People of the Cross: Reflections on the Death of 21 Coptic Christians

Taken from the intimation sheet: 22 February 2015

‘People of the Cross’ was one of the titles Islamic State gave to the Egyptian Christians they beheaded in a video released last Sunday. Like the term ‘Christian’ itself, it is a title intended as an insult but one which may be received by any believer in Jesus as a badge of honour.

In the video 21 men dressed in orange overalls are marched to a beach near Tripoli, forced down onto their knees, and then beheaded.

ISIS already control an enormous amount of territory in Iraq and Syria and seem now to be a growing force in Libya. The justification for the men’s murder is that they are followers of a Western religion, and the West are at war with Islam.

There is a lot we could say about Islamic terrorism in general and ISIS in particular, but two things struck me forcefully as I saw pictures and heard reports about this terrible event.

Firstly, Christianity is not a ‘Western religion’, it never has been.

Rowan Williams says:

“Although ISIS is mostly focused on conflicts within Islam, the history of the last 15 years or so has reinforced for many the myth that Christianity is somehow alien to the region and allied with Western interests.

Communities that can trace their roots back a millennium and a half to the first four or five centuries of the Christian era are treated by militants as if they had no right to live there.

But these communities are a massively important part both of the Christian family and of the history, culture and intellectual development of the nations in which they live.”

ISIS believe they are fighting a holy war against the West, and that Christianity is a Western religion. It is not.

The Syrian city of Antioch was where Paul launched his first missionary journey, Christian churches were thriving within Iraq and North Africa by the second century. Some of the Church’s finest early theologians were African; Tertullian, Athanasius and Augustine to name a few.

Secondly, what struck me most powerfully, was the distinctiveness of Christian martyrdom.

The men in the black masks may see martyrdom as dying whilst killing, but the men in the orange jumpsuits – the people of the cross – die in prayer-filled faithfulness. This is what an Egyptian Bible Society worker said to her colleague after seeing the video:

‘I am encouraged, because now I know that what we’ve been taught in history books about Egyptian Christians being martyred for their faith isn’t just history but that there are Christians today who are brave enough to face death rather than deny their Lord! When I saw those young men praying as they were being prepared for execution, and then many of them shouting “O Lord Jesus” as their throats were being slit, I realized the gospel can still help us to hold onto the promises of God even when facing death.’

People of the cross indeed.

Here are 3 prayer requests from Dr Ramez Atallah, general director of the Bible Society of Egypt:

  • Pray for comfort for the families of the victims.
  • Pray for effective mass distribution of a Scripture tract we’ve just produced [addressing the death of the Egyptian Christians], that God’s Word will comfort and challenge the many who will receive it.
  • As I write, there is news of more Egyptians being kidnapped in Libya. Lord, have mercy! Please pray for Egypt as we pass through this painful period.

Yours in His Service