst Of Egypt: A Brief Introduction To The Coptic Orthodox Church. Stevenage, Saint Athanasius The Apostolic Coptic Theological College, 2000, p. 3,
https://stnoufer.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/altar-in-the-midst-of-the-land-of-egypt-bishop-angelos.pdf. Accessed 24, Feb. 2018. Print.
Chaillot, Christine. “The Life and Situation of the Coptic Orthodox Church Today.” Studies in World Christianity, vol. 15, no. 3, Dec. 2009, pp. 199-216. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3366/E1354990109000574 Accessed 15, Feb. 2018. Web.
ESV Study Bible. Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2008. English Standard Version. Print.