In 21st century America, the prospect of martyrdom is unthinkable for most Christians. We’re free to go to church, catechize our children, and practice our religion without fear of reprisal or violence. If we think about martyrdom at all, we usually think of the persecutions that countless Christians like St. Polycarp and St. Barbara suffered under Roman rulership thousands of years ago. But for the Coptic Orthodox Christians of Egypt, martyrdom isn’t a story of millennia past. It’s a terrifying reality.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which was founded by St. Mark in roughly 42 AD, in the ancient city of Alexandria. They follow the Alexandrian rite, and their forms of worship are as beautiful as they are unique—those visiting a Coptic Church for the first time will find themselves removing their shoes as all Coptic Christians do in imitation of Moses before the burning bush, and singing hymns accompanied by crashing cymbals and triangles. While titled “the Coptic Orthodox Church,” the Copts are not formally in communion with the Orthodox Churches (though relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and other Orthodox are largely friendly). In the mid fifth century, what would become the Coptic Orthodox Church rejected the Council of Chalcedon, a Council that had political intrigue, language barriers, and theological misunderstandings. Accused of miaphysitism and branded as heretical, the Coptic Church suffered under the Byzantine Empire for several centuries afterward. Those churches that accepted the Council became the Eastern Orthodox churches; those that rejected it became the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Today, the Coptic Orthodox Church is in communion with the Ethiopian, Armenian, Syriac, Eritrean, and Indian Malankara Oriental Orthodox Churches, and enjoys warm relations with the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
While Coptic Christians belong to a rich and beautiful tradition stretching back to the earliest days of Christianity, they face a dangerous present and precarious future. Most Copts live in Egypt and the Levant, locales well within reach of ISIS and other terrorist groups that view them as easy soft targets. In the past six months alone, brutal attacks targeting Coptic Christians have claimed roughly 80 lives and injured nearly 200. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks including the most recent one in Minya on May 26th, in which gunmen stormed a bus en route to a local monastery and opened fire, killing 29 and wounding dozens.
Pope Francis expressed solidarity with Egypt’s Christians, condemning “another atrocious act of violence,” and referring to the victims as martyrs. The Coptic community was still reeling over double suicide bomb attacks on Palm Sunday of this year in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria that killed dozens. Not a few months before, on December 11th of last year, 25 people were killed in a bombing of Cairo’s largest Coptic church, St. Mark’s Cathedral.
Copts living outside of Egypt in the wider Levant and the Middle East are not safe, either. On February 12, 2015, members of ISIS captured 21 Coptic Egyptian construction workers from the city of Sirte, Libya, claiming revenge for the alleged kidnapping of Muslim women by the Egyptian Coptic Church. Two days later, a video surfaced depicting the beheading of the captives on a strip of Mediterranean beach followed by a violent anti-Christian invective, shocking and dismaying the world. Pope Francis personally gave his condolences to Coptic Pope Tawadrous II, and proclaimed at an ecumenical event soon afterwards that “the blood of our Christian brothers is testimony that cries out. Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn’t matter: They’re Christian!” The victims, along with one non-Egyptian who was inspired by the others to convert before the execution, were formally canonized by Tawadrous II on February 21st of that year. For Coptic Christians, both in Egypt and in the diaspora, the martyrs are not still, serene icons from a legendary past. They are flesh and blood, they are now, and they could be anyone.
ISIS continues to verbally and physically threaten Coptic Christians, promising more attacks and more violence toward Christians all over the world, particularly Orthodox Christians in the Middle East where Islam and Orthodoxy have had a complicated and oftentimes fraught historical relationship. While ISIS’ bombastic threats to the Pope, the Vatican, and Western Christians in general are upsetting, it is Eastern Christians living in their native lands who bear the deadly consequences of this anti-Christian rhetoric, along with their Muslim neighbors who want nothing to do with the Islamic State. As ISIS and other terrorist groups continue to metastasize in the Middle East and parts of Europe, our Coptic brothers and sisters, as well as other at-risk Christian communities in places like Syria and Iraq, need our support, our prayers, and our understanding. As American Christians, we are greatly privileged–often more than we realize–to practice our religion in safety and security and to have our voices heard. We can take our privilege for granted, or we can use it to help call attention to the atrocities that continue to befall the Coptic Christian community and other vulnerable religious communities, Christian or not, like them. We can use it as leverage for ecumenical efforts that make us stronger, together. We can use it to create constructive and meaningful dialogue between the East and West, and promote peace though deeper theological understanding. Getting started is simple: visit your local Coptic Church; learn about its traditions, meet its people. Because Christ is among them. He is and always shall be.