The 21

The 21:
A Journey into
the Land of Coptic Martyrs


By Martin Moseback

 

A Review by Dwight A. Moody

 

I cannot remember a book that has taken me into more unfamiliar territory and yet left me asking that most troubling of questions, “What am I to do with this?” I am certain you will feel the same way.

 

You may recall the pictures of 21 black robed and hooded men leading one-by-one 21 other men all dressed in orange onto a Mediterranean beach a few years ago. I recall the image but never saw the video of what happened: the first 21 men each carried a long knife with which they decapitated the men in orange. It was the vicious murder in 2015 of 21 innocent Coptic Christians by 21 guilty Libyan Muslims.

 

Twenty of the men were migrant workers from the village of El-Aour in what is called Upper Egypt, or what we would call southern Egypt, somewhere between Cairo to the north and the Aswan Dam to the south. They had gone to Libya for work, as had thousands of others from countries all around northern Africa.

 

A noted German poet and novelist, Martin Moseback, himself a Catholic Christian with sympathies for the older forms of his faith, felt called to go to Libya and learn more about these men and their death.

 

What he discovered was very little about the men, largely because they had been transformed into martyrs, with the details of their lives overwhelmed by the emerging hagiography: “they had left home as poor migrant workers and would never return, but had become saints and were now more present than ever, albeit in a different form” (82).

 

Moseback did come to understand more about the Coptic Christian culture that shaped these men, their religion, their martyrdom, and their now exalted status; and this is what he wrote about, and this is what I found so arresting, so fascinating, so new, even so troubling.

 

Yes, he wrote a few lines about these men: “They were all staying in a single large room, where they slept side by side on the floor. Not a single piaster was spent for their own enjoyment; everything went to their parents and wives…. Those who could read didn’t have much of an edge on those who couldn’t, because they had all already committed the most important things in their lives to memory—the prayers, hymns, litanies, and pericopes pertaining to each part of the liturgical year” (122f). But the reader of this book gets the sense that Moseback harbored a bit of doubt about all these things, wondering if those who recounted these “facts” were not, in fact, stretching the truth just a bit too far.

 

But what he does report as the truth is the history and character of Coptic Christianity, something few of us in the United States know much about:

  • that it is the oldest organized expression of the Christian faith;
  • that it is led by the Pope of Alexandria from the first day until this;
  • that it was expelled from the Christian community by the “orthodox” bishops at the Council of Chalcedon in 451;
  • that it was overrun by the Muslim hordes in the seventh century and became a minority in its own country;
  • that it uses daily a worship liturgy that is unchanged from its ancient origins (which invoked the envy of the Old Catholic writer of this book);
  • that it is led by monks, bishops, and priests and signaled by the small Coptic cross tattooed on the inside of the wrist or thumb;
  • that it is quick to elevate to martyrdom those who are killed for their faith; and
  • that it is surprisingly strong and vibrant among the native peoples of Egypt who exhibit a preference for miraculous explanations for everything that happens or doesn’t.

 

Moseback described all this as “the misery and splendor of the Coptic faith in its astonishing perseverance on the dark side of history” (200f).

 

In some ways, this book is a travelogue, featuring the account of a foreign traveler into a strange land and culture, and that is one way to receive and read the book. But it is also a testament to the faith and practice of Christians of whom we know little; and this testament helps us to reflect more deeply and truly on our own version of Christian faith and practice and what we have yet to learn about meaning and mystery, persecution and perseverance, and faithfulness to Jesus the Risen Lord.

 

 

 

(February 2021)