Orthodox Bishop, Coptic Church, Egypt
Saint John tells us in the book of Revelation, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and the testimony τὴν μαρτυρίαν they had maintained” (Rev 6:9). He also says, “And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony τὴν μαρτυρίαν for Jesus, and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast, or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev 20:4).
The flux of the Coptic Church martyrology did not stop at the age of martyrdom under Roman rule, or the regents who followed over Egypt. To the contrary, the church still boasts of her new martyrs, who witness every day to the Lord Jesus –whether by being killed for preaching the gospel to the world, or merely for their faith in Christ.
The first type are those who expect every day to give up their lives, because they have antetypes in all ages of Christian evangelists, many of whom offered their earthly lives as sacrifices for preaching the word, and ministering to it –starting with St Stephen (Acts 7:58-60), whom St Paul titles as martyr: “And when the blood of your martyr τοῦ μάρτυρός σου Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” ( Acts 22:20). The line then proceeds to the apostles, evangelists and preachers of all ages, and throughout the whole world.
The second type are the martyrs who pay the price of their faith in Christ, with their own lives, by witnessing to him without having any preaching ministry. Antipas might perhaps be the first among this rank of martyrs, as the book of Revelation tells us when it addresses the angel of the church of Pergamum (Rev 2:13): “Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith τὴν πὶστιν in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness ὁ μάρτυς μου ὁ πιστός , who was put to death in your city where Satan lives.” The attributes of him who was in charge of the church of Pergamum were adherence to the name of Christ, and refraining from denying the faith, which are traits that were summed up in the title given to the martyr Antipas who is described as the faithful martyr. How many are those who belong to this type of martyrs all over the world in these days of ours!
No wonder we find that these attributes which the book of Revelation confers upon the martyr are the same as those belonging to the Lord Jesus himself, and by which we define who the martyr is:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness ὁ μάρτυς ὁ πιστός, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood... (Rev 1:4-5).
The martyr then is one who accepts to sacrifice his life for his beloved; he accepts to die to make others alive, not to kill others.
Many efforts have been exerted on the international level since the close of the World War II in an attempt to establish peace in the world. Many societies of human rights have been formed; everybody calls for freedom of faith and opinion, whether religious or political. Nevertheless the number of martyrs who lost their lives for the sake of their faith has increased remarkably during the last period. The Middle East and the Far East and some African countries have the biggest share in the number of martyrs.
Ever since the beginning of the ninetieth century and up to the end of the twentieth century the Coptic church did not have new martyrs, except very few. However, the scene has changed in the last few years.
First, we began to hear of martyrs for faith, not only from among evangelizers or the clergy, but also the various classes of people: men, women and even children, many of whom were given the alternative of renouncing their faith, but opted for death rather than deny their Christ, or, as the epistle to the Hebrews puts it, “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection” (Heb 11:35-36).
Second, we began to hear of a new kind of persecutors; the state is no longer that who persecutes, as was the case with the Roman Empire, for example, but certain fanatic religious sects which neither accept the other, nor believe in pluralism, nor respect the freedom of man in even choosing what to eat, wear or believe. It is certainly amazing to know that these cliques receive their aid from certain major world powers!
It’s true the political climate has changed on the international level, and so has the concept of freedom and human rights. Some people think that much progress has been achieved in that sphere. But regretfully the result has never changed. For whosoever holds fast to his faith or shows fidelity to his Christ is liable to win the crown of martyrdom. The war still goes on between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light, or, as the book of Revelation expresses it, “Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring” (Rev 12:17).
Moreover, martyrdom for the sake of Christ no longer needs unbelieving governments or even fanatic cliques that differ in religion or doctrine. The believer is liable to persecution and death even though he lives in a most civilized nation. The words of the Bible are as true as ever even to this day, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).
The Christian who adheres to his faith can enjoy inward peace even though he lives in the most fanatically fundamentalist regions of the world; for he drives his peace from the King of peace. Nevertheless the role of peacemakers and lovers of true life whom the Lord Jesus blessed remains vital: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). Let us then work for outer peace that the Lord may establish our inner peace. “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5:23-24).
The blood of martyrs in the early Christian centuries was the seed of faith for growing Christianity. As for today’s martyrs their blood is the seed of the expected unity among all Christian churches. H.H. Pope Francis in his message to H.H. Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria on May 10, 2015 says:
Today more than ever we are united by the ecumenism of blood, which further encourages us on path towards peace and reconciliation. I assure you and the Christian community in Egypt and throughout the Middle East of my unceasing prayer, and I remember in particular the Coptic faithful recently martyred for their Christian faith. May the Lord welcome them into his Kingdom.
In his answer to H.H. Pope Francis’ message on the same day, Pope Tawadros expressed his “deepest gratitude for the touching words and sympathetic feelings which show the common bonds of brotherly love and solidarity between the two churches.”
Pope Tawadros concludes his message which is full of love by quoting St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, “Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me send greetings” (Phil 4:21). These are also the words with which I conclude my address to you: Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus.